independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

'Nigger' joke reveals ignorance of racism

Turning a deaf ear to Enda Kenny's remark is to turn a blind eye to the non-violent symptoms of racism in Irish society, says Colum Kenny

WHAT does it mean when the leader of the second largest party in Dail Eireann laughs about the word 'nigger' at a social event? And when most journalists present turn a deaf ear to his doing so?

It suggests that Ireland is still a closed and cosy society where political journalists are prepared to treat racist language as "just a joke". It suggests that, deep down, our politicians and media do not understand how racism works.

The incident is worrying for those who oppose racism on a daily basis.

The Irish Refugee Council, for example, claims that current government practices fuel a prejudice that asylum-seekers from Africa and elsewhere are welfare spongers.

Among people desperately trying to get into Ireland have been refugees from the Congo. The first and only elected prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was the very person called a 'nigger' by some barman whose words Enda Kenny quoted at his Fine Gael function.

Lumumba was overthrown and murdered in a plot fostered by Belgian colonialists and, it is claimed, the CIA. Because of continuing instability in that region, some Congolese have fled to Ireland and other countries. Some have been seriously assaulted here.

The new Fine Gael leader knew what he was doing, because he said at the function that he did not want to see his obscure 'joke' reported by journalists who were present. It is remarkable that the morning papers and RTE and other broadcasters went along with this request. When the Sunday Independent broke the story last week, the public become aware of what Enda Kenny had actually said earlier in the week.

Kenny's 'joke' was supposed to be at the expense of party colleague Maurice Manning, whose academic sensitivities about Lumumba were brutally rebuffed by the reply of a non-white barman. But his chortling repetition of the inflammatory word 'nigger' indicates that the Fine Gael leader does not understand racial issues to the extent expected of a modern political statesman.

Kenny has gone to some lengths to apologise "unreservedly" for his "ill-judged and unfortunate remarks". He has also signed a petition opposing the deportation of certain Nigerian women. But the media that failed to report his remarks have not apologised.

It is one thing for journalists to receive political information off the record in certain circumstances. It is quite another for the media to regard themselves bound by a unilateral pronouncement that the racist language of a politician ought not to be reported.

Politicians, for their own reasons, allow journalists access to inner circles and share their thoughts with them. This clubbing can be 'helpful' to individual reporters who get close to the seats of power. But it can also compromise journalistic independence.

Media that had stayed silent about the Fine Gael's leaders remarks later reported what The Irish Times last week called "the controversy that erupted over the joke", ignoring their own complicity in Kenny's attempt to prevent that very controversy.

It will be said by some, in private, that Enda Kenny's 'joke' was just a silly gaffe. But that is like the 'only joking' excuse of any schoolyard bully or barstool bowsie.

When Kenny himself later apologised publicly for using the word, he cut the ground from under journalists who had heard his comments but failed to report them.

It seems highly unlikely that any British or American politician would be let away with such a 'joke' by the media of those countries.

At issue are both racial sensitivities and political judgement, not mere political correctness.

At present, this State is not even prepared to say how many black people live in Ireland. It was proposed that a question on race be included in the recent census, but the Government decided not to do so. The question would have distinguished between the following categories: White, Irish Traveller, Black, Chinese, Other mixed (write in) and Other (write in). A question about nationality that was included fails to capture our racial profile, and misses those black people who are Irish citizens, among others.

What is known is that racial attacks on blacks and Asians are a cause for concern, at least to some people.

The recent random murder of a long-term Chinese resident of Ireland highlighted the fact that racism is real here, although the gardai still cannot provide details of the number of racially motivated crimes.

In the Forties, Ireland showed a hostile face to Jews who were fleeing from persecution. Today, there are suspicions that our policies towards refugees and migrants are racist in their overall effect.

Too much of the time, our asylum-seekers remain invisible in the media, their stories seldom heard. Turning a deaf ear to Enda Kenny's 'nigger' remark is an example of the media turning a blind eye to the non-violent symptoms of racism in Irish society.

Another symptom of racial insensitivity is that non-whites in Ireland are often assumed to be asylum-seekers. This is annoying for non-whites actually born in Ireland, and is also disconcerting for many of those who are not.

The vast majority of immigrants come from Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas for the purpose of work or study. Asylum-seekers account for fewer than one in five immigrants from outside the European Union.

Improvements in the asylum system itself now mean fewer delays, but critics claim that the system engenders discrimination. By the end of June, only 2,300 asylum applications had been pending for more than six months, compared to 6,500 at the end of September 2001.

This is just as well, because the number of new asylum applications this year increased to 7,213 by the end of August, which is up 500 on the same period in 2001. So far this year, the Refugee Applications Commission has granted 607 people asylum but refused almost nine times that number.

While waiting for a decision, asylum-seekers are lodged in hostels around Ireland. They get three square meals a day and a weekly personal allowance of ?19.05 per adult and ?9.52 per child.

At present, there are about 4,000 such asylum-seekers, and the private owners of their accommodation get around ?200 per person per week directly from the State. This direct provision is costing the taxpayer about ?42m each year.

The Irish Refugee Council says that life in such accommodation centres "denies individuals the right to privacy and segregates them from Irish society". Such segregation may reflect and encourage racist attitudes.

The council says that, "A coherent reception policy, that would increase the level of control and autonomy that asylum-seekers have over their lives, is imperative. The lesson of other societies must be that integration will not happen without a very conscious effort to encourage it by all sections of society. Integration programmes that currently target recognised refugees should be extended to asylum-seekers."

The Irish Refugee Council also wants to make it easier for refugees to reach Ireland and believes that more applicants should be given leave to remain here, on broader grounds than at present.

IT SAYS that asylum-seekers should be allowed to work: "For asylum-seekers the unaccustomed position of dependency is destabilising. Yet the hostility and suspicion towards asylum-seekers are linked, in part, to the belief that they will be welfare-dependent."

The Government fears that any alternative to its present system may lead to the creation of ghettos or encourage asylum applications that are not genuine.

But, behind arguments over the best way to handle political and economic migrants, suspicions remain that the immigration dice are loaded against the poorest nations and, therefore, against racial minorities.

Those who dismiss the suggestion that racism permeates Irish society have had their claims weakened by the decision of the leader of Fine Gael to tell a 'joke' that depended on the word 'nigger' to raise a laugh.

Irish people of all races may well ask how many similar 'jokes' are tolerated in the locker rooms of Irish politics and in the corridors of power.

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