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Gary Younge
Corporate stone wall

I know this because he told me in response to a column I wrote on August 11 about racial attitudes to war in America. His email arrived on August 13, which I've copied here verbatim.

"I think its time for wake up call for you," it started. "The reason Tony Blair has recently done an about turn on asylum seekers and other undesirables flooding into Britain is because the Anglo Saxons, the indigenous people to the British Isles, are sick and tired of seeing their country over run by third world beggars and turned into something that is totally un-British!" He went on to hail the rise of the far-right in Europe and damn the "butchers" of Southern Africa, before ending. "In the UK the BNP is sweeping to power and gaining popularity that is quite literally got Tony and his mob shitting themselves! The people of Europe are speaking, and they are saying ENOUGH! We are tired of the anti-Europe anti-white rhetoric spewing from black Africa... ENOUGH ALREADY!!!"

HG is a senior analyst developer at a life assurance company called Skandia. I know this because he told me that too. The message was written from his work email, complete with several lines of useful information about the company. It even included his mobile telephone number.

Like most black people, I am no stranger to racial abuse. Like most I have had to deal with far worse than the incoherent, impotent fury of HG. I don't accept it. But I have come to expect it. It does not leave me indifferent, but life is too short to get indignant about it each and every time.

What made this particular abuse different from most was that it came with the imprimatur of his company. Work emails sent to the public are like headed notepaper. To put these thoughts in writing and send them in this way betrayed either an immense confidence that his bigotry would be tolerated or immense ignorance about the consequences, and possibly both.

HG's opinions are his own personal affair. But once he disseminates them through his company it is a political matter. I don't care what he thinks, I care that by acting on what he thinks he could have an impact on the recruitment, retention or promotion of someone who looks like me, or simply make their life hell. After all, if he was this free with his bigotry to a national newspaper journalist, who's to say he wasn't busy sharing it with the rest of the office?

But enough about HG. This is not about an individual, but an institution. The story of his email and how Skandia dealt with it may serve as a set text for institutional racism. It charts a path from the crudest form of racism to the best concealed. It highlights how the cancer of racism can be moved from the malignant to the benign, but since no attempt is made to either heal or excise it, it can be left to fester, spread and re-emerge elsewhere. It exposes how a contaminated barrel can protect bad apples and infect good ones.

I forwarded the email to Skandia and asked the company to "inform me of whatever action is taken as a result of my alerting you". I received a prompt response from the head of marketing agreeing that it was "extremely offensive", offering profuse apologies "on behalf of the company" and assuring me that they would respond once "appropriate action had been taken". Two days later, on August 15, another email came from the people strategy manager, AH, offering more "apologies for any distress this has caused". So far, so good. Skandia was not in denial and recognised there was a problem. I took their apologies in good faith and waited.

Two months later I was still waiting. I emailed AH on Tuesday and asked her what had happened, assuring her that "I was not looking for a head on a plate". I'm not sure what I was expecting - perhaps some indication that their rules on the use of company email had been re-examined, their policy on racial harassment tightened or their anti-racism training updated. Some assurance that they put in place whatever systemic changes were necessary to limit the possibility of it happening again.

Instead I received a curt response: "I confirm that having brought this situation to our attention in August the details of this case were fully investigated. As a result HG entered into the Skandia disciplinary procedure and the matter was dealt with appropriately."

Whatever else I was expecting, it was not this. On what basis was I supposed to trust that Skandia's judgment of what is appropriate was in any way similar to mine? In what sense can a complaint have been "dealt with appropriately" when the complainant has no idea, beyond platitudes, what has happened as a result? In short, how was I supposed to be satisfied with a reply that gave me no evidence that anything had changed? As Skandia turned from words of warm regret to the cold language of bureaucracy, I got the impression that they did not really care whether I was satisfied or not.

Like so many institutions, private and public, Skandia had managed to work out that racism is bad, but has yet to understand that anti-racism is good. The problem, in their eyes, was no longer HG's prejudice but my refusal to accept it on their terms.

I informed AH that her apologies were devoid of all meaning without evidence of action to back them up. But the stonewalling had begun - that slow grind of pen-pushing obstinacy that seeks out rules, regulations, precedents and procedures to justify why bad practice must continue.

In desperation, AH threw the law book at me. "I am not able to confirm the extent of any action taken against HG," she informed me because it, "is a confidential matter... It is also our duty to comply with the terms of the data protection legislation with regard to releasing personal information to a third party."

It is a wonder that she did not raise this in August. The fact that it is spurious is beside the point. I had not once asked about what happened to HG. I had asked what happened at Skandia. People like HG will come and go; Skandia has been around since 1855.

I told AH that her dismissive responses were causing far more distress than the HG's original email. Having been sent to the top of the corporate ladder for apologies I was now being quickly ushered to the bottom for change. The next email came on Thursday from a PA informing me that AH was away and Mark O'Connell, the human resources director, would respond today, when he got back from his holiday.

Welcome back Mr O'Connell. This is a wake-up call. Enough already.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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