This short book was originally presented as a report to the international consultation held in the Netherlands by the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism in June 1980. It is a portrait of the society we live in, as it presents itself to its black citizens; and it is a horrifying portrait. Though its author, who teaches at Thames Polytechnic, has hopefully entitled it Now you do know, he expresses in his Preface pessimism about whether many white people in Britain will read it, or will believe it if they do. I do not intend in this review to summarise its contents: it is already very compressed, and quickly read. Instead, I will try to remove the principal obstacle to people's reading it or taking it seriously. This obstacle is the thought: 'This is a portrait of a rampantly racist society; though I know there is a certain amount of racism around, I simply cannot recognise such a portrait as depicting the country I live in.' This thought is very natural: it is one for which those, like Downing, who know how things are here for black people and try to communicate that knowledge, usually make no allowance. It is enormously important to grasp why the thought is mistaken. Someone may be aware that he knows very little about the workings of, say, the magistrates' courts or the welfare services, particularly as they affect black people. But he knows, or he thinks he knows, what the level of racial prejudice is amongst the people with whom he comes into contact. He acknowledges that such prejudice exists, even that it is deplorably prevalent; but, he thinks, it is not virulent enough or widespread enough to render credible the picture Downing presents of a society utterly racist in character. His common experience simply does not match this picture: no specialised knowledge is required to judge that it must be false.
LRB 7 October 1982 | PDF Download