Lewes & Diversity: An MP Speaks His Mind…

October 19, 2010

I was going to write about something else this week for a change, other than provincial racism. But yesterday I had a letter on House Of Commons headed paper from my local MP, a Liberal Democrat and newly appointed junior Transport Minister to the coalition, Norman Baker. As it happened, I was expecting a letter from Baker, just not this one. I was expecting some awareness and understanding, and instead…

Baker had written a local column attacking my article about racism. No doubt many of his readers took comfort from his attack but I know a number of people were surprised by his attitude and felt uneasy that he was so quick to deny or downplay any suggestion of racism, seemed out of touch in his grasp of what racism was and wondered why he was so eager to jump on the bandwagon against my article.

I was mostly ignoring the predictable or unpleasant responses to the article – of which there were many – and would have ignored Baker’s too, but my family, and some friends, insisted he needed answering. So I answered him. I perhaps ought to note that people who know me have told me I really ought to ‘tone down’ my responses and that is probably good advice, but when you are confronted with this kind of ignorance it is difficult not to be incensed and that passion does regrettably creep into the language, try as you might to maintain a more neutral voice. I suppose I felt I had let Baker have it with both barrels. I did not expect a grovelling apology from him, but I also knew I was not the only person who had written to him complaining about his column and hoped he might have taken time to reflect. Apparently not. This “lady” is not for turning either, as you can see for yourself. I had not intended making my letter public and have made some minor changes to protect the identities of others.

Here below, his original column, followed by my reply to it, and finally his reply to me which came yesterday.

*****

NORMAN BAKER’S ORIGINAL COLUMN IN A LITTLE LOCAL FREE PUBLICATION

It was with dismay that I read the long, long piece in the Sunday Times magazine recently about Lewes. It raised so many issues that I barely know where to start, but let me try. First and foremost, Lewes is not a town riddled with racism, and I resent the implication of the article that it is. I particularly resent it because, actually, it’s a very tolerant place, a liberal town, where you will find members aplenty of Amnesty International for example, but almost no BNP members – four in total, in fact, according to that same Sunday Times piece.

Second, I resent the patronising tone of the article in the London-based paper, with its implication that we are all backwoodsmen down here, rather behind the curve compared to a vibrant, all embracing capital city. (Barking or Dagenham, anyone?)

Just in case we missed the message, there was a gratuitous picture of Bonfire to imply that we are all anti-catholic as well. Now I don’t want to pretend that racist incidents never occur. They do sporadically, as they will do anywhere in the country you care to mention. And they must be dealt with firmly when they occur. But I can count all those that have crossed my desk in 13+ years as the town’s MP on the fingers of one hand. I could also point out other towns not very far away where the problem is far worse.

But then perhaps it turns on what you call racist. I would define it a deliberate act of discrimination, an insult, or worse an act of violence against an individual or group generated largely or wholly by their race or racial characteristics. Doubtless there is also what you might term unintended racism, when people, with no intention to offend, nevertheless can do, for example by calling someone “coloured” rather than “black”. In the article, there was an example given of a child who had observed, innocently I expect, that another child, black or mixed race, had bigger nostrils than he did. This seems to have been taken as a racist comment, but to my mind, it was most likely simply a child noticing a difference, which in this case was nostril size, but might equally have been eye colour or presence of freckles or a hundred other characteristics.

Then there was the complaint that the Sussex Express should not have put on its front page a picture of a 14-year-old black child who had been given an ASBO. Now there is certainly a legitimate debate as to whether it is appropriate for a local paper to put photos of such 14 year-olds on its front page, and I can see both sides. But the article appeared to be arguing a different case: that it was wrong to print a picture of a black 14 year-old, with the implication that it would have been all right had the boy been white.

Racist incidents, where they do occur, must be dealt with firmly. But it does not help anyone to portray the town as racist, when it is not. Nor does it help our community, indeed any community, if people become so fearful of speaking for fear of offending that they stay quiet instead. That only breeds a different kind of intolerance.

I think Lewes generally gets it about right. Which is more than I can say for the Sunday Times.

*****

MY REPLY

Dear Norman Baker,

I wrote the article about my family’s experiences of racism in Lewes which you have responded to in the local magazine.

In my family’s view your article is a disgrace to the idea of an elected representative, bound to represent all his constituents, fairly and equally.

I tried to explain to my family that you were playing to the gallery, appealing to the lowest common denominator, making a populist argument that veers dangerously close to what politicians like to call ‘playing the race card’.

I said it was not worthy of a reply, but they insisted, so here I am.

Lewes, you say, is ‘tolerant’? It tolerates black people? It puts up with them? An unfortunate usage, as my 16 year old daughter pointed out.

She particularly asked me to tell you that it may bring some comfort to your white constituents to know that people are more racist in Barking and Dagenham, but that is not much comfort to her, or to any of the other BME people in Lewes who experience racism.

What are you saying to my 13 year old daughter? The next time someone calls her a nigger in the playground at Priory (and they have) that she should not complain because Lewes is not really very racist, but instead think how lucky she is not to live in Barking and Dagenham?

What were you thinking, when you wrote that?

How long have you been the MP? And you can count on the fingers of one hand the racist incidents you have heard about?

You aren’t talking to the right constituents…

For my article I interviewed around 10 local BME residents, outside my family. They all had their own stories of local racism to tell. They all read my article in advance of publication and all supported it unreservedly as reflecting their own experiences.

Perhaps you ought to have considered the possibility that my article was giving many other people a voice, before you rushed to condemn it.

Here is a sample of those voices. I can supply you with the names and address and transcribed interviews for each of these people.

You only have to ask.

East African male.

(He especially asked me also to reply to your article).

He has been abused in the street in Lewes on a number of occasions. He is used to hearing ignorant remarks. He has a mixed race son at a local school who has repeatedly heard crude racist remarks about himself and about others. (Interestingly, some of the people who have made those remarks have apologised to him since the article appeared).

West African male.

He is forever having to smile politely while white people make stupid racist remarks about his ‘tan’ or ask him about ‘his’ cricket team (they mean the West Indies, he is West African) or run the gauntlet of more overt racist remarks walking past a pub in the centre of town on summer nights.

Mixed couple.

When their daughter was six years old her friends formed ‘the white club’ and ostracised her – they told her she couldn’t be in their club because she wasn’t white. The couple tried desperately (they were desperate) to get the school and the white club children’s parents to realise the racist origin of the idea of a white club. They all dismissed it as a friendship issue. The couple’s daughter meanwhile hated her own skin, scrubbed at it, and asked her mum why she couldn’t have skin like hers.

Of course they should have gone to their MP for support – and, no doubt, after they have all read your column you will be your black constituents’ first port of call in future – but instead they went to the black and mixed race support group in Brighton, Mosaic, who sent a lawyer back to the school with them. Suddenly the school changed its tune, recognised the problem as a race problem and took steps to make amends. Everything is fine now.

Asian male.

He grew up with the NF in west London. He has twice been openly abused in Lewes town centre, once as a fucking paki. He often senses unease in others when he walks into pubs or other public places full of white Lewesians. His children have also experienced ignorant name calling at school. By ignorant I mean racist.

African woman.

A woman with two mixed race children who have both experienced prejudice at school. The woman was deeply upset when her mother and father, a farmer in his late 70s used to running on the hills back home to keep fit, came to stay with her in Lewes. It was the first time they had ever left Africa. The woman’s father used to go up past a local school to run in the mornings on the Downs. A parent called to report a ‘suspicious looking’ man (a black man, in his late 70s) by the school and he was picked up by the police and searched in the street before being taken back to his daughter’s home.

Perhaps you would like to repeat to all those people, as well as my wife and children, your definition of racism, which I see you feel confident in sharing with the readers of your column?

Alternatively, you could ask those people who have actually experienced racism to tell you what it is? Or listen to them and try to understand?

Instead, you have written publicly, giving your white person’s view of what racism is, in the process tacitly condoning the many people who have reacted so angrily to my article, often with personal abuse. I note you make no comment about any of that.

In my view – and in the view of many others – much of that angry commentary is racist in itself, almost comically so as it only goes to prove the points I was making in my article.

I note that, in keeping with the angry commentary, towing the populist line, you do not dwell on the more obvious examples of racism in my article but seek to undermine it at its outer edges…

For the record, I did not say in my article (check back) that the boy who commented on my son’s nostrils was being racist. What I was saying was that it was the product of being in a white town, and that it was ‘devastating’ to see my son affected by that remark as we feared he would take on the negative view innocently but ignorantly expressed by that white boy. Black children may sometimes have odd or different features worthy of being mocked or ridiculed by other children, just like white children, but my son’s nostrils are not big, they are normal for his race and if there was more racial awareness – less ignorance -in Lewes and other predominantly white communities, black people would feel more welcome and would be less likely to feel isolated.

As my wife would say to you, she has as much right as anyone else to live in Lewes and as much right as anyone to be treated equally (not merely ‘tolerated’). Being white is no excuse for being ignorant and nor should black people constantly be asked to put up with – tolerate! – white people’s ignorance. Ignorance can be racist too. Not intending to be racist can still be racist. Maybe an older white person can excusably be confused about whether black people are still being called coloured. Perhaps even older white people would still wish to call them niggers?

But if you are teaching my children – and if you are my MP – I expect you to know how to address them.

Here is a quote from a famous speech (made in March 2008) by Barack Obama when he refused to condemn his outspoken pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Obama: “That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations—those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.”

For the purposes of this quote you are rather like the white co-worker or the white friend.

Many black people, here as well as in America, simply do not talk about race and racism in front of white people because they expect to be misunderstood or accused of having a chip on their shoulder. That is one of the reasons racism is so rarely openly, plausibly discussed.

I really think you ought to know and understand that, and be trying harder to challenge ignorance, not pandering to it.

You completely miss my point about the black boy on the front of the Sussex Express. I find it extraordinary that you are so blind to my argument. I was not saying that it would be all right to put a white boy there I was saying they would never think of putting a white boy there, they never had put a white boy there, or any white person with an ASBO (I checked myself through 14 months of back issues – I do my research thoroughly) and would only put a black boy there because of racist values.

I am here – with my family – and happy to talk, but do not intend this to be a public discussion…

(NB – After I had started discussing the ASBO issue with the Sussex Express they did actually put a white person with an ASBO on the front page. I am not saying that was deliberate, but it was certainly a coincedence).

*****

BAKER’S LETTER TO ME

Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your email of 31 August, I am sorry for the delay in replying.

I am saddened that you assume that because I disagree with you, I am somehow ‘playing to the gallery’. Is it not possible that I have simply reached a different conclusion to you?

You are of course welcome to disagree with me, but I would rather that you did not unfairly impugn my motives as you have.

I wrote the article I did because I had received a large number of comments from local residents, following your Sunday Times piece, the bulk of which, as a matter of fact, took considerable exception to the article. I see it as my role not to duck difficult issues, but to engage with this, as I have done on this occasion. I have written what I have not for effect, nor to please this or that section of the community, but because I believe it to be true.

You imply that I have significantly underestimated the number of racist incidents in Lewes. You may be interested to know that I asked Lewes police how many complaints they had received alleging racist incidents in the town. In 2008/9, they recorded a total of 10 for that period. It is also worth pointing out that an incident is always recorded as ‘racist’ simply if the complainant believes it to be so. These are not proven incidents.

As a matter of fact, I do receive complaints about racism on an intermittent basis – from Seaford, Newhaven, even Chailey, but very few from Lewes. That is not to say there are never any racist incidents in Lewes, but that to single out Lewes in the way you did in the Sunday Times was frankly grotesque. That is also the view of some of the Lewes ethnic community who had said so publicly in the press, and privately to me.

I have come across isolated racist incidents in my constituency and have been appalled by them. I have gicven the individuals every support and am glad to say achieved progress in most cases. Racism is an evil that must be tackled. I do not think, however, that articles such as yours help in that battle.

Finally, I note you criticise me for the fact that I ‘have written publicly, giving your white person’s view of what racism is’. Is that not exactly what you have done?

Yours sincerely,

Norman Baker MP.

*****

4 Comments (add a comment)

  1. Tigs October 20, 2010

    Black African/Carribbean male:
    He contributes regularly towards the maintenance of a shared building yet he is refuse assistance to improve his own private property now affecting his health. He was told to move out of Lewes by a Council Official if he is unhappy with their decision. He is now seriously considering moving out and relocating elsewhere after living in Lewes for nearly 20years.

  2. Tweets that mention Lewes & Diversity: An MP Speaks His Mind | davidjamessmith.net -- Topsy.com October 21, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Gailey and Lewes Retweet, Brian Cathcart. Brian Cathcart said: Read it and weep. Latest episode in the tale of David James Smith and racism in Lewes. http://bit.ly/dqYDXT 'We're tolerant.' Oh yes. [...]

  3. Jane October 25, 2010

    To me, the most shocking aspect of Norman Baker’s replies is that he doesn’t seem to know that since the Macpherson Report the accepted definition of a racist incident is:

    ” any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.

    Should he actually be an MP if he doesn’t know this definition and understand what it means?

  4. John B November 8, 2010

    Shame that Messrs Smith and Baker, who both seem to be truthful and honourable men, have ended up opposed rather than on the same side.

    Journos and politicos, eh ?

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