The worldwide sensation (I first heard about it on CNN in Mexico City) caused by the remarks of a failed game show contestant Jade Goody last week were disturbing not only in themselves but also in the reactions that they provoked from those who supposedly had no truck for racism. The strongest denunciation that Gordon Brown could muster was that Britain is a tolerant nation. Although one does wonder whether he was talking about the tolerance shown by the Brits for people like Jade Goody, it was clear that his remarks were directed towards the tolerance of ethnic minorities in Britain.
That the word tolerated was used to describe ethnic minorities in Britain is deeply disturbing. It only serves to reinforce the sense of division, for in order to be tolerated one has to be different to begin with. Many of the communities of ethnic minorities in Britain have been in the country for several generations if not longer. The time for tolerance should have long passed.
On the other hand the US, from the beginning of its history never just tolerated ethnic minorities. George Washington, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport just after he had become the US's first President said, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
In other words, When Gordon Brown said that Britain is a tolerant nation, he meant that we 'put up with' minorities. That we British, allow them their civil rights. However their civil rights should not be allowed by the British, they should be automatic. It should not be up to British Citizens of native decent to decide what rights British Citizens of any other decent enjoy because they too are British.
In Britain we do not talk of the British-Pakistani community or the British-Caribbean, we say Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean, we do not wish to suggest that they have anything to do with Britain. On the other hand in the States, people tend to identify themselves as Italian-American, Irish-American, Lebanese-American. One Lebanese American friend told me that he now tries to avoid Europe as a whole, because of the latent racism there. He feels much more comfortable he said in the United States. To be sure there are racists in the US. But in general US citizens are regarded by their peers as equal regardless of their background or decent.
In Britain we would do much better to do the same and to accept our ethic minorities as fellow citizens without question and not just tolerate them.