Belfast Telegraph

We'll keep repeating the past if we don't remember it

By Yasmin Alibhai Brown

I think Diane Abbott was wrong to malign all white people. They can't be blamed for all the bad things that happen to black folk or for our own bad behaviour.

I wish though that fire and fury hadn't burnt away the debates we could have had after her misguided tweet.

Divide and rule was indeed the unofficial policy of the European empire and the British were masters of that strategy. Post-colonial leaders learnt and used the same tactics. The gruesome Rwandan genocide happened because Belgian colonialists had institutionalised and encouraged tribal rivalries and Hutu leaders exploited the divisions.

One columnist suggested last week that Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians was an example of divide and rule African-style. True.

But my ancestors were set up by the British to be the racially exclusive middle class, a role we then relished. In the globalised world today, the West still plays that game, often working with loathsome dictators. Yet Britons don't care to be reminded of the policy and its effect on people.

Paul Condon, now in the House of Lords, has been awfully quiet. He was head of the Met when Stephen Lawrence was murdered.

I went to some of the hearings. Condon was contemptuous of allegations of racism in his force. Many years previously, he had been the deputy commissioner when a serious case of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution reached the headlines.

A lovely Trinidadian, Frank Crichlow, ran a popular restaurant which was raided for drugs. He was eventually completely cleared and awarded compensation. And Condon did eventually promise to clean up the force - a promise half-kept.

Other black and Asian victims of racist violence are upset by the attention on Stephen Lawrence. I know his parents and what they have gone through - both have repeatedly said that racism affected others and still does. They remember; most choose not to.

Does the name Joy Gardner mean anything to you? A Jamaican mother, she was to be deported in 1993.

Police and immigration officers turned up to take her and her five-year-old son. She resisted. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report said: "Unauthorised equipment was used to restrain her in such a manner to lead to her death."

Thirteen feet of tape, shackles, a leather belt and gag were used and the coroner concluded she died of brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen. No one was charged.

Not one person I talked to last week knew her story, or about the continuing cruel treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers and the sometimes-lethal consequences that result. Absent-mindedness leads to apathy.

Maybe I remember too much and for too long, but millions of people barely remember yesterday. An individual showing these symptoms would be diagnosed and treated. How does one treat a nation with such collective amnesia?

When so much is expunged, no lessons are learnt. Little wonder the worst of history is often repeated.

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