Bigotry Isn't a Black-and-White Business ; Last Night's TV ++ RACISM: A HISTORY BBC4 ++ THE TRIAL OF SADDAM HUSSEIN BBC2

Article excerpt

At a casual glance, Racism: a History looked as if might fall into the same category as "Envy: a History" or "Anger: a History". In other words, it looked as if it had mistaken a regrettable and persistent human flaw for a subject that would be susceptible to a narrative of political cause and effect. But that, apparently, is the point. Racism is not Darwinism in action, it argues, or an eruption of hindbrain irrationality into civilised life. It is a historical fact rooted in a specific set of circumstances. And the neatest expression of this line came early on. "The British don't become slave traders and slavers because they are racist," explained one of the programme's academic contributors. "They become racist because they use slaves for great profit in the Americas and devise a set of attitudes towards black people that justifies what they've done." Briefly the cloud lifted. You think this is an instinct that we've grown out of, it said, but what you'll discover is that it is a habit that we've grown into.

Unfortunately, it was the last moment of confident clarity I experienced while watching the first episode, which concentrated largely on the relationship between colonialism and racism. It wasn't that the programme was dull, because it touched on fascinating material. Who wouldn't be intrigued to learn more, for example, about the Valladolid debate of 1550 when Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Gines de Seplveda debated the exact nature of the native inhabitants of the Americas: fellow humans or natural slaves? Well, not everybody perhaps, but, come on, this is BBC4, and there are enough of us huddled in the modest shelter it affords against the raging storm of mediocrity. My problem was with the way the film drifted and shimmied from one theme to another, not to mention a set of visuals that occasionally seemed to take perverse delight in throwing you off the track. A man would talk about the development of Clifton in Bristol and its connections to the slave trade and on screen you'd see some unspecified foreign estuary and a rusting Chinese tramp steamer. What's that got to do with the price of slaves, you think? But by then the film has moved on again and you've missed some vital connective tissue.

I was a little confused, too, by the presumption that racism was an exclusively black/white affair. If it only emerged with the beginnings of the slave trade, then what do you call all that stuff Shakespeare was writing about in The Merchant of Venice? …