Power and Prejudice

Michael Dummett

  • Now you do know by John Downing
    War on Want Campaigns, 80 pp, £1.00, December 1980, ISBN 0 905990 10 2

This short book was originally presented as a report to the international consultation held in the Netherlands by the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism in June 1980. It is a portrait of the society we live in, as it presents itself to its black citizens; and it is a horrifying portrait. Though its author, who teaches at Thames Polytechnic, has hopefully entitled it Now you do know, he expresses in his Preface pessimism about whether many white people in Britain will read it, or will believe it if they do. I do not intend in this review to summarise its contents: it is already very compressed, and quickly read. Instead, I will try to remove the principal obstacle to people’s reading it or taking it seriously. This obstacle is the thought: ‘This is a portrait of a rampantly racist society; though I know there is a certain amount of racism around, I simply cannot recognise such a portrait as depicting the country I live in.’ This thought is very natural: it is one for which those, like Downing, who know how things are here for black people and try to communicate that knowledge, usually make no allowance. It is enormously important to grasp why the thought is mistaken. Someone may be aware that he knows very little about the workings of, say, the magistrates’ courts or the welfare services, particularly as they affect black people. But he knows, or he thinks he knows, what the level of racial prejudice is amongst the people with whom he comes into contact. He acknowledges that such prejudice exists, even that it is deplorably prevalent; but, he thinks, it is not virulent enough or widespread enough to render credible the picture Downing presents of a society utterly racist in character. His common experience simply does not match this picture: no specialised knowledge is required to judge that it must be false.

It is this reasoning, tacit or explicit, which will persuade many readers to reject Downing’s account: but, compelling as it seems, it is a fallacy, which it is of the greatest importance to recognise as such. To see that it is a fallacy, we have only to think of Nazi Germany and the gas chambers. It is quite wrong to reject such an analogy on the ground that British racism has not yet come near that pitch. Indeed it has not, thank God: but the phenomenon is the same. The Final Solution grew out of the same stinking soil, and was only a more luxuriant growth than has yet appeared elsewhere: it grew out of German anti-semitism, which had been wholly of a piece with all the other varieties of racial prejudice. The fact that, not at a remote epoch or in a distant land, but not very long ago and in a country not very different from ours, the state undertook to exterminate an entire race, comprising millions of people, is one we still find it almost impossible to absorb: but absorb it we must, since any picture of human beings and human society which implies that it could not have happened is thereby shown to be false.

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