The other day I had planned on writing about something that happened the other day, a conversation I had with a couple of neighbours. And then I started getting engrossed in coverage and commentary on the whole bigot thing, and that put me off. So let me go back to what I was going to write about before, and see if I can fit it in with what has been unfolding in the British election campaign.
About five minutes in, one of them was saying there had been trouble from one house on the estate, a “coloured family” who had moved in recently. You know what “these people” are like, the way a whole load of them move in to the one house. Are there many rented properties on your street?
(“Rented properties”, I learned, was a sort of euphemism for houses where black, brown or Eastern European people lived. “Rented properties” were a growing problem on the estate, undermining the life of those decent homeowners who had bought a house there in expectation that some day they’d be able to sell up and move somewhere nicer. But then the property ladder got kicked away.)
I said I had no idea.
The other one said that the whole place had been going to the dumps. Only that day, he’d been out the front and seen a Roma kid at the gates to the estate picking up a bottle, smashing it against the wall, then hold it as though he was going to use it as a weapon.
“Of course, I didn’t confront him about it. How could you? Sure once they know where you live God knows what they’ll do to you. There was a judge a while back, and he got a lot of stick for it, but he was right: all they are good for is robbing and stealing. They’re total scumbags.”
I was about to object, when:
“So I shouted over to them. And they were speaking in English, but once they heard me they started talking in their own language. And they dropped the bottle and walked on. But as they were passing, of course I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I did hear them say [the name of the estate], and you could tell by the way that they were saying it that they were trying to make out that it was a posh estate, using a sort of snobby tone”
How he was able to tell what a snobby tone in Romani sounds like, I have no idea.
And then the other one said:
“There was a stabbing a couple of years back. Another family of coloureds. Whole load of them living in the same house. Apparently a row broke out in the middle of the night. Guards came straight away, along with the landlord. A couple of them ran out onto the street, and one lifted a knife to the other.”
“But a couple of days later they were gone. I reckon a special team of the Guards came in the middle of the night and put them all in the back of a van and then onto a plane. Deported. Middle of the night is best time for it, if you ask me. No kids around getting upset.”
I’m being sketchy and leaving out quite a lot of the context here deliberately, but suffice to say that one of the reasons I was meeting them was a slow Garda response to what I suspected was a racist attack on the home of another neighbour. But neither of them knew a) that I suspected it was a racist attack; b) that the other neighbour was black. I’d spoken to the latter about it, and asked him if he thought whether he was the victim of racism, and whether the guards had initially not done anything about it precisely on account of the fact that he was African. On both counts, he said he didn’t want to deal with it that way, that he just wanted the police to do their job. So these two, who’d been prompt to meet with the police about the slow response while I was out of the country, didn’t know anything other than a deeply redacted of the incident when they did so. Fortunately.
Then yesterday evening I was walking back to the house with my wife and son, and there was an Indian family out in the street playing cricket. The little one had never seen cricket being played before, and he was curious. As we approached, a couple of kids sped past on bikes and shouted something like “Look at the fuckin Indians playing fuckin cricket in the fuckin street”. None of the Indians responded; I can’t be sure if they heard.
Are these people bigots? Absolutely. Racist? Of course. But the question to my mind is what good it does to brandish these labels as though they contained some sort of meaningful reproach just so that people living in white middle-class enclaves can feel good about themselves. As though it were a matter of nasty stuff going on in people’s heads that could merely be flushed out by some good old-fashioned liberal education.
I could ply you with a whole load of flannel about how my bigoted racist neighbours do lots of decent things and how they’re both nice and friendly to me, and how they just want a normal life for their kids and so on and so forth. And I could even say, well, they’ve been locked into a system where their sense of self-worth is pegged to the value of their homes and how much they’re getting paid at work (neither of my neighbours has had a pay rise for 3 years, I learned), and how their racism is basically -as Raymond Aron put it- snobbery on the cheap. But none of this is much comfort to people whose lives are being made a misery on account of this. Nor does it arrive at the origins of what produces their racism in the first instance.
As a recent Irish Left Review article in the aftermath of the murder of Toyosi Shitta-bey noted:
there is still a widespread tendency for racism to be portrayed and perceived as an individual, psychological phenomenon that resides in people’s heads or in their hearts. Official anti-racism policies and initiatives have tended to explain racism in Irish society in terms of fear and ignorance of the cultural norms or customs of particular racial groups, and imply that racism is perpetrated by a few ‘bad apples’ within a society which otherwise welcomes, embraces and celebrates its ‘newfound’ cultural diversity. Moreover, individual-level explanations tend to be accompanied by accounts of racism as comprising isolated or exceptional incidents perpetrated by these ‘bad apple racists’, which serves to present the Irish nation as one that is largely antithetical to racism, thereby absolving the state of any role in creating or maintaining racial tension.
So the other day I saw plenty of people exulting in how Gordon Brown at least had the good sense to refer to the woman as ‘bigoted’, but paying no heed whatsoever to Brown’s role in engendering this form of bigotry. He is, after all, the head of a party which in government has presided over an orgy of jingoistic chest-puffery as it continued along the neo-liberal path started by Thatcher. First there was ‘Cool Britannia’, then there was the blind imperial arrogance of Britain’s collaboration with the US in Afghanistan and then Iraq: projects for which Brown in his role as Chancellor had effectively declared that money was no object. And then there was Brown’s own attempts to put a nationalist stamp on his premiership with his ‘Britishness’ wheezes. Not forgetting the widespread demonisation of Muslims that the imperial adventures abroad entailed. So fair play, he said the woman was a bigot. From the safety of his car. A hero.
And, if you want to consider Ireland, consider, as I noted in a comment on the Irish Left Review article linked to above, the ethnocentricity of the idea of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and how widespread its usage is. I observed that ‘Aryan Tiger’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, but there’s not a great deal of difference in the implication.
(Coincidentally, I am presently holding a bottle of water with a label on it that reads ‘Celtic Pure’)
Consider the Irish Times editorial that described a slowing in the increase of unemployment on account of immigrant workers returning home as an ‘encouraging indicator’.
Consider the Fianna Fáil TD with the massive bank shareholdings using the Dáil to say that
he opposed “foreigners coming into this country and telling us what to do” .
Or, consider the other Fianna Fáil TD who, at the height of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, using the same figure of speech used by BNP leader Nick Griffin the other day, railed some years back against the “spongers, the freeloaders, the people screwing the system. Too many are coming to Ireland and too many to Cork in my view…I’m saying we will have to close the doors.”
Then there’s the one-time Minister for Integration who received his appointment after seeing fit to refer to exploited Turkish workers as ‘kebabs‘ in the Dáil. And once he became Minister for Integration he announced he planned to visit Israel to find out how they integrated newcomers there.
Or the Fine Gael TD who proclaimed recently that ‘It is time for the Irish Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs to wake up to the perils of Turkish accession to the European Union. It is a prospect which horrifies most ordinary citizens when they think of the likely implications’, citing the unthinkable ‘dramatic influx of low-paid, unskilled or semi-skilled immigrants’.
Or how about the citizenship referendum arranged by the self-declared ‘liberal’ Justice Minister that moved from legal regulation of citizenship by jus soli to jus sanguinis, in which the simple fact of being born in the state’s territory was no longer a sufficient criterion for automatic citizenship, replaced with the requirement to conform to a defined set of biological criteria.
Here are some extracts from the last report published on the NCCRI’s website, covering the six-month period to December 2008. The compilation has a rushed quality to it, as though they were struggling to get the report out before the place got closed down.
A 15 year old student of Iranian decent has been subjected to racial bullying by her peers at a school in Limerick. School students posted racial slurs about her on BEBO, calling her a “paki whore” the students set up a BEBO profile for the girl with racist content and sent it around to other classmates, The school were contacted in relation to the incident but deny any responsibility for addressing the incident.
A Nigerian actor on his way home for a night out with friends was violently attacked by a group of men on the North Circular Road in Dublin. The men who attacked him used racist slurs and told him to return to his home country. The attack was so bad that the man had to undergo surgery. Gardai were called to scene after the attack but no charges have been made.
A Nigerian woman reported an incident that occurred in the car park of an adult
education centre she attends. She was threatened by another student who shouted at her “Black nigger I am going to kill you, if you don’t leave my country, I will kill you”. The aggressor proceeded to threaten her and punched the woman in the eye with a set of keys. The Nigerian woman made a complaint to the school principal and the Gardai. The case is currently being investigated.
A man claiming to be a concerned citizen rang MWR radio station to report the arrival of “100 trained killers” to Ballyhaunis in County Mayo. The man was referring to Congolese refugees who allegedly were to be accommodated in Ballyhaunis.
NCCRI received a report that some Irish taxi drivers were sticking “100% Irish” slogans to their taxis. The person reporting the incident claimed the intent of the stickers were to influence customers to take their taxis and not taxis driven by foreign nationals. It was felt that the campaign was racist in intent.
And so on. Adverts on the radio declaring ‘The Difference is: We’re Irish’. 100% Irish Beef. 100% Irish Chicken.
100% Racist Irish State.