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The truth about race in Britain

Tomiwa Owolade and the cover of his forthcoming book

Here in Britain, says Tomiwa Owolade in The Times, “we can’t escape the force and influence of American culture”. We watch their movies, follow their politics, know their history. The problem is that this makes people think the two countries are far more similar than they are – particularly on the vexed question of race. Black people make up 14% of the US population, nearly all descended from slaves. In the UK, it’s 4%, a large proportion of whom are “affluent and well-educated” immigrants and their children, not the descendants of enslaved Africans. Historically, we have never been anything like as racially segregated as the US. Frederick Douglass, “one of the greatest black Americans of the 19th century”, was amazed at how much better he was treated in Britain. “Everything is so different here,” he wrote in a letter home. “No insults to encounter, no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth. I am treated as a man and equal brother.”

Perhaps the best illustration of the different attitudes was during World War II, when many black American soldiers stationed in Britain were treated better by the locals than by their white countrymen. Christopher Hitchens later recounted conversations about the period with black American taxi drivers. “For many of these brave gentlemen, segregated in their US army units,” he wrote, “England was the first picture they ever saw of how a non-segregated society might look.” Writing in 1943, George Orwell said the “general consensus” was that “the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes”. In much the same spirit was a West Country farmer quoted around that time in the New Statesman. “I love the Americans,” he said. “But I don’t like those white ones they’ve brought with them.”

This is Not America by Tomiwa Owolade comes out on 22 June, and is available to pre-order here.