Where does it come from?
In the excellent movie ‘Mississippi Burning’ hardened FBI veteran and Southerner Gene Hackman is trying to explain the violent racism in the south to fellow agent and Northerner, William Defoe. Defoe asks him ‘Where does it come from, all of this hatred?’ Hackman recounts his boyhood in Mississippi when his father, a farmer, poisoned a Negro neighbour’s new mule. When young Hackman asked his father why he had done it, his father replied, ‘Son, if you can’t be better than a nigger who can you be better than?’ Hackman then relates a truth prevalent in many societies with this sort of hatred, ‘He was an old man so full of hate that he didn’t realise that being poor was what was killing him!’ The film, based on the real life murder of three civil rights activists in the early sixties, is a powerful testimony to the malevolent power of racist hatred. It also demonstrates the degree of courage it takes to stand up to such deep rooted and institutionalised evil. Let us go forward 20 years from those grim events to an incident in my home city in the early 1980s…
The following is a true story: It was a raw winter’s day back in the early 80s when a few of us left Celtic Park to get some heat in a nearby pub on Duke Street in Glasgow’s east end. Usually we stayed to the very end of the game but on this occasion with the game well won we headed early. Those of you who remember the Gallowgate of those days will recall the General Wolfe pub and Terry’s tattoo shop which we passed on our way up to our destination. We turned right and headed up to Millerston Street. Near the top of the street was an old derelict church and a Garage. As the small group of us reached the garage the trap was sprung. A crowd of 40 or 50 young men armed with iron bars, sticks, whiskey glasses and at least two knives swarmed all over us. It was almost 30 years ago but I can still remember the drunken visceral hatred on their faces. ‘Kill the Fenian Bastards!’ it began in sadly typical manner. The four or five of us had little chance to escape the inevitable frenzy of hatred which overwhelmed us. I remember trying to drag some ignorant people off my brother before a blow from behind put the lights out for me. I awoke in the Royal infirmary where I learned that my friends and family were thankfully not seriously injured. Bruising and stitches heal but such events leave a scar which doesn’t. By sheer chance a police van had turned into Millerston Street as the attack was on-going and had scattered the cowards who need 5-1 odds and weapons in their fights. The fact that Police Van had turned into Millerston Street at that precise time probably saved a life.
Some months later I was travelling into town on the bus with a few mates and one of the guys who formed part of the mob got on with his girlfriend. He sat on the top deck, front seat and was looking mighty nervous as I glared at him. My mates asked me what was going on and I replied in a voice loud enough for the guy in the front seat to hear, ‘That’s one of the scummy bastards who attacked us last winter.’ My mates were all for hurting him, girlfriend there or not, I told them not to on her account. One of my pals said, ‘It’s your call but I’d rip his balls off.’ As we left the bus I said to the quivering wreck sitting with his lady, ‘I’ll be seeing you again one day pal and you should be thankful I’m not a liberty taking bastard like you.’ I have yet to meet him again since that day.
Those memories rose to the surface today after many years. I guess it was the discussion on events at Ibrox stadium where members of the United Kingdom’s armed forced cavorted and danced on the field as supporters of the new club sang all the old bigoted songs. Some even joined in. It wasn’t armed forces day or remembrance week when these graceless scenes occurred it was just another Saturday in Scotland’s largest city. Some of ‘our’ soldiers posed with scarves emblazoned with sectarian messages and surely senior officers will look into this? This reminded me of a time outside the old Pollok shopping centre when I took my old uncle for some messages. Some soldiers had set up a recruiting stall outside and were letting kids peer through the sights of some thankfully unloaded rifles. As we passed a young man asked one of the soldiers what his tattoo was. It showed King Billy on a white horse and had the numbers ‘1690’ below it. The soldier quickly rolled down his sleeves and ignored the question. The young guy shook his head, ‘I can see how fair you’re going to be when ye get tae Belfast ya Bastard,’ he said and moved on.
I’ve written in the past about the unhealthy glorification of the military going on in modern Britain but few of us with Irish connections need to be told why it’s wrong. To see serving military personnel dancing around to racist drivel like ‘The Famine Song’ or the ‘Billy Boys’ is simply ludicrous. Yes, many of them may have no idea of the content of those songs but those in Scottish regiments certainly do. The days when this sort of thing was acceptable are long gone. The ‘We Are the People’ brigade should be made quite aware that we are all ‘the people’ now and we will not accept the naked bigotry our grandfathers’ did. The Croppies are not lying down any more.
Now, I’m not for a moment contrasting the prejudice faced by Scots of Irish descent to the depressing and awful experience of African Americans. To do so would be quite wrong as the sheer scale and viciousness of historical and current prejudice faced by African Americans defies description. What I am saying is that prejudice and hatred is by its nature similar the world over and only the degree of acceptance any given society allows it differs. Clearly modern Glasgow is not 1960s Mississippi and the vast majority of Scots are fair and decent people. There remains, however an underclass which cling to outmoded ideas of Scottish identity which is as out of date as horse drawn carriages.
I recall attending an anti-racist seminar when the speaker spoke of what she called the ‘5 Steps of racism.’ These were, according to her…
(1) Joke about the target group
(2) Avoid the target group
(3) Discriminate against the target group
(4) Physically assault members of the target group
(5) Kill members of the target group
Few among the population can be said to be capable of all 5 of these steps although the deaths of several Celtic fans both here and in the North of Ireland suggests a tiny minority are. The disappearance of the industries and communities which offered a safe haven for exclusion and bigotry has left some in our society lost. The ‘Social Dominance Theory’ which sought to provide certain groups in society with the moral and intellectual justification for bigotry suggests the use of ‘Legitimising myths’ to uphold their belief system. Such myths hold that the group being discriminated against bring it on themselves by being lazy, disloyal, dirty, work shy, etc. For some, these myths are more important than the truth. Scotland is changing fast and becoming more diverse. It isn’t the white, Presbyterian land it once was and that seems hard to take for some. But our people of all hues need to accept the hard fact that bigotry festers in poverty and ignorance and only by creating a more equal society where all feel a sense of belonging and live with dignity, can the monster be slain forever. Have we changed since that day in Millerston Street? Most of us have but some refuse to move on.
So where does it come from all of this hatred? As one of the characters in Mississippi Burning says so well…
’Hatred isn't something you're born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what's said in the Bible... Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it... you breathe it. You marry it.’
That is still the sad truth for a sizable number of our fellow Scots. They learn at their father’s knee that others are different and are to be hated. Until that ends we will still have this poison in our country.