Racism is alive and kicking

The Metropolitan Police Authority announced recently that the Met is no longer affected by instituti

Since making its extraordinary pact in May, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has pronounced on many things - money woes, scroungers, bloated and lazy public servants, military mess - but it has said nothing about race and racial integration. The Labour opposition, meanwhile, has been preoccupied with integration problems of its own.

The silence is loud and widespread. Apart from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's proclamation that diversity was part of the strength that helped London get through the 7 July 2005 bombings and their aftermath (which it was), and some odd mutterings in the press about whether or not it is anti-Semitic to claim that some residents of the Jewish enclaves of north London can be rude, race has disappeared not only off the government's agenda, but out of the public discourse, too.

Concern has been expressed that the coalition's cuts to public spending will hit the poor and women hardest; what seems to have been missed is that these cuts will have just as disproportionately adverse an effect on minority groups. What has the Tory Theresa May, who doubles as equalities minister and Home Secretary, to say about that? And what do the Equality and Human Rights Commission and its head, Trevor Phillips, have to say about it? Unless I have missed it, or the press has suppressed it, the answer is "not much".

Opportunities

Yet there are many questions relating to race that urgently need to be addressed. How, for instance, can Labour Party members not be outraged about the lack of donations to Diane Abbott's leadership campaign? Are the Muslim communities that were so alienated by the difficult choices made in counterterrorism policy suddenly going to forget all about it and become cheerful? Are applicants with Asian or African names going to fare as well as others in the restricted job market that is to come? If not, will they quietly accept their fate? And how could London's Conservative-run Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) announce recently that the Met is no longer affected by institutional racism?

I believe that the MPA was wrong to do so. The Met is, without doubt, still affected by institutional racism, as are almost all British institutions, and will be for years to come. Despite all the agonies they have faced in progressing up the ranks, there are now a number of black and Asian senior police officers in Britain. But there are not enough.

In less regulated markets, with more opportunities for lateral entry, the question should perhaps be asked even more fiercely. Just how many black editors and journalists, FTSE-100 CEOs, think-tank chairs and hospital bosses are there? How many black judges and QCs? Or government ministers, not to mention MPs? (There are at least more minority members of the Lords than the Commons because, wisely, they can be appointed there.) What about generals, admirals and air chiefs? And directors of social, probation and immigration services?

The answer in each case is some, but not many. Institutional racism may have diminished but it is still alive and kicking. Opportunities for citizens from ethnic minorities have improved, but they are not equal to others'. Yet there has been silence about this urgent problem from all sides since the election.

Race has been a pivotal issue in policing since the Notting Hill race riots in the 1950s. For much of the time, the police got it wrong; and for all of the time, people from minority communities viewed the manner in which the police behaved as emblematic of the way the British state welcomed them (or otherwise).

Many of the currents that swirled about the police in years past can now be seen to have been products of fashion and polemic. Through the 1990s, however, the unbending race warriors of preceding decades were steadily replaced by figures with unbiased but uncomfortably direct views on the gulf between pious policy and practice. The 1999 Macpherson report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, with its acknowledgement that minority communities were "underprotected but overpoliced", was a defining moment. But it was not the only one. Consider also the disturbing conclusions about alienation and voluntary segregation made by Herman Ouseley, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, in his review of race relations in Bradford in 2001.

Crackdown

Do we think it has all been solved? When the next attack by individuals inspired by a perverted view of Islam is successful, will voices be raised in defence of a minority not yet fully reconciled with a British state? Will British citizens of Pakistani descent not be bothered by the apparent unwillingness of people around the world to respond to calls for aid for the flood-stricken Asian country? As the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, cracks down on the Roma - apparently for the sake of poll ratings - where are the letters of outrage? The Pope has expressed his concern; odd that no political party is echoing him here.

It may seem strange to some that this is being written by an ex-police officer. But surrounded by the silence of others, and following conversations with friends, former colleagues and even perfect strangers from black and minority communities, I have concluded that it is perhaps best for these questions to be coming from an unexpected direction.

Do not believe that racial disadvantage has gone away. Do not allow the marvellous gains in integration to falter long before they have achieved equality of opportunity. We ought to be hearing something from both the coalition and the opposition. Don't hold your breath.

Ian Blair was commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 2005-2008 and is now a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial