The fight against racism must go on

Amidst the floods of coverage of the recent successful trial of two of the attackers of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, a crime committed 18 years ago, there have inevitably been a matching set of articles, TV and radio pieces on the nature of racism.

I read an article that seemed shocked that there was still racism in schools after all this time. To be shocked about this is to have a very poor understanding of human beings. The fact is we are naturally disposed to distrust, and at the extreme to hate, those who are different, whether based on race, religion, appearance (red hair, for instance), accent - pretty well anything. If we can't find anyone who is different enough, we will set up an arbitrary difference, which to an outsider looks pathetic.

In olden days, when few travelled far enough to know anyone really different, English people looking down on the Irish, those from Lancashire and Yorkshire hated each others guts (despite being almost indistinguishable to outsiders), and if all that failed, most places had a local town which historically was regarded as being in some ways different or backwards, so providing the alien to shun or attack. Where I came from it was a town called Heywood. Although this 'localism' had pretty well died out by my time, a hammer was still jokingly referred to as a 'Heywood screwdriver.'

In a primitive, dangerous tribal environment, any and every stranger, anyone who is different, even if they are just from the next town, is a potential threat. Thankfully we have moved on. But just as our bodies are still functioning as if we lived on the diet of 100,000 years ago, so our brains still have this inbuilt fear and distrust of the alien. You can't turn it off in a generation, or ten generations. It will take much longer. We have pushed out our boundaries, but we still automatically find an alien somewhere.

You may say 'But many of my friends are from different races, creeds, appearances, class etc.' This misses the point. Once you get to know a person, that individual is no longer 'them'. The British class system survived so long because there were institutions in place to ensure that you didn't have to mingle with 'them', so plenty still remained alien. But the ability to shift an individual from 'them' to 'us' (probably developed because the early tribes tended to ensure genetic variation by stealing mates from other villages) doesn't mean the fundamental fear and distrust of the alien isn't still there. We all have it. So have our children, and so will many generations to come.

The fight against racism - and all the other -isms is not over. Our current enlightened view (not shared by the whole world, let's face it) is a triumph of mind over nature. We need to sustain this mental battle indefinitely. It's incredibly naive to think it has gone away and we can sit on our laurels. We need to keep up the steady pressure for the long haul.