Colour blindness is spreading to other spheres

The days of the white 007 are numbered. The next James Bond will be black. There are hints it might be an actor, producer and disc jockey called Idris Akuna Elba born in London of a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother. This is the new face of Britain, and it’s deliberately not white.

Yet, browsing through British newspapers, one cannot be blamed for concluding that Britain is one of the most racist nations on earth. Actually, the truth is the exact opposite. India would be a far healthier society if the authorities were similarly committed to equality of status and opportunity for people of all communities.

Race figures so large in Britain’s media because the least infraction at once sets alarm bells ringing. No matter who the prime minister is, no British government will tolerate any hint of unequal treatment. In this, governments have always enjoyed the support of a wide swathe of liberal opinion. It was said that when the American military insisted on segregated pubs during the Second World War, some Lancashire landlords defiantly announced “Black Troops Only”. But race and religion being areas in which improvement is always possible, constant headlines and public debates reflect official and societal concern.

A single issue of the 191-year-old London Evening Standard, a free Conservative tabloid, is instructive. The Russian businessman and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, and his son Evgeny Lebedev, hold 64 per cent of the paper’s equity. It is edited by George Osborne who was Chancellor of the Exchequer under David Cameron. The circulation is 897,523.

One day last week, a news report headline in the Standard read, “Twelve pupils a week suspended from city schools for racism.” Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank founded in 1968 with the aim of acting as an independent source for generating intelligence for a multi-ethnic Britain, wrote in an earlier page of the same paper under the heading “Children’s book will counter stereotypes of black people.” Below him, the paper’s education editor, Anna Davis, explained how.

Much of the space in the other pages was devoted to the two controversies that have gripped Britain for several weeks. They were linked together by a placard carried by an old man in Hyde Park. The placard read “STAND UP TO RACISM” and below it in slightly smaller letters “No to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”. It’s ironic that while ordinary people are trying hard to show they are indifferent to race and religion, the leadership of Britain’s two main political parties are devastated by quarrels over Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

The first was instigated by Boris Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary, after Denmark decided to ban the burqa. In his weekly column in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson wrote that while he doesn’t support a similar ban, he does think burqas are “ridiculous” because they make women look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. He added, “If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree.” He also said that if “a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber,” he would ask her to remove her face-covering in order to speak to him because humans “must be able to see each other’s faces.”

The column stirred a hornet’s nest. The Equality and Human Rights Commission said Johnson’s comments risked “vilifying Muslim women.” The Muslim Council of Britain, apex body of all Islamic organisations, protested vehemently. Newspapers were flooded with letters either for or against. The Prime Minister, Theresa May — Johnson’s direct boss until only the other day — and other party leaders called on him to apologise, which he refuses to do. As a result, Johnson is now “facing a possible investigation into breaches of the Conservative Party code of conduct”.

The crisis bubbling on the other side of the political divide and discussed in this column on 28 July 2018 is largely the handiwork of Stephen Pollard, editor of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, which describes itself as the world’s oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper. Mainly as a result of his initiative, Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers published a joint article on their respective front pages on July 25 warning of “the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.” With Mrs May’s Conservative government perilously weakened by Brexit, Corbyn, the Labour party leader, is closer than ever to becoming prime minister. Hence the hysterical reaction.

No other prime minister in waiting has ever been involved in such a confrontation with the main institutions of Britain’s Jewish community, led by the Chronicle, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Asked what Jews feared from a government led by Corbyn, Pollard replied, “They wouldn’t set up (concentration) camps or anything like that. But the tenor of public life would be unbearable because the very people who are the enemy of Jews, as it were, the anti-Semites, will be empowered by having their allies in government. There is a fear, a real fear of that.”

Actually, though the Labour leader has been called a “racist” and an “anti-Semite”, the real objection is that he is anti-Israeli rather than anti-Jewish. He has reportedly likened Israel’s attitude to Palestinians with that of Nazi Germany. The latest complaint — highlighted by pictures in the populist right-wing Daily Mail — is that he laid a wreath in the Palestinian Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tunisia in 2014. Corbyn claims the wreath was for Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes. His detractors retort that Palestinian terrorists responsible for murdering Israeli Olympic athletes are also buried there.

Ironically, among Corbyn’s critics is the Pakistani-origin Home Secretary, Sajid Javed, who is himself a symbol — with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan — of British enlightenment. Dadabhoy Naoroji could have been called a token “coloured” in 1892 when he became the first non-white to be elected to the House of Commons.

But Javed and Khan on opposite sides of the political fence are political activists. They are a measure of how far Britain has travelled since Lord Salisbury earned Queen Victoria’s displeasure by remarking that British voters would never accept a “black man”. Naoroji’s election proved him wrong.

Colour blindness is now spreading to other spheres. A black singer from the British Midlands, Beverley Knight, will play Emmeline Pankhurst, the Suffragette leader, in an upcoming musical called Syliva (after Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter) at London’s iconic The Old Vic theatre. And even if Elba doesn’t replace Daniel Craig as the next Bond, some other black actor probably will.

It’s a black takeover, but only because whites want it so. It’s impossible to think of a possible Indian parallel. But India’s future would inspire greater hope if Muslims, tribals from the north-east and elsewhere, Kashmiris and other minorities shared the optimism of Britain’s blacks.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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