Racial stereotyping cuts both ways.jpg

Racial stereotyping cuts both ways

RACIAL STEREOTYPING comes in many guises. Here is an example: a well-dressed black family approach a checkout in a department store. A uniformed white security guard admires the couple and their two children, looking pristine in impeccably ironed outfits. The black man then catches the security guard’s eye and explodes: “Not all black people are thieves. I have a university education!” he shouts. The security guard is dumbfounded. Then he gets angry too. The customer had seen a white man in uniform and made a wrong assumption.

Not what you were expecting? Then you would enjoy Crash, the thought-provoking movie that confounded expectations by winning the Best Picture Oscar. The movie opens with two black men walking through an affluent area of Los Angeles, commenting on the fear in the eyes of passing white folk. Just as the audience begins to sympathise with the men, they steal a car belonging to an unsuspecting wealthy couple. Following the attack, the wife arranges for the locks on her house to be changed. But, when the locksmith arrives, black and heavily tattooed, he looks like a gang member to her. She panics and imagines that he will copy the key and give it to his friends. Is this racism or justifiable caution?

Crash highlights inner city dilemmas

Crash explores many discomforting issues for big city dwellers. First impressions can be misleading. But, sometimes, of course, they can be spot-on. Does a white girl, wandering alone at night, avoid a group of black men standing on a corner? If she walks the other way, she’s guilty of racial stereotyping. But, if she walks towards them and is attacked, is she guilty of being criminally stupid?

Crash also nails another popular misconception – the racist white cop, played by Matt Dillon, turns out to have some redeeming features and that’s refreshingly original coming from a Hollywood film that frequently fails to delve beneath the surface of a complex subject.

Living in London, you notice that certain areas are virtually free of white English people. In Tottenham, my base for two years, only a pitifully poor white underclass or the very old remained. Prominent anti-racism campaigners would never live there, of course. They would never cite the large immigrant population as the reason – instead they would say they wanted to live in a good area. But phrases like good area are merely euphemisms for a white middle class area, even though many liberals would deny this.

My underground journey to and from Tottenham involved travelling on the Victoria Line from Euston via Highbury and Islington and Finsbury Park, before reaching Seven Sisters, a predominantly black area. I used to pass the time by guessing the stations where people would leave. I knew which people would stop at Finsbury Park. My hit rate was 100 per cent – by the time we reached Seven Sisters, all the well-dressed white people had disappeared.

Politicians must show the way

People are fearful of living in areas inhabited by black people, even though some parts of Tottenham have improved immeasurably. Broadwater Farm, the scene of devastating riots 20 years ago, is now relatively safe. But perceptions have remained and British cities now resemble ghettoes. It is apartheid by any other name.

Even if people are not fearful of crime, education remains the great bugbear. Few self-respecting white parents would be happy to see their children educated at an inner city state school – not that they would cite the obvious reason.

People would have been stunned if British Prime Minister Tony Blair had bought his London retirement home in Tottenham. But, if politicians are sincere about promoting inner city regeneration, then it’s time they set an example. When Mr. Blair leaves Downing Street, he will be moving to Connaught Square, a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, where houses sell for more than three million pounds.

Unlike Messrs Blair, Cameron and others, I believe that this massive transformation of our inner cities has brought more problems than benefits. But, if our politicians believe otherwise, the time has come for them to stop this hypocrisy and set a lead. After all, the cachet of a former Prime Minister moving to Tottenham would do wonders for the area’s image. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen …

• Gabriel can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]

By Gabriel Hershman