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We still have a race problem

Finding a shared British identity is vital to overcoming racial tensions.

Newly-arrived Bengali women on Brick Lane in 1978
Newly-arrived Bengali women on Brick Lane in 1978. Photograph: Getty Images

My parents came over from India in the late 1970s in response to the calls from the NHS for skilled clinicians and in the hope of better opportunities for their family. Adapting to life in the UK was far from easy – South Shields is far less sari-friendly than Calcutta – but they persevered, worked incredibly hard and are now very much part of the communities they migrated into, my father a GP and my mother a social worker.

I owe my schooling, subsequent entry into a decent university and anything I’ve done since entirely to their struggles and sacrifices. They were relentless in giving me a strong sense of Indian heritage; language, food, Bollywood et al, whilst encouraging a firmly colour blind and unequivocal acceptance of my Britishness and all that it entailed. This was far from easy for them, as they themselves were learning an entirely new culture as they went along – but they adapted, tolerated and challenged where appropriate and as a result gifted me both passionate patriotism and a solid connection with my roots. They are delighted that I’m marrying a girl from the Welsh Valleys, a joy only heightened by her ability to handle spicy food.

The cosmopolitan experience suggests that most children of immigrants (how I wish there was another word to describe my parents, so sullied has it become!) have grown up in a similarly open-minded households, proud to be British and aware of their heritage. London in particular is populated by a jumble of colours and dialects, seemingly happily co-existing with one another, intermarrying, playing social snakes and ladders and getting on without reference to skin tone.

Unfortunately, across the country (and even in the capital) the reality is somewhat different, at least in two ways. Prejudice against people of different colours hasn’t gone away. The Ministry of Justice just published a report describing attitudes to race in the North of England as stuck in a “time warp”; with physical and verbal attacks commonplace. In London there have been 1,400 complaints of racism made against the Metropolitan Police in the last three years. On average, approximately five times more black people than white people are imprisoned in England and Wales. Last season two Premiership footballers were accused of racially abusing fellow professionals, with one found guilty and the other awaiting trial. Racist language continues to be picked up in our streets, police stations, football pitches and across the internet, and is just as vile as ever.

Further, large groups of us live in racially segregated enclaves. London has mini-towns populated by people of the same origin, Bangladeshi to Somali, Caribbean to Chinese. Of course there is mixing in between, but in many of our towns and cities there is still remarkably clear separation in schools, leisure and location between those with brown skin and those with white, particularly in some poor communities where the BNP or EDL hold currency. The state even inadvertently encourages segregation through faith schools, which can often proxy for ethnicity. Race riots in Oldham shocked the nation; yet we hardly debate that some people born and brought up and Britain still choose to live, socialise and marry within (self?) imposed ethnic ghettoisation. In a modern society this is undesirable for all sorts of reasons, a scandal that we have nervously swept under the carpet.

I don’t want to write about race. I’d much rather it didn’t matter, and that I could focus on trying clever prescriptions for Europe or acerbic indictments of education or healthcare reform. But those ranks are swelled; discussing race and colour, on the other hand, is unfashionable, a relic of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Things may have improved since then, but the problem hasn’t gone away. We have found euphemistic ways to skirt around it: gangs, radical Islam, forced marriages, asylum seekers – even the term immigrant. Race, culture and religion are understandably complex, confused, and often conflated, but some sections of the press deliberately stoke the fires of discontent without ever really letting them ignite; others are simply lazy, using terms like ‘Asians’ (placing the subjects in one of approximately 50 countries of origin – not politically incorrect, just imprecise) and talking only to self-appointed, self-important ‘community leaders’ for the low-effort minority representation voice. Meanwhile parts of real Britain smoulder with a tension that mounts by the day as the economic situation worsens, a trend seen across Europe and beyond.

Many will think this is hyperbole. It isn’t, and it is important. There are lots of cleavages in society, but race is instantly identifiable, historically more prone to violence; and a mistrust of the ‘other’ has serious consequences for all that depends on a sense of national unity – democracy, welfare, taxation, shared public goods. On a personal level I had my fair share of name-calling, beatings and graffiti growing up, and I don’t want my children to have to go through the same. So I ask that we do two things, as befits 21st century Britain:

First, accepting we have a problem, we need to create platforms that allow the people of this country to complain, argue and discuss race – part of, but nevertheless distinct, from immigration -  without constraint or fear. Legitimate worries around language or cultural assimilation must be both aired and distinguished from attitudes towards colour, exposing stupidity and prejudice, guided by a confident and unapologetic media and leadership that in turn take on the responsibility for emphasising commonality. Rather than trying to deal with racist language only on occurrence, schools must proactively educate their young people early as to where racist language comes from, how it might feel to be on the receiving end and why casual use is simply unacceptable. When politicians talk about immigration, they must make extra efforts to not conflate it with colour. ‘Respect’ within football is all well and good, but confining an anti-racism campaign to the stands ignores the fact that racism there is symptomatic of a broader malaise in society. We need to use all our channels - schools, social media, television, comedy, news, music, sport – to elevate the problem from its current mistaken categorisation as both niche and largely addressed.

Second, we have to ask the unasked (at least beyond the think tanks) – why do some who are born and bred here fail to fully integrate into the society around them, choosing instead residing within sub-cultures that are often even more specific than skin colour or country of origin? Do they identify themselves as British? Multiculturalism should mean a canvas vibrant with haphazard shape and colour, not distinct blocks separated from one another. If we accept this as an unwanted state of affairs, then why does it exist? Whose fault is it? And how can it be addressed? Citizenship classes can’t be the answer when whole towns are divided by colour. For example we must reconsider the impact of faith schools; housing policy that has for decades ended up (on purpose or by accident) grouping people of similar ethnicities together; and the attitudes of particularly the children and grandchildren of immigrants towards Britain.

The two go hand in hand. As long as people of different colour sometimes appear to belong to different countries, it will be hard to forget about their distinguishing physical features, exacerbating both racism and segregation and making it harder for people like my parents to embrace, and be embraced, by Britain. There is much to unite around; the great liberal tradition, centuries of tolerance and integration, an open political system, free healthcare for all, religious and press freedom, a judicial system revered around the world, and much more. Unfortunately inculcating a sense of fellow-feeling built on these virtues requires more than flags, flotilla and fireworks. But we have no choice - little else but a shared British identity can override the basest reactions to superficial differences.