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Gary Younge
I've changed my mind about racism

The decade that has ended with Nick Griffin on Question Time and two BNP MEPs started with me being very optimistic about the future of race relations in Britain. With the broadly positive response to the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, which had just been released, I thought a paradigmatic shift in the way that we thought about both Britain and race had occurred that could possibly be thwarted but not reversed. This was not a popular view among anti-racist activists at the time. Indeed, for about a year I had to get used to white people calling me naive about racism, which was a first.

But I believed that Macpherson had sent Powellism into irreversible decline and that a new conversation was both possible and, generally speaking, desirable. I knew not everyone would come round, but assumed that they had now been relegated to a permanent rump.

"A sizeable minority is stuck in the paradigm of immigration-integration-repatriation – desperate to maintain a seamless link between Britishness and whiteness," I wrote. "And the rest have moved on to equal rights, economic opportunities and educational advancement. Some are still asking, 'What are we going to do about these blacks?' Others wonder, 'What are we going to do about the racism in our institutions?'"

I had no confidence in our political leadership to lead this conversation, but back then the pressure for them to at least follow it seemed overwhelming. The first indication of how wrong I was came in the negligent and noxious response to uprisings in Bradford in July 2001. Soon after came terrorism, Blunkett, war, more war, torture, more terrorism, David Goodhart and the white cliffs of Dover. The speed and scale with which public discourse degraded was breathtaking. Once it began it was not difficult to see where it was all going.

No one could have predicted some of the catalysts in that chain of events. But what I did not realise at the time was how superficial support for Macpherson had been among the commentariat and political class. Nor had I grasped how the shift in emphasis from race to religion and from colour to creed and culture could so completely and rapidly graft old views on to new scapegoats.

"Macpherson has provided us with sound foundations," I argued back then. "We must wait and see what lasting structures will be built on them."

If I'd known what hideous creations some architects had in mind, or how easily they could uproot the fixtures, I would have been more circumspect.

• This article was amended on Monday 4 January 2010. There are two BNP MEPs, not three as we said. This has been corrected.

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