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.

Now let us ask: while the gas chambers were functioning, was the general level of anti-semitic prejudice among German people high enough to match that ultimate expression of racism by the state? It obviously was not. No doubt the majority of Germans believed that the Jews were a menace, that they were inferior to Aryans, that they should be expelled from German lands, that they deserved to be stigmatised and humiliated. But, equally without doubt, very few Germans can then have thought it right systematically to kill them, men, women and children, by the million. How, then, did it happen? It happened for two simple reasons. First, although only very few Germans believed it right to exterminate the Jews, those who did believe so included those who were in power and those who operated that part of the state mechanism which could carry out such a programme. And, secondly, the bulk of those who would have thought extermination wrong did not know that it was taking place, just as the majority of white people in Britain who would be shocked by what John Downing has to tell them do not know what happens to black people in Britain now. In the former case, as in the latter, there was sufficient opportunity to know: but, in the former case, as in the latter, there was a strong will not to know – in both cases, it is a chosen ignorance, not the ignorance of innocence.

Downing is not concerned to assess the extent to which racial prejudice has infected the population: he is concerned with the very different question of how racist contemporary British society is in its operation. It is enormously tempting to reject his answer to this question on the basis of a more flattering answer to the former question: the example of the Nazis shows, however, that it is a fallacy to argue directly from the degree of racial prejudice among the members of a society to the degree of racism involved in the working of its institutions. One reason for this is that even a small degree of racism will be amplified into very grave effects upon the lives of individuals. If employers in some profession discriminate only to the extent of preferring a white applicant to a black one with equal qualifications, this can have the effect that a black youngster will probably be out of work a year after he has completed his training, even at a time when a white one can count on landing a job within a month or two. Numerous encounters with unprejudiced white people will have no particular impact on a black child, since he is only being treated as he has a right to expect: encounters with the racially prejudiced may be deeply traumatic.

Of more importance is the phenomenon apparent in the case of Nazi Germany: when there is racism or religious bigotry in a society, the racists or bigots will always be disproportionately represented among those who have actual power over the lives of others. To see how self-evident this is, one has only to think of any alien racist society. There are, for example, whites in South Africa who detest Apartheid and the oppression of black people: but one would not expect to find any among the police or the politicians or any other group with genuine power. Senior police officers in Britain frequently condone the existence of racially prejudiced policemen by remarking that the Police are only a cross-section of society. They fail to recognise that such prejudice, exhibited by a policeman, has far more malign effects than similar prejudice manifested by a private citizen, and that it ought to be grounds for instant dismissal. In fact, however, racial prejudice is far more prevalent among policemen than amongst the public at large, for an obvious reason: the kind of personality that is attracted to the police force as a profession is more liable to be infected by racism than are most other types of personality.

In one of the coups in Ghana, a cabinet minister was arrested. His son, studying at a polytechnic in London, suddenly found his funds cut off at source; unable to pay his fees or to contact his family, he panicked, and broke off his studies to take a job in order to support himself. The college did not send a welfare officer to find out if he was in trouble, but simply reported his non-attendance to the Home Office: he was soon arrested, and appeared in court charged with violating his conditions of stay. The magistrate, sentencing him to prison and recommending him for deportation, exhibited vehement indignation over this ‘illegal immigrant’: it was apparent that he felt the presence of a single black person capable under the law of being removed was an evil not to be tolerated. Now no doubt most white people would recognise that this unfortunate lad had done no harm to anyone, but had merely acted rashly in circumstances which would have frightened someone more mature. It would be folly to infer that most magistrates would have felt the same: the way magistrates, of both kinds, are selected makes it certain that most of them would see him as this one did, as an impudent and dangerous criminal. The same applies to every sector of the population which has power over others: the political and social mechanisms operate to ensure that, when there is prejudice, the most prejudiced will be where they can do most harm. It was always so: why else should Christ have said: ‘Blessed are the meek’?

Even more important is the effect of the general will. The general will is not the resultant or vector sum of the wishes of the individuals who compose society: it is what is generally perceived as being the will of the society as a whole. As such, it is enunciated primarily by the political leaders, including those in opposition, and secondarily by the newspapers. It is not only enunciated by them, but to a large extent created by them; however, it is also in part created by the general public, whose members voice their political views as electors and in other ways, thereby producing an impression of what the people, at large, want. This will is general also in the sense that its content is usually general. It may be that, in some individual case, say of a black person threatened with deportation, most people would favour a compassionate decision: but there is no general will regarding his case, only one which imposes the general principle that as many black people should be got rid of as possible, and which will operate to determine a harsh decision by the authorities.

The public helps to create the general will only in so far as its opinions are publicly manifested: its opportunities for voicing them are circumscribed by what the press will print and will report. People are more ready to express, and the newspapers to report, resentment of others than indignation at unjust treatment of them. For the past two decades, what has come across from the public, through the media, has been, not a desire for justice for black people, but a perception of them as a menace to be warded off. The former may have been a significant ingredient in the wishes of many: only the latter has been part of the general will, and, as such, has been articulated and fostered by politicians and the press.

The general will creates a framework in which lives are lived. Since at least 1968, identification of the black minorities as an alien menace in our midst has appeared as a settled item of national consensus; whatever their experience of individuals, it has gone to form the attitude of young black English men and women to being English and being black. This consensus also serves as guidance to officials on how they should behave, since they see themselves as charged with realising the general will. In particular, judges, magistrates, policemen and civil servants of executive grade are prone to conceive their duty in terms of protecting the desirable members of society from the undesirable. For two decades, black people have been officially proclaimed as the most undesirable elements of the population: despite the routine concession that they must be treated fairly ‘once they are here’, twenty years of hysteria about the necessity of keeping them out could convey no other message. It is not to be wondered at that ‘the authorities’ have heard that message, or that, hearing it, they have long been accustomed to practise on black people the cruelties of which Downing has room to cite only a few examples. Doubtless, many white Britons would disapprove of such cruelties if only they knew that they occurred: such a consideration is no ground for doubting that they do occur, nor should a doubt so founded afford an obstacle to anyone’s coming to know that they do.

Given political leaders who encourage racism, as ours have done, a society with only a moderate level of racial prejudice can, in its operation, be severely racist. The converse is also true. Though the first two of the three factors cited here always operate in the other direction, a leadership resolutely opposed to intolerance can so affect the general will as to make even a society with a great deal of prejuduce approximate to one in which minorities gain an equal chance and equal respect. In the complex interplay between leaders and led, the best chance of teaching our leaders to teach us better is for all those of good will to acquire the will to learn, and in fact to learn, the reality and the character of what is being done, and has for many years been done, in our name. Then certain things that pass us by without our paying much attention will become shameful and intolerable. To take only two topical examples, which, exceptionally, received a little publicity: it will become glaringly obvious that to force a Sikh boy to remove his turban as a condition for attending school – the equivalent of forcing a Jewish boy to eat bacon – is a disgusting action which should disqualify anyone who commits it from having anything to do with education; and it will become a matter for bitter shame that we refused to allow into the country to be with his dying father one of those to whom we offered the protection of our citizenship when Kenya gained independence, because our immigration authorities suspected that he might stay on after his father’s death. It is hypocrisy or madness to do such things, and then ask why there are riots: I am inclined to suspect that, in this regard, we have become quite literally mad.

I believe that almost everything that John Downing says in this painful but important book is true. In brief compass, it summarises a situation familiar to nearly all black people and to the small number of white ones who have engaged in the struggle against racism in Britain, but of which most people are virtually oblivious. I do not ask anyone to believe it: but I beg them first to read it and then to make as serious an attempt as they can to discover, from those with no motive for concealing the truth, whether it is true. Perhaps, if they do, the dismal history of race relations in Britain will take a better turn.