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It’s a question I hear in India all the time. “Oh, you lived in the U.S.?” someone will ask. “Must have faced a lot of racism, eh?” And I have to say no, because that’s the truth. I hardly did.

Except for that one curious incident at the Taco Bell drive-thru.

Ahead of the four or five cars, including mine, that were in line, a couple had parked their car in a spot that made it necessary to sort of edge past them after picking up your order. Perhaps they were waiting for their order, I don’t know. But I could see the drivers in front of me shooting angry looks at them as they passed. So when I got there, I rolled down my window and asked: “Don’t you think you could park somewhere else?”

The man started a reply. Then he saw my face and said: “Ahh, just get the f— back to your country, OK?”

Not much of an answer. But there you are.

And here in England, where I am on a brief fellowship, that incident from all those years ago is suddenly on my mind again. Because racism is on the front pages, and when that happens in a country where you are a visitor, however welcoming everyone is otherwise, you can’t help feeling your nerves twang just a bit.

As I understand it, here’s a flavor of what’s been happening. A body called the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE, chaired by a Gurbux Singh) has issued a “compact” for election candidates to sign. This is a sort of election pledge on racism, and includes such high-minded clauses as:

* [I will] Reject all forms of racial violence, racial harassment, and unlawful racial discrimination.

* [I will] Not publish … any material … likely to generate hostility or division between people of different racial, national or religious groups, or which might reasonably be expected to do so.

Many MPs have signed the pledge, some have not. The CRE made public the names of those who have not. As it happens, the ones who refuse to sign are from the Conservative Party. There are signs that this refusal is costing that party support, and from within its own voting ranks as well. In a front page report, the Guardian tells us both that fewer people than the last time they polled will vote Tory if the election were to be held tomorrow and fewer Tory voters see the party’s leader, William Hague, as the best Prime Minister for the country.

To go with that fallout, there are also continuing flare-ups over immigration and racism. Tory MP John Townend pronounced that immigrants were turning the British into a “mongrel race.” That raised many hackles, especially when Hague seemed disinclined to ask Townend to retract his statement. He finally did, and Townend did, but it hasn’t died down because Townend now is keen on retracting his retraction. Meanwhile in Kent, Tory candidates issued an advertisement about “bogus” asylum seekers. “What matters most to you?” it asks. “Bogus Asylum Seekers? Conservatives reduced the number before. We will do so again.”

And as always seems to happen at such times, someone has popped up to call that particular bluff. A Romanian who got asylum last year says he spent a week gardening, illegally, for a Tory candidate from Gloucester called Paul Taylor. Which would be OK. Except that Taylor is a vocal critic of Government policy on asylums; the Guardian tells us that he said, “asylum seekers were placing a burden on Gloucester and should be locked up while their applications were being processed.”

I suppose it is hard to lock up somebody who is doing your gardening for you at minimum wage or less, who knows.

What must I—no immigrant, gardener, or asylum seeker, but no Anglo-Saxon either—make of all this?

Well, for one thing, the CRE’s compact is a fine document. I wish everybody would believe in, and practice, the principles it spells out. Now that’s a forlorn wish indeed, I know. I despise the men who go on about preserving some pristine form of race. But I despise them most of all because they find that an easy way to turn people against the outsiders.

For it must be an ancient truth that while it’s hard to fix all that’s wrong with a society, it’s easy as motherhood and apple-pie to blame the immigrants for those wrongs. In fact, sometimes it is even couched as motherhood and apple-pie.

And yet, fine as it is, the CRE’s document leaves me very uneasy. Must people be expected to sign it purely because it says good things? Must it become some kind of test, the passing of which makes you a fit candidate for office? Does putting your name to a piece of paper make you a good candidate, certify you a good human being? Or is it your words and actions, the way you conduct your life, that do so?

Besides, and perhaps this is more important, signing this pledge means nothing at all. After all, if I was an intelligent racist—if such a thing is possible—I would be first in line to sign it. Then I could go right back to being my nasty racist self without a care in the world: I signed, didn’t I?

Yes, the CRE’s pledge makes me uneasy. Wasn’t there a time when just such pledge-signing became a test of patriotism in that pillar of the free world: the U.S.? Joseph McCarthy was eventually sent back to the cave he crawled out from, but not before he made virtues of paranoia and bigotry. Not before he spent four years turning everything his country stood for on its head.

And really, that’s the rub, right there. What’s worse, do you think? MPs making despicable racist remarks? Or MPs signing a pledge that they are not racist and thereby winning approval?

I look at it this way. I’m sure the nut at the Taco Bell, at some point in his life, had uttered some kind of platitudinous promises—even if it was just “Be good to your neighbor.” Didn’t stop him from speaking his tiny mind that day.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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