Race: Things we can’t say (except when we can)

A front page of the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, from 16th March 2015. It says "At last! A man who dares to tell the truth about race: Ex-race tsar says silencing of debate has done devastating harm to Britain".Last Thursday Channel 4 broadcast a 65-minute-long discourse by Trevor Phillips, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality and then (after its amalgamation with all the other equality bodies) the Equality and Human Rights Commission, on the premise that people are afraid to say certain things about race, particularly in terms of making generalisations, even though these things are true. (He could, however, say them in the Daily Mail, which ran a lengthy article by him last Monday). His other contentions were that whites are often afraid to criticise anyone that is not white, even when they are clearly doing wrong, that segregation is the cause of such events as the 2005 London bombings and the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and that the rise of movements like UKIP among whites are an understandable reaction to the “liberal metropolitan elite” ignoring their concerns about these things. (Watchable here in the UK until a month after broadcast.)

The first problem with all this is that people do say these things all the time, and they have been saying them in public, mostly in papers like the Daily Mail. For decades the right-wing press have been running inflammatory stories about race, including stories about stupid things Labour (and Liberal/Lib Dem) councils were supposedly doing to promote racial diversity in schools in the 1980s (some of them fabricated), through to the articles targeted at Muslim women who wear niqab more recently. Phillips is merely playing up to a right-wing agenda of telling them what he wants to hear and being commended by them for being “brave”, when in fact these are dominant views and not indeed all that controversial among people of his own background anymore. He also got an overlength documentary broadcast in the evening on a major TV channel; hardly the treatment of a voice crying in the wilderness.

The second claim — that “whites are presumed guilty” is true in some places (I’ve seen situations where white individuals were accused of being racist for not bowing to the demands of a voluble black blogger or activist, or not doing so quickly enough), but given that there have long been two white-dominated tabloid newspapers disseminating a daily diet of bigotry, and of lies about multiculturalism and about other cultures than their own, and two major white-dominated broadsheets backing this up with “science” and long words, one can hardly blame non-whites, immigrants, their activists, social workers who work with them, and so on, for being defensive. The situation is or at least was polarised, and only the weaker side is being blamed. As for it being to blame for Haringey social workers’ failure to protect Victoria Climbié, Phillips conveniently forgets that the same department also failed a white boy, Peter Connolly, who was also murdered by members of his family a few years later. This was a dysfunctional department and blaming cultural factors was just one excuse people used to pass the buck. And who got the blame for Victoria’s death? A black, female, junior social worker, Lisa Arthurworrey.

He also mentions a film that was commissioned to warn young girls of the dangers of grooming, which heavily featured young Asian men in flash cars chatting up girls on the streets. He claims it was suppressed because portraying Asian men as the groomers was seen as racist, so another film was commissioned which showed a white abuser and a black victim. However, the film, if shown, would have given out the message “beware of Asian men in flash cars”, when sexual abusers come in every colour and economic status, and given that the film would likely have been shown well beyond Bradford or Rotherham, the message may well have been lost on many girls. Not all the ‘Asians’ that were involved looked like Pakistanis (some of the guilty men were Kurds, who are much lighter-skinned) and even in places beyond the north where the groomers were Asians, the Yorkshire accents might have lessened the impact. The majority of sexual abusers are men, and the majority of people in the UK are white. Beyond that specific set of circumstances, a white male abuser is the more likely scenario.

The third main claim is that segregation is the cause of violence, including the London bombings and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. He claims that, for example, he warned the French authorities to “get rid of the ghettoes” after the 2005 riots in French cities, and they were ignored, and the upshot was the Charlie murders this year. This is an extremely simplistic explanation. He repeatedly uses over-emotive language such as “ghetto” and “segregation” for any situation where people of kind live together, whether by choice or not. In the case of France, where the ghettoes are on the outskirts of many cities, this was not the case; in the case of many such situations in England, it was partly their choice, although dictated by such factors as needing to be around the mosque or temple, the ethnic food shop, others who spoke the same language, and for protection against racist violence. Not all such areas even have a majority population of that ethnicity, and some are in fact majority white (e.g. Brixton, although not certain estates), but outsiders will notice that there are a lot of a certain minority there and think “they’ve taken over this area”. The shops and restaurants on the high street do not always account for the houses on the back streets, but it does not stop people scaremongering about take-overs and mini Islamic republics just because there are certain areas where women are not afraid to wear the veil.

Let’s not forget, “segregation” was a legally-enforced régime where blacks were forced to use separate facilities, from houses to bus seats to water fountains, where only (usually rich) whites were allowed to vote, and where blacks and whites were not allowed to marry each other. “Ghettoes” were overcrowded Jewish enclaves in European cities, and Jews had to live there, and the more recent ones in Nazi-occupied Poland were urban concentration camps set up to allow easy deportation to the death and work-to-death camps. While the original ghettoes had some benefits for the minority (or some members of it), the purpose was to keep them separate and to maintain their inferiority. They were enforced and planned; they did not just establish themselves and were not for the convenience or protection of the minorities.

In blaming an exaggerated “segregation” for riots and bombings, he ignores all the other causes. The 2005 London bombings were probably years in planning, and perhaps they chose the day after the city was chosen to host the Olympics but that has never been proven. The bombers belonged to a violent extremist movement; they may have been partly motivated by British involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars and support for Israel, but although white and Asian areas in the north are more separate than they are in London, the same extremist movement thrived in London as well, including in highly mixed areas of west and north London — it was openly tolerated and very visible throughout the 1990s until well after the 9/11 attacks. Much the same is true of the Charlie Hebdo murders, but the French state’s open hostility to Islam, displayed in such behaviour as banning girls’ headscarves in schools (and the harassment of and discrimination against women who wear it in other public places), the obstruction of Muslim schools, police harassment of young men of Arab (and African) appearance and so on, no doubt motivates some young Muslim men to turn their backs on French society (and on certain compromised ‘moderate’ imams) and join the extremists. Other riots were clearly triggered by police brutality, both here and in the USA. The separation of communities, and lack of understanding between them, can be a factor in some of this, but extremism can thrive without it, and so can state and police oppression.

Towards the end of his documentary, he shows an interview with the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, in which he asserts that his party is “colour-blind” and that he favours scrapping nearly all legislation that bans discrimination against people on the grounds of colour. This has already been widely reported and will no doubt prove damaging to his party’s electoral ambitions. He also attends their conference, and approaches one white man and asks if they might talk about the issues later. The man says “no we won’t”, and demands that Phillips go away, and then accuses him of harassing him. It’s not clear if the man is put off by Phillips’s colour, or because he knows who he is, or because of the camera crew behind him, or indeed who the man is, but Phillips uses it as an example of how the so-called “liberal metropolitan elite” is held in suspicion by the sort of “ordinary white people” that vote for and support UKIP.

However, Phillips does not really question how liberal or indeed metropolitan this elite is. The present government is dominated by rich Tories whose policies are designed to benefit the well-off and to target people dependent on benefits, even if this is dictated by disability. They are largely public-school educated, based in the south-east but not London, and are liberal only on gay rights. Their support base is suburban and provincial, not metropolitan. The myth of the “liberal metropolitan elite” is a standard American conservative political tactic, normally deployed by members of the wealthy business elite to persuade middle-class provincial whites that they are the real men of the people, and to vote against their own economic interests. Phillips also does not investigate the role of the media in hyping up the issues at the heart of UKIP’s campaign: immigration, the loss of sovereignty to the EU, nuisance legislation, political correctness.

The show ends with him visiting a school which had paid particular attention to the needs of every community which had sent children to it, to the extent that no ethnic minority was doing particularly badly, and had now decided to focus on the needs of the white working-class children who were falling behind. The screen went blank and a slogan (one of many throughout the programme) appeared: “White (& poor) is the new black”. This is another ridiculous oversimplification, confusing economic or academic underachievement with long-standing racial prejudice and disempowerment. There is nothing like the level of antagonism going back decades between young white boys and the police as there is with young black boys and men and nothing like the history of cultural antagonism with other parts of society, or malign stereotyping. The problem of poor white underachievement has been in existence for a long time, and Phillips does not question why. It suits the powers that be for this underclass to exist; it gives them an excuse to attack teachers and social workers and their unions (that so-called liberal elite again) and an unquestioning consumer base for the mass media.

The whole documentary is a case of Phillips playing the role of the “model minority”, which is why he was appointed to head the ECHR in the first place, rather than the leaders of any of the other equalities bodies. He’s a middle-class black male with a long history as a political insider, and his status gives him precious little difficulty ingratiating himself with middle-class white males, particularly when a Labour government is in power, but as this shows, the Tory press can warm to him as well. He’s someone who speaks their language and whom they can do business with; certainly a long way from the tabloids’ stereotype of the black, one-legged, blind (Muslim) lesbian that you supposedly had to be to get money out of a Labour council, and not shouty or ‘uppity’. I have a hunch that by “segregation” he really means Muslims refusing to assimilate and that he is suggesting that people shouldn’t be afraid to say that Muslims are the problem. But his evidence is weak and he fails, or refuses, to consider, or even mention, other explanations.

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