Strathclyde Telegraph

Overview: USSA’s ‘Is Scotland a racist country?’ debate

As it happened

The University of Strathclyde Students Association (USSA) recent debate entitled ‘Is Scotland a Racist country?’ sparked a compelling discussion on hate crime and societal attitudes, along with clashes and contention between some of the distinguished panelists.

The debate was held last week as part of the USSA’s Black History Month programme.

Offering their perspective on the question were The Herald’s Chief Reporter Lucy Adams, solicitor Aamer Anwar, sociologist Colin Clarke, historian Richard Findlay, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council John Wilkes and UKIP Dumbarton representative Michael Fisher.  The debate was chaired by Geoffrey Palmer.

Having a member of UKIP sit next to the executive of the Scottish refugee council, elbows almost touching, with the word ‘racism’ hovering above their heads created an electric atmosphere in the room from the very beginning of the debate. If John Wilkes had hair, it would have been standing on end.

The discussion was put into motion with a question on whether the 10% increase of racist crime in Scotland meant that racist crime itself was on the rise, or that reporting crimes was on the increase. The opening question was taken by Michael Fisher, who established that Scotland is indeed a racist country and moved the focus quite swiftly to his own party, stating that UKIP was definitely not racist. ‘Just to clear the air.’

Instead of clearing the air, Mr Fisher’s statement sent sparks flying in every direction and set the undercurrent for the entire debate. Human rights solicitor Aamer Anwar, quite visibly annoyed at his fellow panellist, latched straight onto the last syllable of Fisher’s opening statement with:

“First of all, I have to take this on, Michael quite conveniently said this is not political. It is highly political, and I don’t believe we can escape the fact that he is a chairman of UKIP, which, as far as I’m concerned, is a party that is a revolving door between a racist party and a nazi far-right body, where you have candidates that call themselves crusaders, posting online links to white supremacist websites that have close links to the British National Party, the National Front.”

He then continued, with even more gusto: “We had a candidate that was barred from standing in Bristol after he said illegal immigrants should be kept in shut down prisons. That’s UKIP for you.”

The conflict continued later on in the debate, when Michael Fisher called the solicitor a ‘sensationalist’ and accused him of fear-mongering. Anwar did not retract his statement, and Colin Clarke, Strathclyde’s own sociologist, joined in by seconding the opinion that UKIP was indeed a racist party. The remark that won everyone in the room over came from Clarke in response to Fisher’s resolution that young men are not the biggest issue when it comes to racism. The zest is quite difficult to capture, but here’s the snippet:

Clarke: ‘Gibberish. Young men are an issue.’

Fisher interjects: ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to call my opinions gibberish’

Clarke responds: ‘Nonsense – you said your party is not racist.’

Fisher seemed to develop a wholehearted interest in his shoes after this exchange.

Despite the quite time-consuming undercurrent of unpacking UKIP’s nature, the debate brought forward quite a few pertinent and thought-provoking discussions. The questions, in addition to the opening query, addressed concerns on whether racism is more likely to flourish in certain age and gender groups, whether the promotion of multiculturalism successfully mitigates the situation, trying to define the very nature of the phenomenon throughout the discussion.

It was agreed that racism is still a serious downfall of Scottish society and there is room for improvement. As Colin Clarke commented:

“Scotland clearly is a racist country. What troubles me is that hate is spreading in a more diverse way, there is an interconnectedness between attitudes towards gender, race, sexuality.”

One of the prevailing themes of discussion was also whether young men ‘are the issue’ (giggle form the audience and a silent nod from Lucy Adams here). Men in their 20s and 30s are more likely to be both perpetrators and victims when it comes to hate crime. The panellists, at least everyone apart from Michael Fisher, found that these statistics definitely illustrated the most problematic group and that the problem is largely tied to the laddish, joke-riddled attitude to minorities flourishing in that age group.

John Wilkes brought forward the findings of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey as evidence of continuing racial prejudice. 29% of the people questioned said that there was often ‘good reason’ for prejudice. 50% were seriously concerned that Scotland would lose it’s identity with the increasing amount of Muslim immigrants. He also highlighted that there had been more than 12,000 non-criminal racist incidents in Scottish schools, showing that even children have prejudiced attitudes embedded into their core values.

Strathclyde’s own historian Richard Findlay expanded on this argument by examining racism as an inherent legacy of previous centuries’ Western culture and the aspect of sometimes being unaware of our own prejudices, illustrating his argument with the common misrepresentation of Jesus as white and the Caucasian-centric layout of statues on George Square.

One of the biggest surprises of the night was the phenomenal student turn out and engagement. As chair Geoffrey Palmer humorously remarked: “I’ve taught here for 40 years and have never seen so many students together in one room.”

Clare Nelson, 2nd year Politics and History student commented: “I expected it to be a lot quieter, there was a lot of being barked at each other. That being said, everyone raised really good points and it was very easy to understand and follow. You didn’t have to be a politics student to stay engaged – it was just extremely accessible.”

A student from the audience added a new dimension to the debate by bringing to light his uncle’s personal experience of discrimination with an unusually high amount of stop and searches, possibly attributed to his skin colour. Anwar illustrated this with his own experience of clients turning to him with the same issue: ‘It’s not openly racist, yet it still is racist. What’s worse, to prove that is impossible.’ He also argued that people sense racism and sexism intuitively, and their intuitions are usually correct. He also highlighted that the number of complaints against the police on these grounds is quite low because most people know that to put forward a claim of this nature against the police is a ‘dead end’.

Over-all, the audience seemed pleased to have attended the debate, leaving the room still submerged in intensive discussion. USSA President Kwaku Adjei commented:
“Although there were differences of opinion, it was a very good, healthy debate because the audience were clearly engaging with the points that were made.

Adjei continued:
“The point that struck a chord with me the most was Colin Clarke’s story of how he saw someone throwing chips at an ethnic minority person that was begging on the street, how he stepped in and caused a ripple effect, having people realise what was happening was wrong on so many levels and joining him. It is important to step up and say: ‘no, this is not acceptable.’ If you do that, other people will follow through.”

Roza Salih, Vice President Diversity and Advocacy, one of the main co-ordinators of the event said:
“Everything, well apart from the awkward argument between Anwar and Fisher, went as planned. There was a lot of contribution from students. That made my day; it was really nice to see an interactive debate. I really enjoyed the discussion myself, there were so many interesting points raised.”

The overwhelmingly most positive reaction of the evening was induced by Geoffrey Palmer’s closing statement, the perfect point to end this little report, where he explored the ambiguous meaning of the word race and warned about the dangers of racism turning from overt to covert.

He was the only speaker who, with this short reflection, received a truly thundering applause: ‘We talk about white race, black race, yellow race but we don’t talk about white dogs, black dogs, yellow dogs. There’s no races. They’re all just dogs.’

 

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