One Scotland, many racists?

The Scottish Executive sees racism everywhere. A Glaswegian wonders why.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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In the mid-1980s I used to attend church on Sundays with the Boys’ Brigade in Glasgow. None of us wanted to go, but it was compulsory – even for the several Pakistani Muslims who had joined the Brigade just to play football.

One Sunday, the minister told a story about how the newsagent had given him too much change, and the devil had tried to tempt him to keep it. ‘I went down to the Pakistani shop’, he began, and then glanced at the Pakistani boys to gauge their reactions. They giggled approvingly, and so, emboldened, he began again: ‘I went down to the Pakis’.’ Everybody giggled.

Maybe the devil made him do it, but it was more embarrassing than sinister. In today’s climate, this story might be read as evidence of institutional racism in the Church of Scotland, but really it only illustrates the awkward process by which we decide what is and isn’t acceptable. A survey of racial attitudes in Scotland published in late September 2002 found that 43 percent of respondents did not consider it racist to use words like Paki when talking about shops, or Chinky when talking about food. Only 20 percent considered it ‘strongly racist’.

For race campaigners, this is a problem. Rather than indicating that apparently racist language might in fact be benign, the survey is taken as evidence that many Scots are not only racist, but are also in denial about it. The publication of the survey has kickstarted ‘One Scotland, Many Cultures’ (2), a five-week advertising campaign initiated by the Scottish Executive with the support of nearly 30 anti-racist groups.

Margaret Curran, Scotland’s minister for social justice, insists that, ‘We are under no illusion, Scotland has some way to go before it is free of prejudice and discrimination’. (3) Chris Eynon of System Three, the polling company behind the survey, dismisses the idea that racism is a only a problem among a minority of Scots. ‘We are trying to change the majority view, which will eventually lead to these people realising that their attitudes are not helpful, they are unwanted and they are anti-social.’ (4)

Notice the focus on attitudes. The survey’s authors conclude that the campaign must aim to change attitudes, not simply behaviour. But it isn’t people’s attitudes to ethnic minorities that are at issue, so much as their attitudes to anti-racism. The authors note that while the majority aspire to a racism-free Scotland, there is a ‘lack of understanding of what constitutes racism’, and a perception that society is dogged by political correctness and ‘inverse racism’.

This latent hostility to ‘institutional anti-racism’ may or may not mask genuinely racist sentiments in some cases, but for the political establishment it is a problem in itself. When people insist, for example, that there is racism against whites too, they are hardly identifying a major social problem (let’s be serious), but they are expressing discontent, albeit childishly, with the way that the race issue is used to moralise and browbeat people.

The survey’s most shocking statistic at first glance is that nine percent of respondents ‘thought it not racist to physically assault or use violence towards people from other ethnic backgrounds’. The mind boggles. But does this mean that these people think it is all right to beat up Asians? Of course not. It’s just that criminal violence against ethnic minorities isn’t necessarily racist. People hit each other for all sorts of (mostly stupid) reasons.

What is more surprising is that 85 percent went along with the politically correct assumption that such assaults must be racist. The six percent who responded bizarrely that assaulting people from other ethnic backgrounds is ‘slightly racist’ are more likely to be the real bigots, grasping for a compromise with respectable opinion.

The One Scotland campaign is designed to appeal to this desire for respectability, rather than any passion for equality. Everybody knows that racism is frowned upon, so one of the campaign’s slogans is ‘Don’t Let Scotland Down’. This doesn’t really have anything to do with racism. The sentiment is more like: what will the English think if we call the cornershop the Pakis’?

For all the talk of cultural understanding, then, the strategy seems to be to shame people into conforming to the official anti-racist etiquette. The immediate effect of the campaign and the survey is to exaggerate the extent of racism in Scotland, which can only put everybody on the defensive.

It is a fact of life that some people are tactless and embarrassing and always manage to say the wrong thing. If they aren’t telling racist jokes in Chinese restaurants, they’re swearing in front of your granny. Maybe the devil makes them do it. The campaign is unlikely to help, and quite likely to increase awkwardness and embarrassment.

What is considered racist language is subjective and constantly changing. It is only good manners to keep up and avoid unnecessary offence, but the One Scotland campaign goes further by suggesting that failure to do so reveals a bad attitude, and implying that bad attitudes – rather than anything governments do, for example – are what racism is all about.

One of the campaign’s TV adverts shows a man in a restaurant finishing a joke – ‘and he said, “I don’t know. They all look the same to me!”’ – and laughing uproariously while everyone around him sits stony-faced. Perhaps the joke was ‘inappropriate’, but is high-minded disapproval really such an admirable attitude for a nation to take on?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) NFO System Three

(2) See the One Scotland website

(3) See the One Scotland website

(4) Racist confessions fuel £1m campaign to unite Scotland, The Times (London), September 25 2002

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Topics Politics


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