In recent days, I’ve been thinking greatly about Nelson Mandela, who was undoubtedly the leading global symbol of the fight against racism in my lifetime. Mandela once said “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
It strikes me that in the last few months, there has been worrying trend towards hate, towards fear, towards division within our society. The hard-won gains of progress for equality are being put at risk.
Mandela has particularly been on my mind because just a few days ago, Anna Lo - the UK’s only parliamentary politician of Chinese origin - has said she will not seek re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016. One of the main reasons she is stepping down is the racism that she is so often and continuously confronted with. Not only does Northern Ireland lose a committed and able legislator, but we lose the power of Anna’s example.
The type of racism Anna referred to was encapsulated by Pastor James McConnell, a born-again Belfast preacher, who told his congregation ‘Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell’. If that language isn’t teaching people to
hate, I don’t know what is.
Yet, when leadership in a different direction was required - Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, who represents every community of Northern Ireland, including the Muslim community, actually defended what Pastor McConnell said. He went further to say that while ‘I wouldn’t trust Muslims for spiritual guidance’, he would trust them ‘to go shopping for me’.
Anna was scathing about Robinson’s support for Pastor McConnell, being very clear that this wasn’t the example that should be expected of a First Minister. Since speaking out, she has herself been the subject of intense verbal abuse to the point where she fears for her life and safety.
Despite our political differences, Chinese for Labour stands firmly together with Anna Lo. In a country that has known so much hate over the decades and suffered so much for it, it is desperately disappointing that the First Minister leads towards hate and division. We need leadership in a different direction - from intolerance to tolerance; then beyond tolerance towards respect and appreciation towards one another. And it is an urgent need: in recent weeks there have been two to three racist incidents per day.
It is of course not a trend isolated to Northern Ireland. The British Social Attitudes Survey found the proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium.
The findings come as political leaders struggle to deal with the rise of the UKIP, which campaigned on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform and has sent shockwaves through the political establishment and put pressure on mainstream parties to toughen their stances on immigration.
Even more significantly, UKIP topped the poll despite the fact a number of their candidates made unsavoury comments in the run up to the election: branding entire nations as undesirable neighbours, expressing discomfort at foreign languages spoken in public spaces as well as deeply homophobic statements.
The UKIP leadership may cry foul when confronted with this inconvenient truth, but the question is - If UKIP aren't racist, how come so many racists seem to like them?
Their rise is perhaps not a surprise. In times of economic difficulty - with frustration and desperation prevalent - it is easy to prey on people’s fears. If you think of both the results of the election and the Social Attitudes Survey, the UKIP vote and the
admission of prejudice were highest in areas struggling economically. Our progress in the fight for equality and against racism has seen huge success in the years of unrivalled growth in the late 90s and 2000s.
What UKIP have done - relatively subtly bar a few of their candidates - is introduce the teachings of hate into our politics. As with all of history’s successful ideologues, they have pointed out a few things people will have noticed changing in their
community, they distort them and point the finger of blame.
That is not to say we don’t need a debate about immigration. We do. But UKIP don’t want a debate. They want to blame.
That type of rhetoric and racial hostility have no place in a modern open Britain. Anyone condoning or encouraging such hostility and differences, be they politicians, comedians or television presenters should be exposed and made top pay the price. Myths have to be dispelled, the roots of racism have to be tackled, barriers that divide us broken down and racism exposed.
We must be confident and empowered to challenge racism as soon as it rears its ugly head, because each time we ignore it, the racists feel emboldened. We will never expose every act of racism but we can make it clear that it will not be tolerated using the tools available to us - laws and policies.
We need people like Anna to stand up against racism and racists. We must challenge any person or party who tries to lead us towards hate and division, rather than tolerance and unity.
This country has given everyone who has come to it so much, but modern Britain has also been built on the contribution of all the communities that have made their home here. A friend of mine once said ‘I’m sick and tired of being told to integrate, I want to contribute’.
That is what the future of our country should be about: how people contribute. To see the unique strengths and talents of every person in our country as a source of potential. Yes - new migrants and naturalised Brits need to learn English and engage with the culture of this wonderful country. However, their deep connections to other parts of the world shouldn’t be seen a as a cause for concern, but rather an incredible opportunity for Britain as a whole.
It is this optimistic view of Britain that we saw on Sunday when 4,000 people gathered in Belfast and Londonderry for a rally against racism. People who, having learnt the lessons of Northern Ireland’s painful past, stood with Anna against hate.
And as people have been taught to hate, so they can be taught to love. That is the leadership we now need, with a vision of our future built on the contributions of people of every walk of life, of every colour or creed, and very talent and ability.
By Sonny Leong, Chair, Chinese for Labour.