The CRE is a ghetto; it is time to bid it farewell

Some weeks ago, Sky News asked me to be part of a panel that would question the new chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Gurbux Singh. Other panel members were to be Adam Boulton and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

I had not met Singh before. I had not given the CRE much thought. I am generally sympathetic, but I was certain about one thing: the organisation lived in the remote hinterland of black and Asian preoccupations.

At once, upon meeting Singh, I decided that he was a man of some charisma and a settled intelligence. He would do a good job, but would take very few chances. He was a safe pair of hands. These days, I am able to arrive at such conclusions almost at once.

During the programme, I wanted him to admit one incontrovertible fact: that with a budget of some weight, staff at his command, an imposing office, researchers and press departments, he could not possibly achieve what the parents of Stephen Lawrence have done on an issue that plagued the black community long, long before the CRE was born.

I expected him to accept the point readily. But he hesitated and went round and round the mulberry bush. I probed him about Bradford and the conflict between Asians and West Indians. He wasn't forthcoming.

Alibhai-Brown was much more direct. The CRE had to go, she said. It had become a ghetto. With the Human Rights Act soon to come into effect, it should be replaced by a human rights commission, she said. I instinctively felt that there was much in what she was saying.

Singh was well aware of the argument; he had read much about it. But he was holding his ground. He argued that the CRE, now armed with the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, had much to offer. I pressed him. As the CRE could not lead on race issues, I said, battles could be fought only from the bottom up. I said it was nothing more than a back-up institution that sometimes papered over the cracks. The programme came to an end.

As we walked out of the studio, a woman accompanying Singh was quite argumentative. The CRE would continue to lead because legislation was at the heart of the black and Asian cause, she said. I disagreed. Much that takes place in the black community has very little to do with the CRE.

With the huge advances of the past ten years or so, with a black community dissolving into social classes, we are now able to leap out of the anti-racist ghetto and into the mainstream of human rights. It brings our struggles and issues to the heart of the European debate. The CRE should become a department of a human rights commission.

Let me give an example. Last week, a Pakistani was awarded a tidy sum because an Indian was unreasonably preferred in applying for a job. This was described as racialism. We have had examples of Scottish and Irish discrimination against each other. Such cases, I am now convinced, belong in the realm of human rights.

Does my proposal relegate race to insignificance? Not at all.

Much of the CRE's work will now centre around breaking the glass ceiling that restricts the progress of so many black professionals. I have no quarrel with that, nor do many white professionals.

But the black working classes have their own instruments for fighting their grievances. They will pursue these, well aware of the need not to alienate members of their own class who are English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh.

Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, has done much to keep his members involved in race issues and, at this month's TUC conference, he raised hell about asylum-seekers and immigration. He has to keep these things where they belong - in the arena of working-class activity.

So let that be, and I say to the CRE mockingly, but pleasantly: "Bye-bye, blackbird!"

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place