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There’s nothing to debate about racism

On the issue of race and the rise of the far right, it is time to condemn a little more and understa

The similarities between 2009 and 1979 are ominous. The Conservative Party prepares again to return to power as the nation shudders in the grip of an economic crisis. The far right is on the rise - then the National Front, today the British National Party - and party leaders engage in wild rhetoric on immigration - then Margaret Thatcher complained of the UK being "swamped", today Gordon Brown refers to "British jobs for British workers".

So has all the progress that this country has made on racial equality over the past three decades been in vain? I recently sat in a radio studio debating with a caller who turned out to be a BNP supporter. "Michael" claimed that I could never be "true British", though I was born here, because I was of "Asian origin" and Britain belonged only to its "indigenous" population. "Where are you from?" I asked Michael. "I'm Norse," he replied. How do you reason with a man who claims descent from the Vikings? Did I have to point out to him that they, too, were immigrants?

The point about people like "Michael" is that they cannot be reasoned with. It is not immigration that drives them; it is racism. Like paedophilia, racism is morally wrong; it is evil. It requires no further debate or discussion, no tolerance or engagement. For too long, liberals on the left have pandered to conservatives on this issue, indulging racist and reactionary views in the name of free speech.

New Labour's failure

Take New Labour, which contributed to the rise of the BNP not, as some have argued, through an imagined policy of "mass immigration", but by attempting - and failing - to appease the bigots in our society. It was David Blunkett, for example, who described British schools as being "swamped" by refugees, and Phil Woolas who said that Muslim women who wear face veils provoke "fear and resentment". It was Brown who, this summer, was promoting a policy of "local homes for local people", fuelling the myth that migrants have easier access to housing. It was left to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to point out that fewer than 2 per cent of social tenants were immigrants who had moved to the UK in the past five years, compared to 88 per cent who were born in the UK.

One cabinet minister to whom I spoke acknowledged that the government had failed to make the argument on this issue. The media are little better. In their eagerness to "provoke" debate and garner headlines, facts can become irrelevant. Consider three television programmes that aired in recent days.

There was Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC Question Time, watched by eight million viewers. The BNP leader was given a platform on which he described the "indigenous" British as being like "the Aborigines or Native Americans", refused to clarify his views on the Holocaust and defended the Ku Klux Klan.

Then there was the launch of Channel 4's season Race: Science's Last Taboo. It began with a documentary on race and intelligence fronted, perhaps conveniently, by the Somali-born reporter Rageh Omaar, which aimed to encourage a "heated debate" on race. But the truth is that science has no taboos here: as the leading geneticist Steve Jones has pointed out, any supposed link between skin colour and brain power was long ago disproved by scientists.

Why, Jones asked in a newspaper article, did the channel feel the need to dredge up "elderly exponents of racial difference" and give them another opportunity to push "hoary, dubious and predictable" claims? The superannuated "experts" who were offered a platform by the programme included the psychologists J Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn, both of whom sit on the board of the New York-based Pioneer Fund, described by civil rights campaigners in the US as a "hate group". In February, according to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, Rushton attended a white nationalist conference in Maryland, entitled "Preserving Western Civilisation", at which he argued that "Islam was not just a cultural, but a genetic problem". Do we want this man leading a "heated debate" on race?

Eight weeks of racist gibes

Back on the BBC, on Panorama, a pair of Asian reporters used hidden cameras and microphones to record more than 50 separate incidents of racial abuse and violence over eight weeks, while living undercover on a predominantly white estate in Bristol. They were spat at, stoned, punched, and called "Paki", "raghead" and "Taliban" by local youths, some as young as 11.

Like "Michael" from the radio, the odious youths on the Bristol estate were driven by racist views, not economic circumstances. Capping the number of immigrants or denying asylum-seekers benefits will do little or nothing to alter the hate-filled, antisocial and prejudiced mindset that leads to people like them persecuting minority communities with such glee. It does, however, enable our political and media elites to avoid having to acknowledge the horrible racism that continues to blight so many areas of liberal 21st-century Britain. Only the Independent on Sunday, for example, bothered to report figures showing that racist incidents are on the rise.

Oddly, commentators on the right often resort to left-wing-sounding arguments, focusing on socioeconomic factors such as the lack of employment or housing in so-called white working-class communities, to explain or even justify the kind of racism exposed on Panorama. But, to borrow a phrase from John Major, on the issue of race and the rise of the far right, it is time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.