According to Understanding Prejudice, a major new study commissioned by the gay rights group Stonewall prejudice is rife in Britain. Two-thirds of white people in Britain admit to some prejudice, even if only casual or unintentional, against one or another or against several minority groups.
The report demonstrates how quickly and easily the ground of prejudice shifts. Straightforward anti-black racism is no longer the main form of bigotry in Britain, as even the BNP has realised. The two groups receiving most hostility from the 1,700 respondents to the survey were, in the first place Romany gypsies and travelling people, closely followed by asylum seekers.
Prejudice against asylum seekers is unfortunately not news, and we know it to be hugely boosted by the media and the rhetoric and policies of the politicians. It is surely revealing that none of the people who expressed this prejudice in the survey had ever come into contact with an asylum seeker.
Prejudice against gypsies and travellers is more complex to explain. Anti-gypsy racism is very deep rooted. It is a form of racism, that is a systematic prejudice and discrimination against a distinct group of people. It is partly that gypsies, Romany and non-Romany, have remained “unassimilated” for centuries, in those countries where they live. That is partly because of the prejudice they have faced. Though the gypsies were victims of the extermination programme of the Nazis, this reality has never been adequately discussed in western societies. Anti-gypsy racism therefore remains a norm, a “respectable” racism.
Anti-gypsy racism is also partly the political creation of recent years.
In 1994 the Tories repealed the obligation of local councils to provide sites for travellers. It is now estimated that Britain is short of about 3,500 sites for the 300,000-odd strong Romany and travelling population (most of whom live permanently in one place). Travellers have been forced to move across the country and sometimes camp illegally.
Politicians of all stripes are very reluctant to do anything about this. Bowing as usual to the prejudice they helped to create, both the Government and local councils view the issue as “too controversial”, they do not want to stand up to racism and xenophobia against gypsies. So they pass the buck.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says it is the responsibility of local councils to provide sites for travellers, while many councils are refusing to act unless forced to do so by the government. The Housing Bill has been amended to force councils to “assess” the housing needs of travellers, but what use will this be? Even when the provision of sites was enshrined in law 40% of councils — generally speaking, the Tory-controlled ones — broke that law.
As Romany activist Bridgette Jones says, “The government doesn't want us to go anywhere, people don't want us to go anywhere.”
Prejudice against gypsies is linked to that against asylum seekers. Prejudice against Roma who have come from Eastern Europe and beg on the streets was very popular a few years ago.
The “new racism” is all about the deliberate manipulation of ignorance. In the atmosphere created by the major political parties' unedifying competition to be “tough” on immigration, fascists can get away with the most outrageous lies. BNP canvassers in Dagenham last month told local residents that all asylum seekers were given £5,000 to buy a car, and clearly a substantial number of people believed them. In Eastern Europe the situation is even worse, with outright nazis leading violent attacks on Romanies and the police often giving tacit approval. How long before we see such attacks here?
Capitalism needs prejudice to divide workers, and what the prejudice is or whom it is focussed against are unimportant. And so prejudice shifts to new groups of “outsiders”. Poverty, poor housing and the lack of a strong labour movement to build human solidarity all breed prejudice and racism.
Socialists and the labour movement need to fight prejudice whereever it is found. We need to cut the roots of prejudice by fighting poverty. But we should also back demands of the political networks of gypsies and travellers: local authority provided sites, non-discrimination, funding for site construction, improved education for gypsy/traveller children.