Friday, 12 March 2010

The 'They're So Privileged' Brand of Racism

People often say that the British, in contrast to our European neighbours, are reluctant to talk about politics.  However, in my experience there is one type of politics they seem to have no embarrassment in sounding off about and that is racist politics.  Anyone who travels in a taxi knows that within a matter of moments of the car starting you will be subjected to a string of racist comments that sound they come straight from the BNP manifesto.  Ninety percent of taxi drivers, men and women, seem compelled to outline their racist views.  Even the black comedian Lenny Henry has commented on this, noting the exception that they make for him 'well, of course, Lenny, I'm not talking about people like you' as if that permits them to continue with their diatribe.

I encountered this phenomenon last night not in a taxi but when I was waiting to pay for a meal.  The man, probably in his fifities, who was in front of me was contesting his bill.  He was correct that it had been added up wrongly, it turned out he had worked as a croupier so was skilled at mental arithmetic, more skilled than the restaurant staff were at punching numbers into a calculator.  Perhaps it was his victory which seemed to save him £5 that meant he was bullish at outlining his racist views to anyone in earshot, with me, being behind him in the queue, being the prime target.  Of course, he made no attempt to assess if I was open to his lecture, because like so many bigots he assumed that what he was saying was 'common sense' and so could not be challenged and must be accepted by any sane person.  His statements reminded me of a brand of racism that I have often encountered down the years but had simply lumped together with the other forms.

You will often come across people who have the conviction that certain sectors of society are getting privileges that the rest of us cannot access.  The target is usually lone parents, asylum seekers and/or immigrants.  They believe that these people are getting easy access to social welfare payments which exceed the norm and that they can jump the queue in terms of housing and other provision.  To force home this point they emphasise how undeserving the people are, usually they are portrayed as a combination of 'not wanting' to work, being feckless, creating children simply to gain financial benefits, unable to speak English, quite often criminal and these days, probably associated with extremist or terrorist activities.  The speaker feels that in line with the sense of deserving/undeserving poor, that such people are on the undeserving side.  They have no knowledge of how low benefit payments are to anyone, how difficult it is for new arrivers in the UK to claim anything and the poor quality of a lot of accommodation councils are compelled to house people in.

The sting in this type of racism is that it not only attacks the individuals themselves, who are often, though not always, from a different ethnic group from the speaker, but also some faceless bureaucracy that for some reason delights in awarding these bounteous gifts to the people the speaker despises.  There is no sense that somehow the civil service or councils have been penetrated by the agents of foreign powers, just a simple assumption that people in such roles have a desire to privilege lone parents and people born abroad or even just British people of non-Caucasian ethnicity.  I have worked in different branches of the civil service, and while most civil servants are not racist (though some I have known clearly are), neither do they have a desire to privilege any social or ethnic group.  Even if they did, there are very strict rules about what can be given to anyone and the application process for housing or benefits is very lengthy, complex and thorough.  No benefits are simply dished out, despite the assumption that racist speakers make.  In fact if English is not your first language, it is incredibly hard to navigate your way through all the forms you have to complete to get any benefits.

This assumption, often fostered by tabloid newspapers, that the despised groups in society are in fact the privileged ones not only gives a point on which to bash these groups but also to attack the ordinary people who administer the UK's civil service and council services, who, as it is, often come in for verbal and even physicl attack while trying to do such work.  No wonder it is so difficult to recruit social workers when they are accused either of not intervening soon enough when a child or woman dies or, in fact, more commonly, 'sticking their noses in' when people, particularly men, want to run their families in a harsh, often abusive, way.  They do a tough job but simply come constantly under fire for whatever they do.  Of course, the people making such allegations never would even consider taking a job like that.  Their assumptions are that, there will always be people willing to step forward to do such hard work, though, of course, they will be doing it wrongly and privileging the 'wrong' people.  It is all too easy to leave it to the state to pick up the pieces from the distorted society and economy caused by thirty years of Thatcherite policies while still whining on constantly about how poorly or incorrectly they are doing it.

The man in front of me had worked in the Bahamas and this allowed him to add an extra layer to the complaints he was making to anyone who would listen.  He whined that in the UK that black people, as a minority, are privileged, even though 48% of black males aged 16-24, 31% of Asian males of this age group and 20% of white males at that age are unemployed; a fifth of black men of all ages are unemployed, so who is being privileged?  Institutional racism still makes an impact on getting a job.  In the Bahamas, 85% of the population is black, 12% white and 3% Hispanic (which I tend to include in white anyway, but is separated out in the USA), whereas in the UK the population is 92% white, only 2% is black, the remaining 6% being Asian, mixed race or other ethnicities.  So, on the basis of this man's assumptions, white people should be as privileged in the Bahamas as he believes black people are in the UK.  Of course, he did not find that to be the case, and so was angry.  It did not lead him to re-assess his 'common sense' assumption that actually in all countries ethnic minorities tend to be disadvantaged it simply led him to assume that there is a conspiracy straddling different countries to put white people at a disadvantage.  He did not delight in the fact that he could move back and forth between countries and had always been in work and was clearly wealthy enough to take twenty people to dinner, even if just in a chain restaurant.  He had found a basis to whine about how unfairly treated he had been.

As the man's racism began to move into an area which in my experience is uncommon even in public diatribes of such people, I simply walked away.  He had got into full stride arguing that as the Bahamas were once a British colony (self-governing since 1964; independent from 1973) and still has the British Queen as its monarch, then the whites should be in control.  His views that they would do a better, fairer job belong in the 19th century, though even then they were wrong.  It is interesting to find someone who subscribes to the 'white man's burden' view of the current world.  I imagine if I had stayed around long enough I would hear how the white man is so much more superior to other races, though this falls down even on the man's own assumptions, because in his world view, black people are extremely clever and assertive in getting benefits that he feels they are not entitled to and do not 'deserve'.  It is alarming that such views are not only held in 21st century Britain but that you run the risk of being bombarded with them when you are simply out for a quiet meal, my first in a restaurant for five months.  I increasingly despair, but see a real need to challenge these toxic assumptions and stop people thinking that such bigotry and hatred is 'common sense' that no-one could rationally question.

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