Ten years after BBC film-makers exposed racism among landlords and employers, they’re doing it again.
By Gary Younge – @garyyounge
Wednesday 10th February 1999
Kevin Jones is black; Rob Jones is white. In a new documentary entitled Black And White, the race relations industry’s answer to the Pepsi challenge, the two men take hidden cameras and camcorders and seek accommodation, jobs and fun in Leeds to discover whether they are treated differently. It is 10 years since the BBC tried the same experiment in Bristol, with devastating results, they are out to see how much has changed.
What they do not realise when they set out is how differently they will end up treating each other. By the close of the first episode they have come to blows. Rob tells Kevin: ‘I didn’t come to this with a picture. You’re full of shit’; Kevin tells Rob what he can do with his ‘little stinking stereotypes’. The two men who met as strangers and forged a friendship are now at each other’s throats. Rob, who says at the outset ‘I have been trained to be rational and analytical about things’, is now swearing at a black man because he thinks Kevin has an agenda. By the end of the show they will be friends again. In between comes the scene in the gym, which only subsides after Rob tells Kevin: ‘If you hate me that much then hit me.’ If you were looking to illustrate how sophisticated and complex issues of race in Britain have become, you could do far worse than try to keep up with the Joneses.
The tussle follows a night out in the predominantly black area of Chapeltown. Two black youths demand that Rob uses his mobile phone to call them a taxi. Rob refuses and, when the boys persist, he puts on a mock-Jamaican accent to taunt them. Kevin is disgusted and tells his camcorder as much. The next day they have it out in the gym; the picture bobbing up and down with the camcorders as each waves fingers in the other’s face and the pushing and shoving starts.
‘When you look at it with hindsight, all the factors that led up to it were there to see,’ says Geoff Small, who directed the programme. ‘We chose two strong-minded guys who both knew what they thought. Rob was in a minority, working with more black people than he had known in his life, and Kevin felt he was an ambassador for black people and had a responsibility to show how tough things can be.’ While nobody involved with the programme makes any empirical claims for its findings, the row between the two main protagonists saliently reflects the gulf in views between black and white Britons when it comes to racial prejudice.
A Guardian survey yesterday revealed that one in four Britons think the police are racist. A poll for the black newspaper the Weekly Journal, conducted before the Lawrence inquiry became national news, showed 92 per cent of black people felt the police treated them less favourably than whites. Almost 80 per cent of ethnic minorities believed race relations would get worse over the next five years, compared to 38 per cent of whites of the same age group, according to a report from the University of Warwick’s centre for ethnic relations published in September.
Take the discrepancies in these views, take a black man and a white man and ask them to traipse from hotelier to hotelier around Leeds putting their racial identities on the line and on camera, and something explosive was bound to happen.
But this comparison of racial attitudes is very different from the first programme in two important ways. The two men who went to Bristol in 1988 were both journalists. Rob is a food scientist for a multinational company; Kevin is in music management and was involved in a project for the regeneration of Brixton. The first was a far more conventional documentary; with the use of camcorders for both protagonists this one is like two video diaries.
For the most part, the prejudice the two expose as they seek beds at different boarding houses is far less blatant than the conflict they experience in the gym. If anything, it shows that Britain has some of the most polite racists in the world. The vast majority of bed and breakfasts they go to in the centre of Leeds treat them both equally. But in a significant minority they are dealt with in a myriad of slightly different ways, which ultimately end in Rob’s acceptance and Kevin’s rejection. Rob is invited in, while Kevin is left out in the cold.
The landlord will scour the books and make a call to see if he can fit Rob in, while Kevin is sent away with a shrug, directions to other places and sometimes even a sympathetic smile.
And this is not as simple as it looks. One of the white men who turns him away does so on the orders of his Asian boss, who does not like to rent her rooms to black people because they often cause trouble. Her behaviour reveals another prickly truth. An NOP poll in 1997 found that more Asians than any other group thought there was too much Asian and African immigration into Britain, and a higher percentage said they would ‘mind a lot’ if a close relative were to marry an African-Caribbean.
But even this is a vast improvement on the way things were 11 years ago. Geoff Small, who was the black character in the original programme, recalls being turned away by one landlord. When his white counterpart then went for the room, not only was he given it, he was also told the landlord had just turned away one of those awful blacks. ‘The self-assuredness about actually articulating the racism had gone. Compared with my experience it was much more subtle,’ he says.
The two programmes mirror an investigation begun 20 years ago by Nottingham’s race equality council. In 1979 three applicants – one African-Caribbean, one white and one Asian – who were all equal in every way apart from their race, wrote application letters for the same jobs. The results showed that the non-white candidates were half as likely to be asked to the second stage of interview as the white ones. The same test was conducted 14 years later and only one thing had changed. At the bottom of the adverts that turned away the non-white applicants was the message: ‘We are an equal opportunities employer.’