What Makes a Racist?

Published: Nov 13, 2022  |  

Former undercover police officer in the UK, and bestselling author

As a drug law reform activist, I am inevitably a campaigner against racism. This is because the persecution of minority groups was the original purpose of drug prohibition. Racism is the very essence of the war on drugs. The war on *some* people who use *some* drugs is a better name for this particular brand of discrimination, in what is a civil war in all but name.

I speak from a privileged position. I grew up with the advantages of my birth and surroundings. But I have a family memory which makes it clear that even my lack of prejudice is an accident of birth.

I have a large family on my mother’s side. I am the youngest of 36 first cousins. So growing up, I met many aunts and other adult relatives. But it occurred to me that I had never met any corresponding relatives on my father’s side.

I was 9 years old when I asked him if he had any siblings. “I have a brother…” he said, looking wistful. “…but I’ll never see him again”.

“Why?” I asked

 “He’s a racist.”

Now: I never heard my father raise his voice, or even seem particularly cross at anything. But his tone betrayed both annoyance and sadness. 

I peppered him with questions to get the whole story. They were close while growing up. Both musicians, they would jam and harmonize. But while Brian, my father, was conscripted to work in the coal mines during WW2, his brother Stanley was just young enough to avoid call-up. Was this when their values became so different?

My father explained that Stanley had emigrated to South Africa. Apartheid, he opined, suited Stanley down to the ground, as he enjoyed feeling superior to other human beings.

I was shocked. My brother and sister were special people in my life. The idea that I could dislike them for what they believed was hard to comprehend.

Following this revelation, I quickly became intrigued by South Africa. At that time, in 1982, there was a rebel tour of English Test cricketers. For American readers out there, I should explain: Cricket is the second biggest sport in the world after soccer. In 1968, the English cricket team pulled out of a tour of South Africa because the home team were objecting to the presence of a non-white player in the English team, Basil D’Oliveira. This incident helped lead to the international sport ban on the apartheid regime. 

As a 12-year-old, I was devastated at the treachery of the English players in the early Eighties, tempted by big pay packets to break the international ban. Cricket was the only sport I loved, and to me it represented fairness, courage, and endurance. I just could not fathom why they would do this. 

I felt noble in my righteous anger. But did those cricketers actually understand? I didn’t consider that.

I grew up in an entirely white town. I didn’t even converse with anyone of color until I briefly moved to Manchester at the age of 18. I was instantly aware that I was responding differently to those people I encountered who did not look like me. It took me some time to unpick my biases. It occurred to me that I had only seen Black faces as caricatures on TV. I grew up with The Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour being part of primetime TV. It is an interesting observation on the level of change we have achieved that the next generation cannot fathom that those shows were mainstream entertainment.


Of course, bias is normal. But the fact that it multiplies and creates systems of prejudice is not adequately accepted. The debate around Critical Race Theory in the USA is depressing. It is not so complicated. The evidence for societal systematic prejudice is legion. The culture war attack on CRT is merely one more aspect of how that prejudice plays out. What’s better than widespread oppression? Why, normalization of the oppression and denial of its existence.

That word “racism”… I wonder what better word we can use. Because the very idea of race was created to justify the enslavement of other humans. If we can label a group of people a different race then our rules of morality don’t apply. At the risk of stating the very obvious; there is only one race and we come in a variety of shades. 

I’m writing this not to try and present myself as some expert on ethnicity-based prejudice. Far from it. I want to make the point that I am nothing special. It is an accident of birth and privilege that I was born to my parents. Despite the nurturing I experienced, I went on to be part of the machinery of oppression. I was on the front line of that civil war. The war on some people who use some drugs.

At the age of 18, I thought I had it sussed. Smug—arrogant even—that I was not a racist. When I was a cop, catching drug dealers for a living, I simply did not understand that I was part of a well-constructed international system of oppression. I had to learn. I had to change.

Given the historical importance of drug prohibition laws to the oppression of minorities, is it so surprising that those laws are still applied with a degree of prejudice? And is it surprising that even people who would consider themselves to be non-racist still fail to see the obvious: drug laws built on a foundation of racist beliefs can only continue to be applied in a racist environment?

This is why it is incumbent on all of us to be active for social justice where we can. Or in the words of Angela Davis: “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

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