NOT LONG AGO, at a dinner party held by a group of affluent Asians, I met an extremely elegant and aristocratic Indian ex-diplomat's wife, who proceeded to tell me how discourteous she found the British. 'Especially to us, you know. No class these people you see, just junglees.'
Later, when she discovered that I worked part-time with Bangladeshi and Somali people in the East End of London, she was most concerned: 'What is such an intelligent girl like you doing with those uneducated sorts?' And so she went on, clearly unable to see the ironies of her remarks.
I remembered her this week when reading about the case brought by Pakistan-born Lady Sabiha Foster - ex-wife of News International chairman Andrew Knight, and now married to the leading architect Sir Norman Foster - against Customs and Excise for wrongful arrest and 'slander by conduct'. Lady Foster claimed she had been publicly humiliated by customs officer Timothy Entwhistle, implicitly because of her race and gender. He denied the charge, saying that she had treated him with contempt.
The jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict, but the case revealed just how complex such encounters can be.
Here is a wealthy Asian woman who is, unusually, very much part of the British establishment and who clearly views herself as holding a certain position in society. Nothing wrong with that. It is possible that racist attitudes were in evidence and that these were intensified by the presence of what was perceived by officers to be an uppity 'Paki'. Many of us have experienced this kind of denigration at the hands of those in authority. This newspaper has highlighted several cases where African-American professionals have complained of similar, and worse, treatment at British airports, and there are countless stories of the appalling behaviour of many immigration and customs officers towards black and Asian Britons. Little redress is available to these people because it is not possible under the Race Relations Act to take up discrimination cases against such officers. Nor do most people have the wherewithal of Lady Foster to sue individual departments.
The case lends credence to those who point out (but are never believed) that racism is endemic in British institutions. It also highlights the fact that money and status often fail to protect people from it.
But could some of the claims of the customs officer also be justified? Could this be a story of a clash between race and class? If and when she told the customs officer to take his dirty hands off her parcels, was Lady Foster displaying, subconsciously, the arrogance of her class position? And did this in turn dent Mr Entwhistle's sense of self worth and trigger off prejudice of a more overt kind?
Class snobbery is deeply rooted in many of the Asian elite. The British in India knew and exploited this, and a bond was formed between the white ruling classes and those in the upper echelons of Indian society. Although they were never equal, they shared a disdain for the peasants of both countries and an absolute belief in the superiority of their own values.
Today these attitudes can still be seen among many rich and/or powerful blacks and Asians. One media maharajah, for example, refers openly to disadvantaged Bangladeshis as 'bongos' and the white poor as 'trash', putting their lack of progress in life down to low intelligence. Were a white liberal to peddle such opinions there would be hell to pay, but if you are brown or black and snooty, you are, it seems, awarded special privileges.
These people would also be the first to say that racism has been invented by disgruntled people to excuse their ineptitude. And so keen are they not to be identified with the oppressed that they dissociate themselves from the racial violence and discrimination that blight the lives of so many people, when their positions might allow them to at least publicise the issues. Exceptions such as Baroness Shreela Flather, the campaigning Asian peer, show how much can be achieved by powerful and committed blacks and Asians.
This changes dramatically when something in their own lives causes these people to either 'discover' racism or to use the experience of it cynically. Judge Clarence Thomas, who had reached his position in part by denying the problem of racism in the United States, went on to accuse those who charged him of sexually harassing Anita Hill of being racists.
Whether or not this can all be said of Lady Foster, it does seem her stand on equality and justice is incomplete. To be taken more seriously, she needs not only to identify with the lot of ordinary black and Asian people, but also to accept that a more just and egalitarian society means respecting people regardless not only of 'age, sex, creed or colour' as her counsel, John Mathew, QC put it, but also of class.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies