Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It simmered so long, it was bound to be strong

" Burn, baby, burn. Burn this mother down, y'all!"
                                         from "Disco Inferno," The Trammps

    (8/24/11) Much of the world has been shocked at the violent riots that have erupted in Great Britain over the past few weeks.
    I haven’t been shocked at all.
    I spent the summer of 1969 in London, studying race relations. With the exception of two academics, every single white person I interviewed denied, quite defensively, that there was any “issue” whatsoever. All around me, though, the way black and brown people were treated in everyday interactions was disgraceful, and it has been clear all along that it was getting worse.
Riot police are suited up and ready for action.
   The situation has become much larger and more complex over the past 40 years. Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long for the pot to boil over, and that the violence wasn’t worse.
     It is true that many Britons have come to accept “multiculturalism,” although even the concept remains controversial. But for the most part, the natives have continued to ignore -- and kept themselves comfortably insulated from -- the suffering and alienation of their nonwhite citizens.
    “At best, what we see is indifference,” a BBC reporter noted just a few days ago. “Britons love the cheap labor and the flavorful food -- which they never got the knack for making on their own -- but other than that, they really just want a lovely, prim, white country.”
    Earlier that morning, on BBC radio’s “One Planet,” the isolated slums in which immigrants are confined were described as a “Lord of the Flies” environment, in which survival of the fittest is the ruling dynamic, and most people live day-to-day in poverty, squalor and insecurity. Many of them must endure a one- or two-hour commute to work, the reporter said, because their living quarters were erected “as far out of sight as possible.”
Some 1100 immigrant families live in this "instant development."
    A British government working paper in 2001 stressed that this was counterproductive. “Ethnic groups living apart tends to embed and increasingly exacerbate problems of difference within an increasingly diverse cultural milieu,” it concluded.
     The BBC reporter’s description of London-area ghettos reminded me of the 1980 movie “Rude Boy,” a “rockumentary” starring the legendary band The Clash. It reveals the filthy and lawless slums in which immigrants and poor whites live to be an anarchic, bombed-out, dystopian landscape of deteriorating high-rises. 

     Many of the residents appear to be squatters in buildings that have no windows and no utilities. Graffiti is everywhere. There apparently is no functioning sewer system. Rats skitter to and fro, packs of feral dogs scrounge for food. There are gangs, rampant crime and no sign of police, social services or places to shop. The listless, hopeless white protagonist in the film considers himself lucky to have a part-time job in a porn shop.
These cheaply built, poorly maintained enclaves keep immigrants isolated.
    Britons have succeeded brilliantly, the reporter added, in protecting themselves from these grim realities, by spending most if not all of their time in lily-white enclaves, tarnished only by the darker-hued “help,” who keep their imposing residences orderly and beautiful inside and out.
    When I watched “Rude Boy,” my stomach clenched with that aching déjà vu feeling. I roamed around that same foreboding London landscape alone, just before I was 20, looking for black immigrants and their leaders to interview for my research paper. In retrospect it seems quite funny. 
    I was wearing a brand-new ultra-mod Twiggy-inspired outfit from Harrod’s deparment store and had a Vidal Sassoon haircut. Obviously, I looked absurd, and my whole reason for being here was presumptuous (although in my defense, I must say that doing your job as a journalist or scholar often requires presumption).
Jolly good frocks for a slumming excursion!
   More to the point, though, was the absurdity of Britain hauling people over here from their home countries and having nothing better than this to offer them.
    I had never been in a slum before. I had seen -- and been mortified by -- the slums of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles on TV. What I had seen in those places that I didn’t see here was vitality.
    Even amid the filth and the murder and the dope dealing of American slums, there was music, humor, flirting and shopping. On hot summer nights, folks danced on the sidewalks and gambled, while kids played hopscotch and jump rope. People were sitting on stoops and on fire escapes, checking out the scene and shooting the breeze. Dudes hung out on street corners, drinking Wild Irish Rose out of the bottle (cheap, but delicious!)
    These slums, unlike what I saw in London, were functioning neighborhoods, complete with all the infrastructure and commerce that a neighborhood needs.
There were joy, humor and generosity in Harlem, as well as desperation.
    A few years later, when I did some investigative work in Harlem -- much to the horror of pretty much every white person I knew -- I found another dimension as well, and that was warmth. This was the most desperate, crime-ridden decade in Harlem’s history, but people greeted me graciously as I walked down the street, and several warned me to hold onto my purse more securely. There was life here. It was a hard life -- marred by heartbreak, degradation and fear -- but it was life.
    London’s slums felt like death.
A stark and colorless reality for immigrants to London.
        Many years after my summer in London, I watched the BBC series “The Jewel in the Crown” on public television. That excellent program, as well as the novels of E.M. Forster, depict the contempt with which Britons treated those from India during the period of Empire.
    These subjugated people were little more than animals, to be used as beasts of burden, domestic slaves and sex toys. 
This "sort of girl" isn't welcome in London. They refer to her as a "blackie."
   Although I was very familiar, of course, with America’s despicable treatment of black people throughout our history, I was still shocked by the Brits’ behavior, maybe because I expected more of them. 
    When I was in London, as Britons’  grand Empire was in the final throes of dissolution, they were obviously racist, whether they would acknowledge it to me or not. This was a very hip, “mod” time, when British music and style were “colonizing” America and Europe. But despite their progressive attitudes toward their own dynamic evolution into a youth-oriented consumer culture, Britons all around me expressed revulsion for dark skin, foreign “smells,” and the lifestyles, habits, culture and even grooming practices of immigrants.
Britons would prefer that adorable children such as these "go back to where they came from."
    The British, who I had always envisioned as so decent and polite (even if they didn’t mean it), treated the “colored” population with blatant distaste at the very least, and seemed in general to try and ignore its existence altogether.
   When white people were being waited upon by nonwhites, when they were having their shoes shined, when their cab driver was not “white and delitesome” (to use a Mormon expression), they concertedly avoided eye contact and any verbal interaction.
    "People here don't know their own neighbours, and they're like that their whole life,” an immigrant from India told the Guardian newspaper in March. “When I meet English people, which is not very often round here, my experience is that they are lost, really miserable people.”
    During my stay in London, I once dashed into a chemist’s shop (which we refer to in the U.S. as a drugstore) for some lip balm, and as I approached the Pakistani cashier, he said to me, “You are not British, are you?”
   “How can you tell?” I asked this very pleasant, gentle, turbaned man.
    “When you came in, you looked at me directly, and gave me a proper smile,” he said.
    (I really have enjoyed the Indian and Pakistani people I’ve met in several cities. I find them to be delightful and cordial. I love their accents. They have a beautiful sensibility and light wit.)
Entire gangs are devoted to "messing up" those they refer to as "Pakis."
     The gentleman told me there were many people who had been coming into his shop every morning for weeks, months, even years -- to buy cigarettes, snacks or gum -- and had never once looked at him or communicated in any way.
   When I later moved to New York, the constant banter among immigrants and natives was incredibly enriching. Virtually every shop or café I passed was presided over by someone from a foreign land, and the lighthearted, symbiotic give-and-take of everyday life in which we engaged was one of the nicest aspects of being in a big city.
    Londoners might as well have been dealing with vending machines.
    This was presumably in part a legacy of Empire. Subjugated peoples were viewed as intellectual, moral and cultural inferiors -- who were dark and dirty and bad, and could therefore only stand to gain from being ruled by the White Majesty.
Sikhs joined forces to protect their temple.
    Now that the whole notion of Empire had been discredited, I went to England expecting to discover a more enlightened, humane way of integrating people of color into a white society. I thought we in the U.S. might have something to learn from them. We weren‘t doing a good job at all of truly and fully integrating African-Americans into mainstream society -- and we still aren‘t, as the data clearly indicate.
    And what about America's immigrants from around the world? It seems to me that we tolerate rather than welcome them. Mexicans don't even get tolerance. Our economy would be in a whole lot of trouble if they stopped doing all our dirty work for us (practically for free), but the virulence that is expressed against them sickens me. They are brave, decent, heroic people.
    Although I had expected something better in London, what I found, instead, was a whole lot of rednecks. They were beautifully attired and charmingly spoken rednecks, and they seemed to be well-read rednecks, and they were rednecks who treated their fellow white people -- as far as I could tell  -- with decency, wit and fellow-feeling, although they were surely more reserved than we are.
    As one might expect, England tolerated immigration only because its economy demanded it. One of the professors I interviewed, who taught history at Kings College in London, told me that prospective employers in the 1950s and 1960s had little concern for the skin color or religion of their new employees. "Whatever racist ideas they held were secondary to their desperate need for workers to fill the worst jobs in the labor market,”  he said.
    British capitalists, and some sections of the British state, initiated and actively encouraged large scale emigration to Britain from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent during those years, right up to the point at which I made my visit.
    That was when they suddenly realized they had swept in too many of the “brutish races,” as a London official at the time called them, and now they had a big unemployment problem on their hands.
Jobless immigrants are ready for a fight.
    Britons had been marching in the streets carrying “Ship them back” posters ever since large-scale immigration was instigated, but their ranks now began to grow, and they’ve kept on growing.
    The societies of these black and brown people had been devastated economically by decades of colonial domination, I was told.
    Immigration from the Caribbean and Africa was drawn mainly from the poorest regions, where conditions were harshest for both rural and urban populations. As a result of pervasive discrimination, nearly all black workers remained in the manual working class with little hope of promotion or mobility, I was told. 
Black people from Africa and the Caribbean have the grimmest prospects.
    Prospects for those from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Asia were little better.
    “Thousands of Londoners persecuted immigrants enthusiastically throughout the 20th century,” according to a Guardian newspaper series earlier this year. “Jews and Germans were early targets, followed by Afro-Caribbeans, whose homes were besieged and petrol-bombed by white mobs throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. And then came the skinheads and ‘Paki-bashers,’ many of whom now call themselves the BNP  party.”
    When I naively roamed the London ghettos into which new waves of immigrants were still being dumped, I was astonished that a “civilized” country could tolerate such callousness in its own midst. You could feel the foment, the rage, the sense of betrayal and of powerlessness.
People left beautiful countries to come here for a better life.
    As I blithely strolled around like a clueless tourist, packs of varicolored men either ignored me or glared at me. I tried to smile at them in a way that would convey both warmth and sympathy, but I don’t think I was very successful.
    I did try several times to engage these groups of young men in sincere dialogue about their circumstance, but I wasn’t able to connect with them. They didn’t trust me, I don’t think, or maybe it was their group dynamic that made it uncool to express emotion. If I got any response at all, besides "get the fuck out of here," it was mere rhetoric.
Members of a north-east London gang.
     I had better luck in the central business district of London, where I could speak with immigrants individually. Their stories were heart-wrenching. After the degradation of the colonial years, they moved to England thinking that surely nothing could be worse than what they had just experienced.
    But they missed home. They missed being in an environment of acceptance and good nature. They missed being able to practice the professions for which they had been trained (doctor, lawyer, engineer) instead of manning shops, manicuring yards or driving lorries.
    Even under the domination of the British Empire, most of them had  lived quite freely and proudly among themselves, their landscape and their culture. Having had their economies decimated by imperialism and having been beckoned to Britain, they made “a deal with the devil” that had brought nothing but pain.
A hard but lovely life in Pakistan.
     In spite of this, white Britons seemed unable or unwilling to recognize the problem.
    One of the most striking examples of this occurred when a banking official whom I interviewed invited me to a cocktail party at his home, which was one of London’s most elegant residences. He said the “cream of society” would be there, and he hoped I would see that they were an upstanding, forward-thinking bunch. He agreed that I could bring along my two attractive, blonde British roommates for company. It seems quite hilarious that I didn't fear striding through crime-infested ghettos by myself, but I was uneasy about walking alone into a roomful of Britain's upper crust.
    Forty or fifty people were standing in small clusters, holding drinks and accepting h’or d’ouvres from uniformed waiters, when we entered the mansion’s grand hall. They were all white, and were dressed in elegantly simple, dark-colored ensembles. In the far corner, next to a huge ice sculpture, a harpist played.
    At the other end of the room, standing conspicuously by herself, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, except for my mother. 
Believe it or not, she was way more beautiful than this in person.
     She had golden brown skin, glossy black hair and large, dark eyes. She wore a striking green chiffon gown and gold jewelry. I asked Jane and Jenny to come with me, and we walked straight over to her before meeting anyone else.
    I was so overwhelmed by her beauty that I almost couldn’t speak, but I introduced myself, and told her why I was in London. Her name was Shakira. She said she was 22 years old, of Indian descent, and that she had been born in Guyana.
    “Perhaps my situation here is illustrative,” she said, without rancor. “I don’t know why I was invited, since apparently no one is willing to speak to me.”
    I asked who had invited her, and she said she had met the wife of the host when they were buying the same perfume at a very “posh” shop.
    “I suppose she felt that my presence would make her appear to be enlightened, or a trend-setter, but she seems to have misjudged her friends,” Shakira said.
    She was so tall and so radiantly gorgeous that my roommates and I felt like pathetic runts in her presence.
    She wanted to leave this party, she said, but she had been paralyzed by humiliation and couldn‘t bring herself to make the “defeated trek” to the door by herself. My roommates and I talked to her for a few minutes longer and then walked her out.
    Four years later, when I was living in New York, I read that she had married Michael Caine.
Shakira with Sean Connery, left, and husband Michael Caine.
    She is still incredibly beautiful and graceful, and they live a full, cultured life in Surrey. But my memory of her standing there alone, totally ignored by all those people -- yet gamely attempting to maintain her regal composure -- still makes me ill.
    I felt like leaving the party myself, but it seemed like an opportune occasion to broach the subject of racism with this so-called cream of British society. My questions got the cold, dismissive, condescending denials they had received elsewhere. They were not amused that such a young person, who was from a country whose racial problems were so notorious, was “studying” their situation. I don't blame them for feeling that way, but it was beside the point.
    I was surprised when two black men from the U.S., whom I had met shortly after arriving in London, told me they were treated very well in general by Britons.
   Robert, who was an executive with a multinational firm, had been puzzled by it as well, having seen how deplorably black Africans and Caribbean Islanders were treated.
    He broached the subject directly with a couple of white Britons, he told me, and they said they felt a great deal of sympathy with American blacks due to what they had endured throughout U.S. history.
    This was a reasonable sentiment, in my opinion, but the hypocrisy and/or blindness of Britons who failed to acknowledge the savage way in which they had treated their black and brown colonial subjects was mystifying.
    I believe the U.S. should regard the explosion of bitterness and rage during Britain’s riots as a cautionary tale. It’s been repeatedly noted that the riots began among the minority populations, but they quickly spread to poverty-stricken white enclaves as well.
The Clash band embodies marginalized white alienation in Britain.
    Whenever anyone in the U.S. raises the issue of income inequality and the increasingly appalling gap between the rich and poor, he or she is accused of “fomenting class warfare.” The discussion immediately screeches to a halt.
    Class warfare is called for, as far as I’m concerned, and it seems inevitable if we don’t muster the political and moral will to forge a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Immigrants in London protested their plight for years before the riots.
    “The London uprising of 2011 may have caught most of the world by surprise, but those who live closest to the epicenters of the chaos could have seen it coming from a mile away,” according to the British web site Moral Low Ground . “While not as pronounced as in much of the United States, economic inequality and racism are the root causes of the violence in Britain.”
    “The government doesn’t realize what they’re doing to us,” one young Londoner from Haringey lamented to the Guardian after budget cuts resulted in the closure of eight youth centers, a move which led to an increase in gang membership and crime.
    “These kids have basically been abandoned -- not even just the kids, whole communities have been abandoned by the rest of society,” Bristly Pioneer, a Hackney resident and anarchist activist told al-Jazeera. “I can’t say I’m surprised this is happening. It’s been building for years.”
The rage and anguish were overwhelming.
    And for years, well-to-do Britons and the government that represents their interests at the expense of the working-class and poor have largely ignored the problem, according to Moral Low Ground.
    Doesn’t this all sound quite familiar?
    It is generally accepted that we in America have a gap between rich and poor that has grown exponentially for nearly 40 years. A privileged few live in self-indulgent opulence while others suffer through disgraceful poverty. And then there are the millions in the middle who either have lost, or are on the verge of losing, the comfort, pleasure and peace of mind they have worked their entire adult lives to acquire. 
    The general response so far seems to have been panic, grief and humiliation. Anger will rear its righteous head eventually, and people will announce that they’re mad as hell and won’t take it any more.
    It would be nice if we could enact reforms before cities are burned down and people are shot in the streets, but the dysfunction in Washington makes that seem quite unlikely. They’re more inclined to send in the Army than they are to do what decency, equity and common sense demand.

45 YEARS AFTER MY VISIT:  Nobel laureate in economics states, "Britain has achieved the dubious status of the second-most-unequal country, after the United States, among the world’s most advanced economies."