Speaking up for minority voices

PAUL Crofts has strong views on race and racism. He loves the way footballers like Thierry Henry are admired by millions of white people.

But he is concerned that young black boys at school are being pushed in the direction of athletics and football, as though that is all they are good at, instead of academic subjects.

He likes the way humour can be used to ridicule racism but fears that in the wrong hands it can be used to promote racism.

He said: "Charlie Williams told racist jokes to a white racist audience that perpetuated myths and prejudices about black people.

"Lenny Henry was also like that when he first started but now he reflects all that is best in black culture.

"And when Irish comics tell Irish gags to an Irish audience and they laugh at themselves that is okay. But if the audience is English it comes across as racist.

"Johnny Speight was a great writer and he created this bigot called Alf Garnet who was ridiculed and a figure of fun.

"But the humour backfired on him because some people began to see Alf Garnett as a role model."

His 21 years fighting to ensure people from ethnic minority families in the county were not disadvantaged has made Mr Crofts, 50, of Northampton Road, Wellingborough, a controversial figure with a reputation as a firebrand.

A supporter of the rights of travellers, asylum seekers and other "unfashionable" causes, Mr Crofts has placed himself in the firing line throughout his 21 years with Wellingborough Racial Equality Campaign and later the Northamptonshire Racial Equality Council.

He has been accused of being intolerant of others and he has become the target of graffiti, racism and racist abuse. But he has never shirked from defending minority groups and seeking to help the less fortunate in society.

He said: "Our offices have been attacked but I have never been the victim of violence, although at one time I was informed by police that I was on a racist organisation's hit list and was advised what precautions to take. But whenever you make a stand for what is right you are always going to ruffle a few feathers."

Mr Crofts first became aware of racism when he was a pupil at a Leicester secondary school in the late 1960s.

A group of young East African Asians who were his classmates became the victims of racist bullying and prejudice by adults as well as other schoolchildren.

The experience had such a profound effect on him that he vowed to fight racism and prejudice in all its forms.

The Crofts family were active members of the Labour Party – his father Tim was a trade unionist and his mother Jo was a Labour voter – and the young Paul joined the Labour Party when he was 16 years old.

He said: "From the outset I was always more interested in fighting racism than the other issues on the socialist agenda."

During his early 20s he became disenchanted with the Labour Party and was a communist for several years.

He had left secondary school with several O-Levels and took his A-Levels at Wigston Grammar School, a degree in economics at Birmingham University and later a postgraduate course in sociology.

It was while he was at university that he became involved in the Students Union and the anti-apartheid movement.

Nelson Mandela is still one of his heroes along with Gandhi and an Indian leader who became a personal friend – Vishnu Datsharma who died in 1992 aged 72.

Mr Crofts said: "Vishnu was a trade unionist, communist, community leader a man of great wisdom and dignity.

"Whenever I am faced with a difficult decision I ask myself – What would Vishnu have done?"

He rejoined the Labour Party and for nine years has been a Wellingborough councillor. He is currently deputy leader of the Labour group.

Mr Crofts' marriage to his German-born wife Petra is the stuff of romantic novels. The pair were pen-pals during their schooldays when they exchanged letters written in English.

They met for the first time as teenagers but the sparks did not fly until they met again in their 20s.

Mr Crofts said: "I was about to transfer my contact details from one address book to another when I realised I hadn't been in touch with Petra for some years.

"We met up again and this time the sparks did fly and we have now been married 25 years."

The couple have two grown-up daughters.

At the end of the month Mr Crofts will take up his new post as an equality and diversity officer with University College Northampton.

But he looks back on his 21 years in Wellingborough with pride in what has been achieved and a little disappointment in what he has failed to achieve.

He said: "I am proud of the work we have done in the field of black history in Northamptonshire and the way we have made people more aware of their roots.

"And I am pleased that we have been able to help eliminate many prejudices and bring people of all races and religions together.

"But it seems that as a nation we British are always looking for someone to blame for our problems.

"I won't feel that my life's work is completed until we have eliminated racism in all its forms."