In the wake of the hideous hate crime that took place in Charleston I think it’s appropriate to look at Britain’s attitude towards racism.
I think it’s fair to say that generally speaking, British people have a shared belief that the USA can be described as Britain’s wild younger brother, like us, but not as civilised as us. We sneer at any country that we think lacks certain societal norms that we have today. We look down on the US gun laws, despite the fact they have their heritage in both the War of Independence against the British, and English law – so perhaps if it hadn’t been for the British refusing to give the US their freedom, there would be no gun laws like the ones they have today. We sneer at African dictators and at how badly Africa has been handled over the last few hundred years, even though the state that it’s in is a direct result of British colonialism and of weapons that we’ve sold to these dictators even in very recent times. We sneer too, at countries that don’t have democracy and then attempt to bomb it into them. As Frankie Boyle once sarcastically said “we sent Prince Harry to Afghanistan, because when you want to teach people about peace and democracy [you do it] by having a prince shoot at them from a helicopter”. Everywhere I seem to turn Britain’s patronising moral superiority is coated in a thick layer of hypocrisy.
So what about racism? I feel confident in saying that well over a majority of British people would class themselves as ‘not racist’, but Brits do have a habit of being aware that one’s genuine personal beliefs should not be as publicly displayed as in America. It’s safe to say that many people who harbour racist views suppress them to appear more socially adjusted. But let’s look at some facts. It’s generally thought that racism is on the rise in the UK with recent polling data suggesting some worrying trends are developing – regarding both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism . Islamic extremism (again, arguably a bi-product of western foreign policy), most recently the horrific Charlie Hebdo attack, obviously has exasperated anti-Islamic feelings, though such concerns have irrationally transferred into animosity and suspicion of Muslims – making it now a “dinner table” prejudice with many feeling that Islamic tradition threatens ‘British values’.
Look at the fact that UKIP won four million votes in the general election. Four million. That makes them Britain’s third party. To say that UKIP are not racist, both in terms of policy and their top brass, is a fallacy and any denial of that is ridiculous. The idea that draconian anti-immigration policies and rhetoric and being racist has no link is becoming more and more popular, with many right-wingers labelling people who call them racist as ‘lefties playing the race card’ – an accusation that is simply not true. Obviously not all UKIP voters are racist, and even many that are won over by the immigration rhetoric aren’t – but it’s clearly a party run by xenophobes with a xenophobic policy base.
I recently read that half of Britons would not let Syrian War refugees into the country. Refugees from a war we helped fund and half of us wouldn’t let them in. This is clearly linked to racism because these people are in the eyes of many human waste, with no function or ‘use in society,’ or in other words non-white. Already this year over three thousand immigrants have died in the Mediterranean whilst trying to leave Africa. That’s a 9/11’s worth of people. There is no doubt that if a 9/11’s worth of white British people were dying every six months there would be outrage, but sadly these immigrants in the eyes of many are lesser beings. The way in which their deaths are justified is just a step on a process of dehumanisation. They literally resemble human litter in ports in Italy and France, strewn across the ground, festering. People like Katie Hopkins refer to them as “cockroaches”, the ultimate act of dehumanisation, comparing them animals. It’s much easier not to care about peoples lives when you start to perceive them as not being human, and that is the dangerous tool racists can employ, as tribalistic human instincts teamed with dehumanisation can make one feel particularly disconnected and disassociated from foreign people, making racism more prevalent.
Sadly I think racism in Britain extends beyond fringe right-wingers. If the general election is anything to go by (which it should be) we can see that racism is actually very ubiquitous in British society, the only difference with regards to America is that it’s better hidden. To me, the mere fact that the topic of immigration was one of the major issues debated about during the election is shocking. On every manifesto and during every live TV debate ‘immigration’ was a recurring theme, up there with the NHS and the economy. It’s crazy to think that one of many main criticisms of Cameron’s last five years as prime minster was that he let in more immigrants than he promised. Now admittedly this was also a question of trust to do with him not keeping his promise, however, they turned what could have been a redeeming feature of Cameron into a negative point. Surely it should have gone “I think a great thing Mr Cameron has done is going against all his instincts and displaying some compassion by letting in hundreds of thousands of desperate people into this stable country, many of whom were fleeing from conflicts either directly or indirectly linked to Britain.” But no, instead it was said with contempt, “you’ve let in a tidal wave!”
People think that to label the overused phrase ‘controls on immigration’ as having racist undertones is silly, but it isn’t. It’s simply a belief that foreign people should be literally barred from this country because of their place of origin, which obviously makes them less deserving than “indigenous” Brits (to borrow a phrase from the far right). It’s so evident it hurts. I might well emigrate to America, but that, to Brits, will not make me an immigrant but an ex-pat. We’re told that ‘the Australian-style points system’ is a good system to model ours off. Australia is one of the most racist, closed-doors countries in the western world. It’s like saying ‘we should have a Rwandan ethnic cleansing system’, although you haven’t said anything directly racist in that sentence, you’ve still acknowledged that a racist idea is a good and beneficial one, which is comparable to ‘controls on immigration’.
I want to be clear here, I don’t think that British people are racist in the traditional sense of disliking a different colour of skin, I hope it’s safe to say that that’s rarely the case. Maybe that’s the case on a subconscious, tribalistic level, but mainly people are racist because of ignorance and fear of other cultures. One of the surveys quoted earlier found that people (irrationally) felt excluded and like outsiders in their own country. They feel threatened, as though all tradition is being taken away. It’s a more complex form of racsim than is exhibited in the US, it’s less you look different and more you are different. I want to delve a little deeper into the idea of the ‘British values’ that people feel are being taken away. I will admit that ‘traditional Britain’ as many of our grandparents and great grand parents experienced it is ebbing away. Certainly, there’s a higher proportion of ethnic minorities in the country. However, I believe that this is a good thing; whereas obviously racists believe it’s a bad thing. But what do these ‘traditional British values’ that are being threatened actually stand for? Well, if one glances at Britain’s past one can see that they stand for imperialism, colonialism, militarism, racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality and a sea of right-wing values. These are not attributes that I feel Britain needs anymore. Let militarism be replaced with peace. Let sexism and homophobia be replaced with equality. Let selfish right wing values be replaced with more compassionate left wing principles. And let racism be toppled by diversity and acceptance. The problem with ‘tradition’ is that it normalises activities and beliefs that have been there for a long time, which means people won’t accept that they’re wrong. Many felt abashed by my Churchill piece the other week because it challenged traditional beliefs people have about him. Tradition is vile, preserving the status quo and peoples out-dated, bigoted beliefs.
You might say though, despite all this, that no Brit would walk into a place of worship and shoot the place up on racial grounds. However, many Mosques in the UK have been firebombed and the number of hate crimes against British Muslims has dramatically spiked in the last few years. We have strict gun control laws here and free health care for the mentally ill. So how crazy is it to suggest that if we had guns, no free and immediate healthcare for the mentally unbalanced and were as overtly racist as people are in Charleston, South Carolina (which still sports a confederate flag over it’s city hall to this day), that one crazed and racist person might walk into a Mosque and kill Muslims for the simple fact that they are Muslims? I’ll let you decide. I don’t like speculation but one must take into account the very different contexts both the UK and US are surrounded by.
Does Britain have an inherent racist streak? Yes. Clearly. If half of Britons wouldn’t let Syrian war refugees in, four million people voted for UKIP, and our supposedly left-wing party had the words ‘controls on immigration’ etched into a stone monolith standing ten foot high, then yes we are, absolutely.