That was when Dave had this idea for a trip to Liverpool 8. He'd heard rumours that there were pubs out there which were full of "blacks", where they turned up the juke box so loud that it was impossible to hear yourself speak. That was good enough for the rest of us. Another anthropological trip. But this time we'd be setting off with a healthy respect for the natives we expected to encounter. We'd all read enough Kerouac and listened to enough Charlie Parker to know that there was something simultaneously fearful and exciting about black culture.
It was a terrible anti-climax. The pub was certainly full of blacks but instead of a collection of cool hipsters we were confronted by 20 or 30 rather tired-looking manual workers, some still in their public-sector uniforms, who seemed rather more likely, come closing time, to toddle off home to bed than hit the town with a pint of bourbon, a secret stash of reefers and an alto saxophone.
The odd thing about that incident is that I look back upon it with a certain envious nostalgia. There was, of course, something deeply racist about our excursion. Although the people we were setting out to observe were not despised creatures like the "queers" in the Playhouse pub, they were still exotic specimens. Neither were we capable of making any distinctions. "Blacks" were not only essentially different from us but they were also all the same. If one of their number in New York played great jazz then this was an attribute, like a great sense of rhythm, which we confidently expected to find in anyone of the same colour.
What now makes me envy that set of attitudes is their terrible simplicity. We were, you might say, innocent racists, united by the feeling that we were doing something entirely honourable in attempting to meet up with a group of people we believed were as unlike ourselves as the images we knew from the National Geographic magazine.
Nothing is so straightforward any more. Over the past 40 years every white person in this country with the least pretension towards liberality has had to take on board a series of amendments to such simple-minded views. We have learnt to distinguish between Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, between Bengalis and Indians and Pakistanis: we've learnt that many of the attributes, both positive and negative, which we once hung around their necks are no more than crude stereotypes. We have come to realise that discrimination is not merely a question of denying ethnic minorities jobs and houses and decent education, but that it lies deep within the language we use, in our off-hand remarks, in any discomfort we might experience when we are with anyone who does not share our whiteness.
This has, of course, been a necessary, civilising process, but it is also one that has been uncertainly internalised. I have lost count of the number of social occasions when I've become involved in a conversation with a bunch of well-meaning white liberals who are desperate to rehearse their anti-racist credentials. None of them has any difficulty in sounding properly indignant about the type of racial violence that has so recently led to the tragic deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel, but it isn't long before one of the participants begins to seek absolution from the group for some incident in which their cherished anti-racism has gone into freefall. Despite the best efforts of the Metropolitan Police to be more selective in their stop-and-search routines, a new survey shows that young people from ethnic minority backgrounds still make up a disproportionate number of those stopped and searched on the streets. More trouble came for the Met when a black woman officer was cleared of attacking a senior colleague with a snooker cue. She said that he had been consistently guilty of sexual and racial harassment.
There are stories of feeling disturbed by the need to pass a black man in a deserted Tube underpass, of leaving a cricket ground to get away from the over-exuberance of the West Indian section, feeling angered by the deafening noise coming from cars driven by young black men. "I sometimes feel," said a university colleague one night, "that they are only doing it to make me angry and that I'm almost doing them some sort of disservice by not reacting."
Since last week, I have my own contribution to make to this bourgeois self-searching. While making a radio programme in Watford I interviewed an excellent policewoman who worked for the town's new Racial Incidents Unit. She explained that the unit did not decide for itself whether an incident should be described as "racist". Provided that the victim perceived it in such terms, then it would be so recorded. This meant that, at least initially, the unit would judge its success by recording quite dramatic increases in the number of racial incidents in the town.
I was perhaps lulled by the liberality of this encounter into a disturbing act of discrimination. My next guest was to be the coach of Watford football club, the very successful black striker, Luther Blisset. "Ah," I said to my producer, as I waited to meet my interviewee, "there's a pretty obvious link here. I'll simply come off the back of the policewoman and ask Luther if he's ever experienced any racial antagonism in the town." "I think," she said gently, "that he'd prefer to be asked about football."
It is often said in middle-class circles that anyone who has been to Oxbridge or never been to university at all will somehow manage to give you that piece of news within the first two sentences of their opening conversation. Much the same process is awfully evident in so many of the standard encounters between whites and blacks. Barely two sentences can go by before colour, albeit reverentially handled, becomes a topic. "Look, Luther Blisset, never mind that you scored 148 league goals for your club, and that your return to the town has made you a local hero. Tell me, what's it really like being a black footballer?"
All of which is why we owe a profound debt of gratitude to such prime dolts as Jeffrey Archer and the Duke of Edinburgh. When a prospective Mayor of London tells his interviewer on Spectrum Radio that 30 years ago, "Your head did not turn if a black woman passed because they were badly dressed and probably overweight", or when Prince Philip glances up at a dilapidated fuse box at a hi-tech factory and observes that "it looks as though it was put in by an Indian", every preciously agonised white liberal in the country can breathe a sigh of relief.
We may have guiltily confessed only recently that we are annoyed when the Asian newsagent on the corner fails to say "thank you" or "goodbye" after we've bought our copy of the Independent on Sunday - even if we vaguely remember reading somewhere that such forms of address are not part of standard Asian linguistic culture. But compared to that daft Lord Archer and that thundering old fogey Prince Philip, we are suddenly all exemplary anti-racists.
One or two small voices have been raised in their defence. Lord Archer, it has been pointed out, did go on to suggest that the reason why black women looked so badly dressed and overweight 30 years ago was because they had lousy jobs and were eating the wrong food. And others have wondered why we need to pillory Prince Philip yet again, when his previous remarks about Hungarians, Chinese and Scots have shown him to be about as in touch with the real world as Major Bloodnok from the Goons.
Such contextual considerations do not have a snowball's chance in hell when they are up against a tide of liberal self-righteousness. We might not have first-class degrees in anti-racism, but it is awfully reassuring to have such clear evidence that some of our elders and betters haven't yet made the 11-plus.
No doubt the current agonising among whites about the density of their anti-racism is a sign that we are still a long way from the utopian state of being colour-blind. When a friend asked me recently if I could think of any white acquaintance who even approximated such a state of mind, I could remember only one example from 10 years ago which had unfortunately been born out of ignorance rather than sophistication.
I was sitting at TVam one morning alongside Cyril Smith and Gary Sobers. We were all waiting patiently to be called in front of the cameras. At about 8.15, a young female researcher peered anxiously round the door. "Let me see, now," she said, earnestly scouring our faces, "Which one of you is Gary Sobers?"
The writer is visiting professor in the department of sociology and politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.Reuse content