Aislinn Simpson and Jessica Salter, London Telegraph, September 1, 2008
George Steiner, 79, said he believed racism was inherent in everyone and that racial tolerance was merely skin deep.
The playwright and critic Bonnie Greer labelled him a “cranky old man”, while Muslim groups accused him of an “offensive and lazy” racist generalisation.
But other academics defended his honesty and right to express such views, saying they were a valuable addition to an important debate.
“It’s very easy to sit here, in this room, and say ‘racism is horrible’,” he said from his house in Cambridge, where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College since 1969.
“But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play reggae and rock music all day. Or if an estate agent comes to my house and tells me that because a Jamaican family has moved next door the value of my property has fallen through the floor. Ask me then!”
Mr Steiner, whose Jewish family fled to America from Paris before the Nazi invasion of 1940, adds: “In all of us, in our children, and to maintain our comfort, our survival, if you scratch beneath the surface, many dark areas appear. Don’t forget it.”
American-born Ms Greer said: “He is wrong. People are aware of differences in other people, but being racist is being someone who sets out to harm someone based on the colour of their skin.
“George Steiner can talk about his own feelings and talk about what is specific to himself, but to talk of a Jamaican family like that, this is Britain in 2008, what is he talking about?
“He is a cranky old man and he should sit down and have a cup of tea. It’s quite clear that he doesn’t know what racism is.”
Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, expressed surprise at Mr Steiner’s comments, saying his multicultural background and research into the Holocaust, should have made him more tolerant than most.
He said: “Steiner appears to have made some rather lazy and offensive generalisations about entire groups of people such as Jamaicans. You would think he—of all people given his background—would know better by now.”
But Dr John Allison, a South African-born law lecturer at Cambridge, said it was important to be open about racism.
“There are subtle forms of racism and less subtle forms, but anything that provokes debate about the issues and gets them into the open is a good thing,” he said.
Dr Robert Berkeley, deputy director of equality campaign body The Runnymede Trust, said: “I think it’s good to recognise your own racism—and everyone has their prejudices—so that you can deal with it. Racism is something we struggle to talk about enough, and I am always happy for there to be a debate, provided no one is victimised as a result. But I don’t agree with his view.”
Although Cambridge University has worked hard to shed its white, middle-class image and take on more multicultural staff and students, only 16 per cent of Cambridge students are from ethnic minority backgrounds and roughly similar levels of staff.
The city itself is overwhelmingly white. Official figures from the 2001 census reveal that 91 per cent of the city’s population is white British, compared to 87 per cent nationwide, while the black and Asian populations combined make up little more than one per cent.
Dr Oke Odudu, a British-Nigerian law lecturer at Cambridge, said he has never encountered racism during his time there.
“The atmosphere of the university is tolerant and the student population is extremely diverse,” he said. “I never encountered any discrimination. It’s a place where, if you are judged, it’s going to be on the basis of academic performance, not your background.”
Mr Steiner’s interview with a Spanish newspaper followed the publication of his latest novel, My Unwritten Books, which is a semi-autobiographic work featuring graphic details of his sex life.
At his current home, a substantial redbrick detached 1930s house in Trumpington, the leafy suburban outskirts of the city, he is likely to be safe from noisy neighbours, whether white, black or otherwise.
All the properties on his road are set well apart, interspaced with large, well-tended gardens.
Asked by the Daily Telegraph if he now regretted what he said, Mr Steiner said: “No I do not, but I do not wish to comment further.”