The eviction of Travellers from Dale Farm in Essex, England, has been a powerful reminder of the blinkered attitudes that persist among commentators, campaigners and politicians. To be blunt, as far as they are concerned, the white working-class neighbours of Dale Farm are a bunch of uncouth, racist trolls.
Many instantly bought into the idea that the Dale Farm eviction was no less than an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Travellers executed by the ‘racist’ Basildon Council that was hellbent, as the local Labour MEP put it, on ‘whipping up prejudice’. This view of the locals as easily incited barbarians is not new, though. ‘Basildon Man’ was a 1980s caricature intended to epitomise the lure of Thatcherite ideals over the old working class. Apparently, it was terribly materialistic to aspire to things like owning your own home or buying a few shares in British Telecom. The Basildon Man caricature was driven by a snobbish dislike of the working-class nouveaux riche, and bolstered by a broader Essex Man/Essex Girl stereotype: they may have acquired money, we were told, but they’ll always be laughably tasteless and vulgar.
Today, the ‘acceptable prejudice’ toward the white working class is more likely to invoke the spectre of an impoverished, feral underclass than vulgar decadence. But whatever the stereotype, the inference of a virus-like racism infecting the lower orders is never far away.
It was in the aftermath of the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in Eltham in south-east London that a sinister caricature of the white working class emerged, based on the fact that members of a local gang of white teenagers were regarded as the chief suspects. In his report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, Lord Macpherson echoed a liberal, middle-class suspicion that Britain’s entire white, working-class teenage population is permanently on the cusp of racist violence. His assessment gave rise to a wider anxiety over the ‘disease’ engulfing society.
The day after the Macpherson Report was published in 1999, the Daily Mirror frontpage headline read ‘Into Hell’. The story described reporter Brian Reade’s journey into the ‘white’ housing estate in Eltham where the Stephen Lawrence murder suspects grew up. Reade apparently discovered ‘racism seeping from every pore’ of this ‘E-reg Escort land’ where race hate is ‘a way of life passed down from father to son’.
The Macpherson mindset lives on. The belief that racism infects children and, if left untreated, will incubate into potentially monstrous outcomes permeates official anti-racism policy. Children, says racial equality advocate Jane Lane, are likely ‘from the day they are born’ to be ‘learning the beginnings of racial and often racially prejudiced attitudes’. ‘Catching them young’, says Institute of Race Relations commentator Jenny Bourne, ‘is a way of ensuring that subliminal notions do not become fully fledged prejudices and go on to lead to racist behaviour’.
Back in 2006, while working as a jobbing community videomaker, I found myself sent out to Essex as part of an educational initiative designed, precisely, to ‘catch ‘em while they’re young’. Commissioned by Essex County Council, our task was to create an anti-racist educational pack for use throughout the county’s primary schools. My colleagues, from Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre, were familiar with the schools of south-east London (including Eltham). But as they prepared for this assignment (dubbed ‘Watch Out for Racism’), they appeared to view themselves as anti-racist missionaries heading out into the real ‘white racist’ heartlands of Essex. We were sent to schools in and around Basildon.
What happened next became the springboard for my report The Myth of Racist Kids. Suffice to say, all we discovered out there in deepest Essex were excellent primary schools with thriving populations of children. Black and other minority ethnic (including Traveller) children played and integrated with the white majority with impressive ease. Six months on, my colleagues agreed that the racist backwater they’d expected to find was probably somewhere else.