The phoney moral crusade against racism

In an age when the old certainties have been eroded, ‘anti-racism’ has become a new etiquette.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

How could a television documentary exposing racism among some police recruits in Manchester cause such a national furore? To judge by the news headlines, you might think that nobody had ever heard of a policeman making racist remarks before, and that racism was a new disease now sweeping the ranks of the police and other British institutions (see Copping it, by Josie Appleton).

In fact, by any reasonable assessment Britain today is a far less racist society than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Public expressions of racist prejudice, once widely and casually accepted, are now the preserve of a few eccentrics and extremists. Contrary to reports, for example, there is virtually no racist chanting at top English football grounds today. The recent mini-upsurge of support for the far-right British National Party caused a lot of panic, but seems to have proved short-lived. In any case, most of those voting in BNP councillors were merely giving vent to their alienation from the political mainstream – little different in content from other embittered voters opting for the Liberal Democrats.

The police force has always contained more than its fair share of racists. Yet one striking feature of the BBC exposé was how few racists the secret interviewer/agent provocateur managed to expose. The public attitude of the police force to the race issue has undergone an even more dramatic transformation.

The release of Winston Silcott from prison this week was a timely reminder of how things used to be. Silcott was the black man originally convicted of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the 1985 riot on the Broadwater Farm estate in north London. That verdict was later quashed on appeal, although Silcott remained in jail for an unrelated murder conviction.

Whoever killed PC Blakelock, the Broadwater Farm riot was one of many violent outbreaks prompted by the heavy-handed policing of mainly-black inner city estates – the immediate spark was the death of a black mother during a police raid on her home. Silcott’s conviction was thrown out because of the way the Metropolitan Police had terrorised suspects and witnesses, some as young as 10, telling local white kids that they were after ‘the blacks’. As for Greater Manchester Police, whose leaders have been falling over themselves to disavow any hint of racism this week – there were no such apologies in 1981 when, during another riot, Manchester police drove riot vans through the estates of Hulme and Moss Side, beating their shields and chanting ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger – out, out, out’.

The murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence happened 10 years ago, yet still dominates debate about racist violence, which indicates that there has been no upsurge of the problem since. Headlines suggest that there has been a steep rise in the numbers of less serious race crimes – but this appears to be largely an increase in crimes being recorded rather than committed. The key factor here is the new official definition of a race crime introduced by the Macpherson Report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder. A racial incident is now ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. With such a sweeping subjective definition of a race crime, it is a wonder that the records do not claim many more such offences.

The way that the public issue of racism now frequently comes to the fore, at a time when the public reality of racism is considerably diminished, should raise questions about what is going on. What has altered most is the perception of racism. Where once it was society’s guilty secret, now there is a concerted effort to trawl for and publicise any hint of racism. Everything seems to have been racialised. Why?

The publication of the 1999 Macpherson Report was a key moment in the process. It identified the problem of ‘institutional racism’ at the heart of British society. The police and other public institutions have since been reorganised around this assumption. But what does it mean? When it was first put forward by Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, the concept of institutional racism implied the deliberate wielding of power by a racist state apparatus. But Macpherson explicitly rejected any such link between institutional racism and the exercise of power. The report stated that the Met was not racist; the problem was more the ‘unwitting words and actions’ of individual officers acting together.

Once racism is reduced to a problem of the individual rather than the state or society, the solution becomes re-education to alter individual attitudes. Macpherson even proposed that the use of racist language in your own home should be made an explicit criminal offence. The report led to an explosion of race-based codes of conduct, awareness training and surveillance measures throughout British institutions. New laws made it possible to charge people with ‘racially aggravated’ offences, rather than just old-fashioned assault or criminal damage, and sentence them more stiffly on conviction.

The law was thus extended into punishing an individual, not just for what he had done, but for what he was assumed to be thinking when he committed an offence – his supposed ‘racial motivation’. Similarly, the current row is over what the police trainees said to one another in private, rather than anything they might have done in public as police officers.

Redefined on this petty, individualised basis, racism has been taken up as the cause of the moral crusade. Declaring that you are not a racist has become the bottom line that helps mark you out as one of the ‘right-thinking people’, in the words of one police chief this week. In an age when many of the old moral certainties have been badly eroded, distancing yourself from racist remarks and following the new etiquette is seen as one of the few ways to draw a clear line between Good and Evil.

That is why every British leader and institution is now so keen to swear their abhorrence of racism, as a pass to the moral high ground that might once have been provided by declaring their belief in God. It is a way of saying that we British might not know what we stand for these days, but at least we know we’re not Nazis like Stephen Lawrence’s murderers. (Although some might think that a pretty low foundation on which to try to build a national moral consensus.)

An example of how this works came in the case of pop singer Cheryl Tweedy. She has just been found guilty of assaulting a black toilet attendant. But all that the singer, her record label or anybody else seemed to care about was that she was cleared of ‘racially aggravated’ assault. These days it sometimes seems that celebrities can get away with, or at least be forgiven for, anything. But the one thing society will not tolerate is a celebrity racist.

In the crisis sparked by the remarks of a few junior policemen, the authorities have been hoist with their own post-Macpherson petard, trampled by their own moral crusade. Having set up anti-racism as the one moral standard that none can be allowed to sin against, they feel obliged to come down hard on any hint of prejudice. It is their defensive reaction that has turned the row into a crisis, rather than anything some idiot boy copper said over Pot Noodles in his mate’s bedroom. Thus a police force that survived the real battles of the inner-city riots and miners’ strike of the 1980s is thrown into turmoil by a little television programme.

Those of us who have never quite shared the conviction that ‘the British police are the best in the world’ might not be too traumatised by the spectacle of the force turning in on itself. But we should also be clear that nothing good will come of all this. It will do nothing to combat racism or promote genuine equality. But it will reinforce dangerously authoritarian trends across society.

Some of the most worrying trends evident today are being promoted in the name of anti-racism – such as the injection of subjective, arbitrary elements into the law, the spread of conformist codes of conduct, the institutionalisation of mistrust and surveillance. And perhaps worst of all, the official anti-racism has established that people are now supposed to be judged more on their private thoughts than their public deeds. There is no benefit for any of us in this phoney moral crusade. It is the new thought police, rather than the old racist ones, who are running riot through Britain today.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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