In Britain, nothing is ever as simple as black and white

When Reggie Kray writes a letter to Mrs Lawrence expressing his shame, it must mean something

I WISH I had become a luscious cookery guru instead of a worthy "race expert", which makes dinner parties (if indeed I am ever invited to them these days) such unsettling occasions. Two questions recur in various forms. Is racism really that much of a problem in this country? Yes. Are things getting better on the race front? Yes.

You see, both realities do coexist and cannot cancel each other out. The Lawrence report, the British Crime Surveys and piles of other evidence on discrimination hold up mirrors close to our faces so that we can see the blemishes.

There are areas in this country where there is unspeakable despair among black and Asian people. But today, because of the Lawrence inquiry, for the first time since the racist killing of Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill Gate in London in 1959 - when thousands of white people turned up at the funeral - there is a real willingness to change things. When Reggie Kray writes a letter expressing his shame to Mrs Lawrence, it must mean something. This is what makes the situation in Britain so complex, and why the majority of Britons avoid engaging with it. Many black and Asian people, wounded as they are by racism, would prefer it if there weren't too much distracting talk of progress and harmony. Most white people would just love it if we got out of the habit of moaning when in pain and became more "positive" (God, how I hate that word).

But even this is simplistic. Tory black and Asian Britons tend to be much more irritated by anti-racists than white people. And there are thousands of white Britons who are committed to fighting racism.

Exactly 20 years ago this spring Blair Peach died for this cause when he was bludgeoned to death by a specially constructed police baton as he was out demonstrating against the National Front in Southall in London. It has been ever thus. As CLR James, a Trinidadian and one of this country's finest intellectuals and writers, wrote in 1938: "The blacks will know as friends only those who are fighting in the ranks beside them. And whites will be there."

So nothing is as simple as black and white. It never was, and is still less so today when this small island kingdom is grappling with the very essence of nationhood as it comes to terms with devolution, further integration into Europe and the wider implications of globalisation. Against this backdrop, then, we need to become more politically and socially literate. We need to understand our complex, multitudinous society; to create a more relevant discourse, to tell new stories for what we might be if only we could liberate ourselves from the comforts of old habits and plain beliefs. We should expect more, too, of our leaders, who should have steered the ship better.

Fifty years after the Empire Windrush landed on these shores and four centuries after the first racist utterances about immigration were made by Queen Elizabeth I, right-minded white and black citizens have reason to ask why we have been governed so poorly that young men feel it is patriotic to kill someone just because his skin is of another colour. Why should we tolerate such fissures? Why are we allowing the country to lose out on the talents of bright young black and Asian graduates? No wonder so many of them laugh away the integrationist dreams of their parents.

Last night, BBC TV repeated an experiment first carried out 10 years back, when hidden cameras were used by two intelligent, articulate men - one black and one white - to test whether direct racial discrimination still existed. It was filmed in Leeds. We saw that in some situations the black man got worse treatment than his white colleague, and heard a foul-mouthed taxi driver holding forth on "smelly Asians" and race wars. Unlike those in the last programme, depressingly, these two investigators themselves ended up fighting each other, so wide was the gap between their perceptions.

This brings me to the theme of my new book, True Colours, published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, where I work part time. I plug it with an easy conscience because there are no royalties involved, and because doing so is marginally less distasteful than having a good friend promote or review it. Also, as the media itself cannot handle more than a couple of radical thoughts, I am giving you the bits you didn't get. I am suggesting to the Government that it should grasp this challenge and modernise the way race has been dealt with for half a century.

New Labour is undoubtedly serious about race. Can you imagine Michael Howard, Michael Portillo et al initiating the Lawrence inquiry? But the past is too much with us, and the future is too limited in the way it is envisaged. Never before have we had three political leaders so committed to a diverse, cosmopolitan national identity that allows the various tribes of these islands to feel good about their ancestry. Ethnicity today is as important to the Scots as it is to the Muslims, and a good thing too, as long as it doesn't descend into xenophobia.

Let us shed the term "ethnic minority". It is meaningless, and implies that only tinted people have an ethnicity and that all whites are the same. Let us expand the term "multiculturalism" to embrace even the English, poor dears, who have been mightily maligned for too, too long.

Let us break the foolish coupling of race and immigration. We have no evidence that, year on year, hardline immigration laws have made for better race relations. Immigration policies need to be based on need not panic, and race should have nothing to do with it. Look at Silicon Valley. If its Indian computer wizards were to go home, the blossoms would vanish instantly.

Let the people of this country, black and white, be consulted on issues to do with race and immigration. They never have been, and on this - and only on this - point, Enoch Powell was right. Let us proclaim with pride what we have achieved together. At present, in some ways, real integration has overtaken our understanding of it.

None of this can happen without leadership. As Michael Ignatieff puts it: "Racial attitudes, since they are an unstable mix of fears and fantasies, are especially susceptible to changes in the public culture. They are not a set of atavistic facts before which all politicians must kneel... racial attitudes can be changed." And if they are not, say goodbye to that cohesive, dynamic society we all wish we had and dream of having in the next millennium.

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