Racist table talk of Middle England

White people should stop feigning horror when the `secret racism' of so-called polite society is exposed
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I take it that no readers of this newspaper, or any other newspaper for that matter ever make or hear anyone else making racist remarks. That is why Paul Watson's television documentary, The Dinner Party, in which "the most notorious dinner guests in the country" sit around happily mouthing off about queers and immigrants and "Black Rastafarian Africans", is deemed newsworthy.

A week after David Evans felt free to lecture school children on the subject of "black bastards", we have yet more evidence that the heart of darkness is located in that mythical land, Middle England, actually this time rural Suffolk. Out there in the shires, or maybe in the council estates of our cities, there is that evil thing called racism. Where we live, however, everything is harmonious beyond belief, a regular little Ebony and Ivory situation.

Who are we kidding? And what are we trying to prove? That other people are bigots, stupid enough to let themselves be filmed spouting their true blue prejudices, while we, the whiter-than-white, look on with disdain. Or are we glad that these views are expressed publicly because then we know what we are up against, we know who the enemy is, where the racists are? If this is the case, then is the enemy senior judges referring to hard workers as "people who work like niggers"? Is it the police involved in the Stephen Lawrence case? Is it those in the Tory party who want to turn immigration into an electoral issue?

These are confusing times. The Daily Mail is prepared to name those it claims killed Stephen Lawrence yet it also supports Nicholas Budgen's view that the relaxing of immigration controls is a legitimate subject of debate. John Major has said that he will not play "the race card" and Tony Blair has congratulated him for it. There are those who would argue that the discussion of immigration is not in itself racist, yet the playing of "the race card" can only be meaningful if we all assume that we are playing it into the hands of an implicitly racist electorate.

The Daily Telegraph can conjure up the spectacle of hordes poised to enter the country, "half a million people every five years"; Budgen defends his position by claiming that the majority of Asians themselves think our immigration polices are too lenient. He cites the Asian doctor who has no reason to want more Punjabi labourers brought in. The Mail, naturally, admires Asian immigrants, particularly "their respect for education, the law and family values". Admiring them is not the same as wanting more of them, is it? Budgen talks of the number of "black riots" in Brixton, Bristol and Wolverhampton. Incredibly, he tells us that there has been "no white rioting against the Black and Asian population. The white community has expressed its view through the ballot box."

One doesn't have to be a lily-livered liberal to find the subtext to all this guff, and it is as undeniably racist as witterings of a few drunken half-wits over dinner. The difference is that all public speech now has to start with a declaration of anti-racism before it goes on to parade in the crassest way possible a series of stereotypes based on ignorance and fear.

Of course as, Linda Bellos pointed out in these pages earlier this week, things are improving and there are a few signs that the "politics of race" are being discussed in more intelligent ways. Professor Patricia Williams, deliverer of the Reith Lectures, despite her demonisation as a PC zealot, turns out to have some interesting things to say about "colour-blindness". Bellos also mentioned the handling of the discovery of the HMS London, which contained the remains of manacled slaves. She praised the lack of denial of the facts about the slave trade.

We could also talk of the sensitive handling of issues of race in much of the Comic Relief coverage or the attitudes expressed in opinion polls by young people that continue to highlight racism as a serious ill. Bellos's point, though, was clear - that progress can only be made when black people themselves speak out and are listened to.

Yet the ways in which race is spoken about are so roundabout that we are shocked when faced with overt racism. All the poring over league tables, the scurrying between one school and another, has a lot to do with race, but try getting your average middle-class "anti-racist" to talk about it. The absence of black faces in public life is often put down to something called "institutional racism" which means that individuals are let off the hook, yet how does institutional racism come about except by discrimination that is practised at times by individuals? The Society of Black Lawyers has complained this week about "an appalling level of unequal treatment" which means students from ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented in the profession.

I am not suggesting a return to a kind of politics of guilt where everyone has to locate their own inner racist. However, continually to position racist attitudes as either belonging to a group of unsavoury individuals or merely the social lubricant of many big organisations does not get us very far.

As "trust" is supposed to be one of the big ideas, one has to tackle the distrust by many black people of so many key institutions - the police, schools, the media, to name but three. The championing of the Lawrences sent out a long-awaited message that white society did care about the murder of a young black man. Yet while once again we are fixated on the banality of racism displayed in Paul Watson's film, three members of Combat 18 - 18 stands for the position of Adolf Hitler's initials in the alphabet - received sentences of only 12 to 17 months for their activities. This included the publication of a hit list, of people to be punished alongside detailed instructions on how to make bombs. The list included Sharon Davies; her crime is her marriage to a black man.

If polite society is as truly anti-racist as we like to pretend then we should be up in arms about this. Remember this is an organisation whose main aim is to "ship all non-whites back to Africa, Asia , Arabia, alive or in body bags, the choice is theirs". Instead, however, we ache to witness the horrible spectacle of both parties rushing around after the ethnic vote, patronising "ethnic minorities" left, right and centre.

Those prepared to play the race card may appear not to be playing with a full deck, but as long as we do not make them show their hands then they will continue to bluff us. If we were able to talk openly about racism instead of having to deny its presence, the race card would not have the currency it has. As many of the remarks of recent weeks have shown, racism to some may be a dirty secret; but to others it is part of a shared world view. We have found out nothing from the remarks of David Evans or the guests at The Dinner Party that we did not know already. As the "secret racism" of so many respectable players is exposed, then white people dutifully feign horror at a secret that black people have been telling us about for some time, if we had listened to them.