Bombings Challenge U.K. Thinking on Racism

  • Share
  • Read Later
The United Kingdom's traditional aversion to American-style affirmative-action policies is coming under pressure in the light of recent racial violence. For many years, British leaders have regarded their country's color-blind assimilationist culture as a more advanced approach to racial differences than U.S.-style multiculturalism -- and even some U.S. liberals such as Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. have implicitly echoed that sentiment. The British rethink was most recently underscored by Saturday's neo-Nazi bomb attack on a minority neighborhood in London, the second in a week claimed by the shadowy Combat 18 organization. Combat 18 has warned "Jews & non-whites" to leave Britain by the end of this year or face extermination. And Britons have learned in the past few years that racism isn't confined to this lunatic fringe: Last month an official inquiry into police handling of the racist murder of a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, concluded that Britain's police and justice systems were riddled with institutional racism. "Stephen Lawrence's family didn't receive justice from the institutions that are supposedly there to protect them," says TIME London correspondent Elizabeth Glick. "And that confirmed an underlying feeling among a lot of people of color in Britain that they can't trust the police and the justice system to serve them."

Thus calls for affirmative action-type policies. The Lawrence inquiry urged steps to be taken to make police departments more representative of the communities they serve. "They'll never call it 'affirmative action,' but Britain has now accepted the need for some form of preferential hiring to build minority confidence in its police service," says Glick. That's an implicit acknowledgment that official color-blindness doesn't necessarily address the problem of racism. "This country is overwhelmingly white and Anglo-Saxon, and has on the whole been very tolerant and generous toward its immigrant communities," says Glick. "But it's now finding that it may have been too quick to mock multiculturalism and political correctness." The bombers, then, may end up alienating the audience they hoped to capture by their actions -- there's nothing quite like a bunch of neo-Nazis draping themselves in the Union Jack to force the temperate British mainstream to reaffirm its aversion to racism.