New race genie out of the bottle

11th February 2005 at 00:00
White racism may be abating, but its legacy is a growing animosity between different ethnic groups, writes Darcus Howe

Channel 4 last summer broadcast "Who you callin' a nigger?", a documentary that I wrote. It highlighted conflicts between Pakistani youths and West Indians in Walsall, and between West Indians and Somalis in Woolwich. And it featured racist comments readily offered by Asian women about the Caribbeans who live alongside them in the Midlands.

There was one Asian interviewed who offered his views about young West Indian men. "What do you call a black man driving a Rolls-Royce? Answer: a thief." And another so-called joke. "What is a black woman without children? Answer: a crime prevention officer."

Off camera, the director was severely assaulted by a community leader because he dared to bypass him in seeking interviews. Pakistani youths threatened to break my legs because they claimed I was sent by Channel 4 to provoke them. Then they attempted to kidnap the director before running off with the camera.

Nothing had prepared the production team for these bleak and demoralising experiences. There was much more that was edited out because of legal problems. Details of stabbings and beatings in Walsall were cut because matters were sub judice. Violent conflict between blacks and Asians in the classrooms of a West Country school did not make it to the screen because the headmaster refused to let us enter the premises. And violence against Sikhs by young Pakistanis in Birmingham would have shifted the focus to religion, which we felt needed another documentary.

And the response, particularly from the Asian community, was intensely hostile. In Walsall, leaders denied that attacks were prevalent and maintained, in spite of the evidence, that inter-racial conflict was not a feature of life in the area.

Somalis and West Indians complained that the reports were baseless, and much offence was taken. I merely answered that the victims of violence - on both sides - were not actors reciting a script written by me. For days after the programme was broadcast I flitted around radio stations to answer responses which ranged from approbation to abusive condemnation.

It seems clear to me that I had let the genie out of the bottle and there is no going back. All the victims and perpetrators of these unspeakable acts of inter-ethnic violence are young men. And the terrain, in several cases, is the college campus or school playground. The protagonists share classrooms in secondary schools and colleges. In one incident, a boy was beaten almost to death with a hammer in the corridor of a college.

And why this degeneration after 50 years of co-existence? Relations between immigrants from the Caribbean and those from the subcontinent had never been ideal in the Midlands, but the initial dissonance did not develop into violence.

I contend that white racism which has been blighting our lives for more than 45 years is on the retreat in most areas. We now face each other, polluted as we have been by the notion that society is irredeemably divided into hostile racial and religious groups. Migrants, too, have supped from the cup of racism, visiting on each other the foul conceptions thrown at us by whites.

Only recently, the police had to ban the waving of the Pakistani flag in Eid celebrations in Southall lest other Asian groups were provoked into violence. This seems to me a sad echo of the Cross of St George being paraded as a symbol of white racial superiority.

What strikes me is that Caribbean, Somali and Pakistani youths reiterate the same racial garbage that has been thrown at us by whites since our arrival here: the shiftless West Indian, the cunning Paki, the uncivilised African are epithets bandied about with flourish by those of us with dark skins.

It would have been amusing if it wasn't so dreadful to hear Pakistanis attack West Indians using the street slang of their victims. This phenomenon is relatively new and needs to be tackled now, or it will be too late.

I have tried to discover whether schools and colleges have begun to deal with these issues among their students. I have found no evidence that this is the case. Countering white racism remains the emphasis within the education system. Diversity tends to lump all the dark-skinned ethnic groups together in one undifferentiated mass. Teachers have not been able to take on board what is before their eyes.

We need not abandon the emphasis on anti-racism but we must encourage its extension to deal with the inter-ethnic conflicts which threaten to engulf us all.

Darcus Howe is a broadcaster and writer


Schools combat racism in many ways - by discussing books and films, through drama, with work on conflict-resolution and bullying. Has your school found a way to tackle the particular problems highlighted by Darcus Howe - conflict between young men from different black and Asian groups? Please let us know. Write to

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