We need to keep talking about racism and beer, and then act.
The White Hart pub in Grays has been in the news. I’ve never been to it but the police are investigating. The pub has a display of golliwogs which rate from insensitive to offensive for many (the pub apparently doesn’t think so) but it has also has faced complaints of discriminatory service. Both gollliwogs and discrimination are potentially illegal. It’s not a new issue either. A quick Google will show that the matter was raised in 2018.
The pub has been in the Campaign For Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide and has been a local CAMRA branches pub of the year through that five year period. CAMRA has rightly said that the pub will no longer feature in the GBG and pointed to long-standing policy that any form of discrimination is not acceptable.
I’ve been a member of CAMRA since 1975 and any organisation of any size has a broad range of people and views. No doubt there are racists but that is far from the nature of CAMRA. Even so in my view Britain is an institutionally racist country and the present Government is doing its best to stoke a range of discriminatory behaviours. Unfortunately Labour which should be standing out clearly against it is doing anything but- at least at the top level.
I’ve been a lifelong anti-racist and anti-fascist not just in principle but in practice, out challenging the National Front, the BNP, the EDL and whatever form fascists take. However understanding and challenging racism in everyday situations requires deeper thought. For example English cricket remains under a cloud of racist practice and matters are far from being sorted. I’ve been going to cricket games since the 1960s. Did I know that there were racists in attendance? Yes, but I balanced it out by also knowing there were lots of people who were not racists as well. Now I feel uneasy about going to cricket matches not least because I feel perhaps more should have been done down the years to challenge the racists who are still very much there.
When it comes to beer progress is being made. There are ethnic minority brewers making good beer and the rise of Desi pubs is a really positive development. The Desi pub, on which CAMRA are about to publish a guide, is a pub with decent beer that focuses on Indian food. Perhaps the benchmark is Bundobust a restaurant with outlets in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and shortly Birmingham. It sells vegetarian Indian food together with craft and cask beer. Indeed it now has its own brewery in Manchester as well.
Yet the progress is too slow and not enough. There may be occasional exceptions but most craft beer events and bars do not look anything like the population of Britain. Diversity is not a strong point. I was at the taproom of one of the trendiest craft breweries recently. It was an excellent space, the beer was good and it was busy. There was not one non-white face. This in the main is not an echo of the Grays pub. There is no racist attempt not to serve people or discriminate. Rather the message has gone out that this is not something that appeals to some sections of the community. Yet if as CAMRA rightly says and campaigns on 'The pub is the hub', that is not satisfactory or right.
Of course I don’t face racist discrimination in pubs. An abiding concern over the years has been pubs that welcome and serve racists. Indeed in Tottenham the local labour movement has taken action in recent years to make sure that a group of racists and fascists who claim to be Spurs fans (and are mostly barred from games) don’t get to colonise local bars.
This leaves the question, what is to be done? On the White Hart CAMRA did act quickly and publicly. CAMRA also needs to act and be seen to act across its sphere of influence. It needs first of all to do all it can to be sure that there are not other pubs which CAMRA branches are championing which discriminate. Hopefully there are not but that effort needs to be made and to be seen to be made. CAMRA is not responsible for racism in beer or pubs but it can and it must show why it can never be acceptable.
Of course big pub companies and Big Beer companies are the dominant part of brewing and drinking culture. A few like Greene King in Bury St. Edmunds have been open about the links of their founders and are paying reparations. In Bristol a pub named after the slave trader Edward Colston changed its name. Arguments about pub names which may be linked to racism continue. Pub locals sometimes argue that such links cannot be proved. One suspects however that a person of colour thinking about entering such a pub gets the point clearly enough. One also suspects that the locals know they do too.
Mostly pub chains and brewers have decent policies on racism and discrimination. Given that particularly in the pub sector trade union recognition is often lacking the ability to make and pursue complaints may well be limited. So getting unions recognised is important here Further how much effort is really being made to ensure the Pub is the Hub slogan is something that is actually promoted and publicised in practice.?
Collective action is important but individuals can help too. Racist talk and ‘banter’ in pubs and bars can be challenged, either directly or by raising it with the manager. Likewise when buying beer, focusing on breweries that not only have ethical policies but clear practices that back this up can help.
Feeling uneasy, at best, is nothing to those who find themselves on the front line of racist discrimination and attacks. That is why what is reportedly happening at The White Hart and a local CAMRA branches apparent lack of concern about it matters. It’s also what CAMRA itself has done about it is that is important. It is a campaigning organisation prepared not just to have policy against discrimination but to take action when it finds it taking place. At its annual conference after Easter CAMRA agreed an updated policy on equality, diversity and inclusion in beer, pubs and brewing. That deserves our active support.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.