Thursday, December 31, 2015

Between the Lines: Prejudice on parade (1986)

The Between the Lines Column from the February 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Prejudice on parade
British TV does not have a good record when it comes to racism. In what passes for comedy the reference to offensively racialist stereotypes has made many a performer afford his first Rolls Royce; unfunny "stars" of the Jim Davidson category find it easier to get a laugh out of imitating the accent of an immigrant than to point at some of the truly laughable contradictions which capitalism throws up. The drama departments are not much better: when was the last time you saw a peak-time non-European or American play on TV - and if you can remember, is that not because the occurrence is so rare?

Even attempts to portray black lives on TV. such as C4's comedy series. No Problem, over-emphasised and parodied the blackness of the characters, as if the only justification for showing the black character on TV can be the experiences associated with the colour of his skin. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when West Indian immigration into Britain was initiated on a large scale, the BBC made several deeply patronising documentaries about what were then referred to as "coloured people" (as if the rest of us are colourless).

As time passed, racism became inconvenient for the ruling class: it has its uses in dividing workers against one another, but the conflicts engendered by race prejudice are now regarded as an interference with the smooth-running of modern capitalism. It is for this reason that TV has in recent times become a little more sensitive when it comes to racism. 1986 began with two programmes which did more than anything I have seen on TV before to explain racism. The American Documentary (Sunday, 5 January. ITV) showed a film of an experiment conducted by an American elementary school teacher on a class of white children. She began asking them what they thought of blacks and most of them gave the conditioned answers expected from those who have been prejudiced by an all-white environment.

Her contention was that the only way to teach children to reject prejudice is for them to experience it. She divided the class into those with blue eyes (the superiors) and those with brown eyes (the inferiors). The blues were allowed to go out to play before the browns; browns were not to be spoken to by blues as they would be a bad influence on them; browns had to drink from special paper cups and wear brown collars as symbols of what they were. It was not long before the blue- eyed children assumed the role of social superiors. The brown-eyed children were seen to suffer and feel resentment. The following day the roles were reversed.

Two observations by the teacher who conducted the experiment were especially worthy of note: firstly, that spelling tests conducted during the course of the experiment showed children in the inferior group to produce below-average results, whereas those who were told that they were special achieved above-average results. This not only helps to explain how it is that those groups which society expects to achieve less tend to achieve less, but also that once people are told that they are special they are likely to achieve more than we would normally expect. A socialist society will be free from the educationally bogus categories of "black" or "white" or "kids" or "disabled" and the many other meaningless categories through which learning expectations are based on gender or "race" or parental occupation; learners will all be treated as important people and can therefore be expected to learn faster.

Secondly, the teacher observed how before the experiment the children she taught were such a lovable bunch of people who did not think of discriminating against each other; once conditioned to be prejudiced, even she was frightened by the ferocity of the conflict which emerged. Does this not demonstrate that antagonism is not inherent in human beings - it is not "human nature" - but has to be taught, conditioned, injected like poison into the minds.

Both the teacher and the documentary-makers seemed to accept the naïve notion that teaching workers to be victims of racism can eradicate racism. No doubt such an exercise can help to change ideas, but the tragedy is that capitalism breeds division and hatred as fast as idealists try to spread fraternity and there will be no eliminating racism until the material conditions which produce it are removed.

A second, equally good, stab at racism was shown in a Horizon programme entitled Are You A Racist? (Monday, 6 January. BBC2). The programme's makers placed adverts in newspapers asking for those who were racists and those who have been the victims of racism to reply. Of hundreds of replies they selected four of each category and put them in a country house for five days to explore their ideas. The result not only made compelling viewing (TV producers are slow to learn that there is little more exciting to watch than the tension created by the honest exchange of ideas), but also helped viewers to observe the inability of the racists to use rational arguments in the defence of their cause.

During the five days one of the racists changed her mind and rejected her original ideas; another spent his time in what appeared to be a condition of dazed drug-overdose (he was either very tired and was using the chance to catch up with some rest or else he was a slow thinker); the third racist, a woman from Peckham who claimed to have been mugged by blacks, held tight to her prejudice which she was utterly incapable of articulating, beyond the fact that whatever she was told she would not change her mind. The fourth racist, an exceptionally nasty bigot called Tom (described the following day as "eloquent" and "reasonable" by the TV critic of The Daily Telegraph). provided a fascinating insight into the difficulty faced by the racist - indeed, any dogmatist - in responding to ideas which contradict what they want to believe.

Tom's problem was not just that he held absurd. offensive views about other people being inferior because of their skin colour but that he could not understand why. He talked, but he listened little and heard less. Why could he not hear ideas which opposed his own? Perhaps because ideology — ideas which do not arise out of real experience, but out of imagined experience — can only be maintained by repressing the ability to be self-critical. Perhaps one day a similar documentary will be made in which four socialists and four anti-socialists are put in a house for five days to discover why they think as they do. In the end, how else can you defend the absurdities of capitalism except by struggling to protect your mind from the force of logical analysis?

Just like a Tory
BBC2's series called Comrades (Sundays) has offered British workers a peep into the Russian Empire. If it has shown nothing else it has demonstrated that Russian life has nothing to do with socialism — a classless, stateless, moneyless social system — and that state capitalism is just as bad, or worse, than capitalism in Britain. The programme on Sunday. 6 January portrayed a Communist Party official in a Pacific port town. What was notable about this woman was not that her ideas were advanced or revolutionary or inspiring (they were not), but that she was so similar to a typical politician in Britain. As one watched her at a CP-organised dinner dance, entertaining some visiting Japanese business men, it was remarkable just how much like a British Tory councillor she was.

Similarly, the section of the programme showing her sitting in her weekly surgery trying to sort out the difficulties of local workers overcrowded housing and all the usual problems — it was striking just how easily that could be any British inner-city with any politician sitting behind a desk giving the same tired excuses and promising in the same sterile way to "get something sorted out". And to think that some workers look to Russia as the place where capitalism has been transcended; they have only to watch their screens to see that the same old capitalist problems are there, with the same old capitalist leaders trying to brush them under the (red) carpet.
Steve Coleman

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