Some time in the mid- to late 1970s I saw a fairly right-on play, set in Hulme in a dystopian near-future. (I had never been to Manchester and thought I was hugely enlightened for already knowing not only that there was such a place as Hulme but how to pronounce it – the L was silent, like the second K in Kirkby. The Guardian has a lot to answer for.)
Anyway, the idea of this particular dystopian near-future seemed to be that the out-of-touch benefit-cutting so-called-Labour government had washed its hands of the unemployed, the North or both, and what then? what then, eh? And no, we had no idea Thatcher was round the corner, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about (although it may turn out to be relevant).
There were three characters in this play, a well-meaning politicised couple and a scruffy Manc on his own; they were sharing a squat in Hulme, the couple on grounds of principle and the second guy because he couldn’t find anywhere else to live. As well as being well-meaning and political, the couple are both educated or Southerners, or possibly both. The scruffy Manc is none of the above. He’s the one who complains, at one stage, about the (offstage) West Indians in the squat next door and their incessant loud reggae music.
Well-meaning woman: “Why don’t you go and ask them to turn it down?”
Scruffy Manc: “Because I don’t speak Swahili!”
Of course she came back immediately with some stuff about how they would certainly speak English, and in any case they were as British as he was. What sticks in my mind is that his line got a big laugh. That was the seventies; racism wasn’t Till death and Love thy neighbour – what we tend to forget now is that those programmes were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Racism was a mundane, ubiquitous, unquestioned reality – even among the Guardian-reading types who would have been in the audience for that play. (I could make the same point quicker by referring to the Kinks’ “Apeman” (1970) or John Gotting’s “The educated monkey” (1979), both of which feature white guys affecting West Indian accents and singing about being an ape. I mean, really, what were they thinking? Or rather, what were we…)
So where did it go? Because there’s no denying that the racism I grew up with has gone, or at least changed out of all recognition. When I was a kid ‘Eenie-meenie-minie-mo’ included the word ‘nigger’; forty years on, my children have learned a version that doesn’t involve catching anyone or anything by its toe, and the N-word is rather less acceptable in polite conversation than the F-word. This is certainly a gain in terms of civility, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s anything more than that. Certainly the recent localised electoral victories for the fash suggest that the language of race still has some power to mobilise.
What’s going on? I can see three main possibilities.
1. Genuine Progress (with pockets of ignorance)
The school where my children go is terrifically right-on, which can sometimes be rather wearing. (If they ever use the word ‘culture’ you know what you’re in for, and it’s not Beethoven.) Still, I know my children are far closer to being ‘colour-blind’ than I’ll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said “yes, but why do you ask?” That told us.
Maybe he’s just less racist than we are in the same way that we were less racist than our parents, let alone our grandparents (ask me about my grandmother some time). Maybe in ten or fifteen years’ time “why do you ask?” will be the default answer. Maybe this is what Progress looks like, and it’s just progressing a bit slower down Dagenham.
That’s the optimistic version. Then there’s
2. “Face don’t fit”: prejudice by quota
The pessimistic assumption underlying this model is that people, en masse, have a tendency to hate, and they’ve got to hate somebody. We tend to hate people, en masse, on fairly irrational grounds, and probably always will – at least until the glorious day when people are spat at in the street for carrying the Daily Mail. (All right, not glorious as such, but you can’t deny it’d be an improvement.) And, if one form of out-group identification is repressed, another will take its place. On this model, if we no longer talk about niggers and queers – that is, if nobody talks about niggers and queers – this isn’t because tolerance and harmony have permeated white straight society. It’s the other way round: if we don’t routinely use offensive terms, after a generation or so the out-group production mechanisms which they stand for won’t work any more.
But if, for whatever reason, people need an out-group to hate; and if, for very good reasons, the out-groups I grew up with have been ruled unavailable; then where does the hatred go? Ask a Traveller; ask a pikey. As much as I hate even appearing to agree with Julie Burchill, I think the hatred and contempt heaped on ‘chavs’ is a sign of something seriously wrong in our culture. (To be clear about this, I’m pretty sure that all actually-existing cultures have at least one thing seriously wrong with them. Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth concentrating on what’s wrong with this one round about now – any more than saying that most gardens are full of big stones makes it less useful to dig ours over.)
The key point about ‘chav’ is that it derives from Traveller slang, and ultimately from the Romani for ‘boy’ or ‘lad’; ‘pikey’, similarly, derives from (or rather is) a straightforward outgroup label for people who travel the turnpikes. Hatred of Travellers is the only form of racism which is still respectable. When a new outgroup was needed the ‘gipsy’ stereotype was readymade: ‘chavs’ are idle spongers, aren’t they, and they’re dirty and dishonest and flashy and aggressive… If the racism we knew has virtually disappeared, in other words, this may only mean that it’s been replaced by new bigotries that we don’t yet recognise as such.
Alternatively, maybe we should be thinking in terms of
3. The bitch who bore him
Think racism’s gone away, or at worst gone to Dagenham? Think a brown skin is less of a bigot-magnet than a Burberry check or a tight ponytail? Well, actually, so did I, but I’m not sure now. It was a Manchester Evening News roadside hoarding that got me thinking. The headline read:
VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE
VIOLENT MIGRANTS – there’s a certain evil genius to that phrase. Back in the 1970s people moaned about reggae and the smell of curry, or at worst about ‘them’ coming over here and taking our jobs and our houses. You’d have to be at a National Front rally before you’d hear anyone talking about big black men who would kill you if you weren’t careful. But here we are in 2006 and there it is on the front of the Evening News: VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE. In other words, KILLER WOGS – BE AFRAID.
And this language has real effects. Here‘s that nice Dave Cameron’s shadow Home Secretary; he’s talking up recent prison breaks by arguing that earlier prison breaks, while there might have been more of them, weren’t so bad because of the kind of prisoner involved:
The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: “The Home Office’s claim that the level of absconds from open prisons is the lowest for 10 years misses the point entirely.”Ten years ago the people absconding from open prisons were not dangerous criminals or deportees. Since the government’s decision in 2002 to put such people in open prisons, every abscondee represents an unnecessary potential risk to the public.”
Dangerous criminals or deportees – classy. Here‘s what it’s like if this unnecessary potential risk to the public has your name on it:
Since April 25, when the foreign prisoner story broke, at least 200 – perhaps many more – foreign inmates have been moved, without warning, from open prisons to closed ones. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that all of them had “offended against prison discipline” – the usual reason for such transfers. Last Friday [May 26], 300 prison officers in riot gear rounded up 135 foreign nationals at Ford open prison, Sussex, to be taken to closed jails. The previous week, according to a prison source, 30 foreign inmates were transferred from Latchmere House, a highly regarded resettlement prison in west London, to closed jails in the London area. Similar exercises have been carried out across the country, although yesterday [May 30] a home office spokesman said only that “around 70″ prisoners had been removed from open prisons in this “temporary measure”.Lawyers and organisations such as the Prisoners’ Advice Service have heard from scores of prisoners who have been suddenly moved in this way. Many are EU citizens; a few, though born overseas, even have British passports. Meanwhile, prisoners who were expecting to move from closed to open conditions have been told that the transfers are cancelled. At least some were not expecting to be deported at their end of their sentences. Elsewhere, prisoners who had been released under licence have suddenly been hauled back to jail. Some of these also had no reason to expect to be deported.
Perhaps even the qualified progress of the second model is an illusion. Perhaps the old forms of hatred are just as available, if you break through the crust of conventional anathema, as the new forms. And perhaps all it takes to bring racism back into the mainstream is a new spin, and (most important) a reason why a powerful group would want to try and pump it up – and groups don’t come much more powerful than the Home Office.
Next: the lurking menace of the paedophile asylum-seeker. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.