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14 June 1999

PC language wastes our PCs’ breath

John-Paul Flintoffthinks the Met can do better than refer to "visibly minority ethnic groups"

By John-Paul Flintoff

They don’t like saying it on TV. Just look closely the next time you spot white-skinned police officers on the news. “The suspect,” they might tell reporters – and it’s at this point you should watch for a squirm – “is black.”

It’s easy to understand their discomfort. The Metropolitan Police were condemned just a few weeks ago, following the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, as “institutionally racist”. So white officers using the word “black” – even in a blank description – worry about being damned as racist on a personal level, too.

But that embarrassment hardly justifies the extraordinary measure just adopted by the Metropolitan Police. As part of a £2 million anti-racism campaign, trainee officers are being taught a new piece of jargon to avoid causing offence. When referring to groups of Asians, African-Caribbeans or a mixture of people from both groups, a Met statement explains that “the individual officer may feel that it is more appropriate to adopt the term visibly minority ethnic groups“.

Blimey! What a mouthful. Even representatives of the Met’s 25,000 officers are not altogether pleased. Bob Elder, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, told the Sunday Telegraph that the new expression is “difficult to get your tongue round” and will make little sense to officers or members of the public.

I don’t know about the public, but it’s true that police officers commonly experience difficulties with the English language. Think of Dogberry, the copper in Much Ado About Nothing, whose misuse of the mother tongue is regarded by scholars as one of Shakespeare’s most successful studies in documentary realism. Police officers still prefer to say “proceed in a westerly direction on foot towards the retail premises” instead of “walk to the shop” – just listen to PCs reading from their notebooks in court.

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It’s good that the police are taking racism seriously and will no longer use terms such as “coloureds” and “ethnics”, which offended onlookers at the Macpherson inquiry. But did they have to choose an alternative so clunking? One explanation is that the coinage was suggested by an official from the Commission for Racial Equality. According to the CRE, people are “visibly” members of a minority ethnic community if they are identifiable as such by the colour of their skin.

I’m not sure why skin should be the determining factor. What about a white person carrying an Irish tricolour and covered in shamrocks? Or an orthodox Jew sporting the traditional black coat and tall hat? These, too, are visibly minority ethnic types.

There’s a serious problem with this new development. Can we afford it? “Visibly minority ethnic group” amounts to ten syllables, instead of the one or two required to call somebody “black” or “Asian”. This may not seem important but, over the course of a trainee officer’s future career, those extra syllables will add up to a vast quantity – hundreds, even thousands of seconds of wasted breath that could otherwise be devoted to incisive analysis of motives and evidence.

And if you multiply that wasted time by the thousands of serving officers, the total comes to hours, maybe days. To make up for that lost time, the force will have to recruit more officers. In other words, this new terminology will directly cost taxpayers thousands of pounds a year.

More serious still, the new expression might put lives in danger. Not just because it takes so long to spit the words out, but also because it’s imprecise. Just imagine: you’re a senior officer in charge of a stakeout. All of a sudden a door opens to reveal a group of suspects. One is black, another Asian, the third is white. Whispering into your radio, you tell your team: “Look out for the one from the visibly minority ethnic group.” Guv, they will undoubtedly reply, could you possibly be more specific?

At my school, a comprehensive in central London, I have witnessed members of visibly minority ethnic groups referring to each other in terms that would have been inappropriate from honkies like me. I have in mind an argument between two West Indians which descended into mere abuse:

“You black fool,” said one.

“You African,” sneered the other.

Teachers disapproved, but the boys said they were within their rights to deride each other in these terms. If they were right, then the Met should allow only African-Caribbean officers to use the term “black”, and confine descriptions of white suspects to white officers. But I have my doubts.

My own solution is this: let’s do away with racial identification altogether. Instead, the Met should issue officers with colour charts like the ones supplied by interior designers. Thus victims of crime and suspects – of any colour – could each be identified by a Pantone number.

Alternatively, police could be trained to classify people according to the principles laid down in that well-known bible of the fashion-conscious, Colour Me Beautiful. Originally invented to facilitate choosing clothes, this admirable scientific process separates people of any race into four distinct categories – “spring”, “summer”, “autumn” and “winter”, according to the prevalence of blues, reds and yellows in their skin-tones. Police might issue “Wanted” posters devoid of any racial insult: “We are looking for two armed robbers, both male, one ‘spring’, one ‘winter’.”

Sure, it would take time for officers to recognise each of the different categories with precision – but what’s the point of training if not to convey exactly that sort of useful skill?