Just because people don't throw bananas on football pitches doesn't mean racism isn't a deep rooted sickness in Britain
I'm sorry to report that today, on the ground floor of our building, I found a fresh pile of human excrement. It took me by surprise, but it is only the last instalment in a series of unprovoked attacks on the building. So far it has featured the theft of bikes and the smashing of window panes on the entrance door. When a workman came in a white van to put in a new pane of glass, I went to chat to him and let off some steam. Turned out he had far more steam to let off. In fact, he was the human Flying Scotsman.
"What's wrong with them, why do they do this?" I asked rhetorically.
"I tell you what's wrong with them. They're druggies, unemployed and it's the fault of this bleeding government that's letting in mair immigrants. The Poles and East Europeans are everywhere noo, stealing the jobs."
"They're not stealing the jobs," I protested.
"Do you know there are hundreds of thousands of Scots on the dole, not seeking work? You can't blame this on the immigrants. It's the Scottish attitude to work that's wrong."
"Ach, it's your attitude that's wrong. You come here and criticise. You live in a cooncil building. Do you know how long I had to wait for a cooncil hoose? Seven years. Cause the immigrants got there first."
"I'm a private tenant," I said. "The only council tenants here are a Scottish family who work full time and who spent a fortune on new furniture."
"Where are you from?" he shot me a casual glance.
"New Zealand." Always opt for neutrality when you can.
"Ach, life is easy over there. Here, we feel like second class citizens in our oon country. There'll be a lot of racial tension here in 10 years' time, mark my words. Ach no, I'm getting a bleeding parking fine, no again! Cheerio luv." And off he went, propping up the chip on his shoulder. His bad teeth and attitude reminded me of a recent episode of BBC radio comedy The Now Show, when a comedian parodied the Little England fear of immigration:
"The Australians are invading our island! They are hard working, healthy and optimistic. Clearly, they want to destroy our way of life!"
Britain, a country of immigrants only since the 1950s, is redefining its way of life in the wake of the London Tube bombing, the rise of "Islamophobia" and the quasi-biblical migration of foreign workers. A large chunk of the population, like the man in the white van, wear their xenophobia on their sleeve.
A smaller chunk, usually found reading the Guardian, think twice before they condemn, say, female genital mutilation in Britain, for fear of being culturally insensitive. Added to these woes is the prospect of the imminent invasion of Bulgarians and Romanians which the Daily Mail likes to scare readers with. The recent headline "45,000 criminals bound for Britain" informs us that of the estimated 140,000 instant Bulgarian and Romanian arrivals, 45,000 will "have links to crime". Where these numbers come from remains a mystery, but the aggro man in the white van won't be asking to see the reference sources.
In this mood of fear and loathing, and to coincide with the Home Secretary's plans for closed doors to new EU nationals, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, gave one more reason why the doors should be shut.
"Some Eastern European people have attitudes to black people that date back to the Fifties," he said in an alarmist press release about racial tension, "and that is not acceptable."
Taken literally, this sentence is perfectly reasonable. However some white and Asian Britons also have unacceptable attitudes to black people and to each other. In the current climate, the statement has tarred East European migrants both now and in the future, with the same ugly brush.
This is what an outraged spokeswoman for the Polish community in Britain pointed out, before the squeak about East European racism was drowned by the bigger noise about British racism.
Chat forums and opinion columns picked it up. One writer reminded us of the open racism of East European soccer teams in general, and the troglodyte behaviour of Slovak fans in 2004 in particular, when they chanted racist insults against black English players. In Poland, a soccer team made history as recently as 2005, by banning some fans from matches after their Brazilian star was racially abused.
"Human Rights records and practices in Eastern European countries are very weak and the ink on their anti-discrimination laws is still drying like the ink on the EU Treaty they signed," points out one critic on metro.com and he laments that it's a bit late to fret now that Britain has already received half a million Poles.
Another posting said that after decades of authoritarianism, East Europeans' first contact with racial and cultural diversity is when they arrive in London, and they're unprepared. I recall a Bulgarian man I met in London who was frustrated by a long wait for a visa: "They give Arabs and monkeys a visa, but not me, the white man. What sort of a screwed up country is this?" It's more screwed up now that he has his UK visa, and in his case it's not just a matter of preparedness. There are plenty like him back in Bulgaria, a country which heroically saved its Jews and lived in peace with its Turkish minority for a century. Now in the 21st century, they nearly elected for president a man who denies the Holocaust and wants to cleanse the country of Turks and Gypsies. Forget the Fifties, this is the early Forties.
In the defence camp, one commentator accused Mr Phillips of bigotry against East Europeans. Another quipped that apparently now "racism" is no longer a matter of policy but simple etiquette.
"Eastern Europe definitely has problems with racism," reads one posting on the thisislondon website. So does Britain. Just because people don't throw bananas on football pitches doesn't mean racism isn't a deep rooted sickness in Britain. And it affects East European people too. Romanians or Bulgarians look just as "foreign" as Turkish or Arabic people. Isn't it racism when people expect you to work longer and harder for less money and when people block your access to a country?"
Perhaps it's racism, perhaps it's simply capitalism.
The man in the white van feels aggrieved by the East Europeans who are underpaid to work overtime on construction sites and in the orchards of Britain, and he effectively told me that it was my fault, as an immigrant, that a sociopath left a stinky jobby inside my building.
It seems the problem of Eastern European racism in Britain remains less urgent than the issue of East European labour. To insist otherwise would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.