Racism today

Hostility towards migrants is on the increase. David Renton reviews a new book by Arun Kundani which puts contemporary racism in perspective
May 2008

The End of Tolerance: Racism in Twenty-first Century Britain

Arun Kundnani

(Pluto, 2007, £15.99)

In 1971, the full-time worker for the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Community Relations Commission was a 26-year- old activist by the name of Chris Mullard. Interviewed by a local newspaper on Edward Heath's then government's proposed immigration bill, Mullard warned that the consequences of the legislation, if passed, would be harsh. 'This bill,' Mullard said, 'is the last step the government can take before a deportation order bill.' Almost four decades later, his prediction has come true.

Just 378 people were removed forcibly from Britain in 1975, four years after Mullard gave his interview. Since then, the numbers have risen continuously, reaching an annual figure of more than 65,000 by 2002.

In the past six years, the fear of Islamist violence has been used to justify the extension of new powers to the state, greater than those claimed even in the wartime crises of 1914-18 and 1939-45. Individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, but not tried by any court, have been subject to indefinite detention. When the House of Lords ruled that such practices were incompatible with the Human Rights Act they were replaced by control orders, 16- hour days of house arrest.

In this context, Arun Kundnani's book could not be more timely. And perhaps no one in Britain is better placed to write it. For the past decade, Kundani has worked for the Institute of Race Relations, editing its news service, meeting a new generation of community activists and working also with an older generation, in which the outstanding individual has been A Sivanandan, the editor of Race and Class.

Kundnani has an eye for the unfamiliar detail. Many readers of Red Pepper will recall the killing in 1993 of Joy Gardner, the 40- year-old Jamaican woman whose tourist visa to Britain had expired. Police officers bound her arms to her body with cuffs and wrapped her head in 13 feet of adhesive tape. Fewer, I imagine, will recall the killing of Omasase Lumumba, the nephew of the first Congolese president, Patrice Lumumba, to which Kundnani affords equal detail.

Lumumba was killed by prison officers in Catford in 1991. He was arrested on suspicion of stealing a bicycle and then accused of being in Britain unlawfully. Agitated by his detention, he refused an order to return to his cell; officers pinned his arms, legs and head to the ground. By the time a doctor arrived, he was dead.

Kundani has a talent to transform a familiar narrative into something memorable and new. Reading his account of the press campaign against Roma refugees from the Czech Republic and Slovakia arriving in Dover in 1997, I could recall without difficulty the hostility of the Daily Mail and of other newspapers. Only on reading Kundani's account did I realise that the total number of Czech and Slovak asylum seekers in Britain that year was fewer than 500.

Again, reading his book, I was reminded of the extraordinary upsurge of hostility to migration that so marked the summers of 2001 and 2002: the campaigns of thousands of people against refugees in Kent, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Lincolnshire. Compared to the numbers recently mobilised by the Sun, the Mail, the Express and the like, the much-better-known events of 1968, when fewer than 500 dockers marched for Enoch Powell, deserve not even a footnote in history. And yet Kundnani's book is the first to have given the racism of our times the attention it deserves.

One of the hardest tasks for those who try to campaign against the new racism is to break the indifference of the majority. Most people in Britain simply have no idea of the numbers of people in jail now for doing nothing more than being refugees. Among activists, as they come into contact with asylum campaigns, a common cycle can be seen. People realise just how bad Britain has become and respond with great anger. But seeing quickly also the weakness of the refugee and other defence movements, activists become despondent. The anger is replaced by what can seem like indifference.

Kundnani has written the book to pierce that apathy


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