Smart people can be racist too

I’ve never thought of antisemitism as just being an instinctive reaction from an ill-educated minority. In fact, in my experience, it has always been a poison spewed by intellectuals.

Which is why I found the results of a new study from the University of Michigan this week utterly fascinating — but, sadly, not terribly surprising. Smart people are just as racist as their less intelligent peers — they’re just better at concealing their warped beliefs. According to the study’s author, Geoffrey Wodtke, “high-ability whites” are simply better at hiding their prejudices about African-American people than “lower-ability whites”.

He goes on to claim that “racism and prejudice don’t simply come about as a result of low mental capacities or deficiencies in socialisation. ... More intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimising and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members.”

And for me, that is the central plank of racism – and especially antisemitism — among so-called sophisticates. It’s a fear of the outsider, laced with ignorance of who they are, topped with a healthy dollop of I’m-in-the-biggest-gang bullying.

Three weeks ago, I enjoyed a Saturday night soiree with some delightful neighbours in west London. A fellow guest, an extremely successful, plummy-voiced lawyer — aware that I once worked in journalism for a high-profile Jewish person — quite freely admitted, in a not-soft-enough voice to the evidently stunned woman sitting next to him, that he’d “never work for a Jew, you just can’t trust them”. A well-timed kick in the shins from my wife stopped me throwing a knife or even a wobbly. I pushed close my mouth, gulped my wine and then let it go, just as I have done for my entire life.

For some reason, though, an image of Sir John Gielgud entered my head, and his wonderfully elitist portrayal of Master of Trinity in Chariots of Fire, whom he played as a pretty overt antisemite who derided Harold Abrahams’ (played by Ben Cross) professionalism, sneering that he was a mere “Israelite”. He practically spits the word. How low has Cambridge University descended if a Jew is to become one of its most celebrated sons?
My list of encounters amongst racist professionals is endless — unless of course I’m being paranoid, which is entirely possible.

I recall the local council leader who once warned me off approaching a colleague of his because “he’s terribly Indian, if you know what I mean.” The celebrated entrepreneur and prime ministerial confidant, who once told a friend that there was no way a Jew was going to marry his daughter.

The time a perfectly good story was spiked early in my career, because the case history was black. The political adviser who quite happily admitted to me (ok, we were slightly drunk) that he wouldn’t allow his children to play with Asians at school because he thought that their parents were either illegal immigrants, shirkers or wife-beaters.

The raised eyebrows from Christians who don’t think I should be allowed to take both Yom Kippur and Christmas Day off from work because I don’t worship Jesus.

None of these cases involved those from what you might call “less advantaged” backgrounds. They were all highly-educated people who for a split second lifted the veil to reveal their racism.

The more we try to convince ourselves that such sinister behaviour is the preserve of the tattooed, disenfranchised and uneducated, the more we bury our heads in the sand. And that would be very dangerous indeed.

Grant Feller is the director of GF-Media, a bespoke editorial, digital and PR consultancy, and a blogger on the Huffington Post

    Last updated: 12:45pm, August 19 2013