Political correctness has not gone nearly far enough yet

The anti-PC lobby is just a reactionary backlash against the gains made by blacks, women and gays
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THE NOTTING Hill carnival approaches, and it is to the eternal benefit of the Carnival that, for this year at least, prominent Tory politicians are likely to keep their baseball hats firmly in the cupboard. If past form is anything to go by, some sections of the media will take the festivities as their annual opportunity to examine the state of "race relations" in Britain. The Windrush celebrations this year have led to a revealing and often emotional discussion of the experiences of Britain's black population. But such a mature discussion is all too rare.

Take one example, the National Union of Students. One of the most amazing developments of recent years has been that the NUS has energetically directed its anti-racism campaign against a tiny group of Islamic fundamentalists whom, the student leaders claim, are the main cause of racism in the colleges. I am sure that this group are, in all likelihood, deeply reactionary, but to take up this problem as part of an anti-racist campaign, when the main problem of racism in our society is against the black communities, not caused by them, is bizarre.

This confused response to racism is thankfully less prevalent in the thinking of the Government. A little-noticed story, which has bubbled away for a month but never really received the coverage it should have, is extremely good news for those of us who have argued that racism has got to be tackled positively. At the beginning of this month, Jack Straw announced that the Government has ordered the adoption of a 12-month race equality action plan after being shocked by the results of research into attitudes of the 10,700 Home Office staff. In focus groups, some Home Office managers were quoted as saying: "If you're a racist it is a bloody good job" and "Nigerians are the worst thieves in the world. If a Nigerian said `Nice day', I'd go outside and check". Managers are also accused of engaging in racist banter and victimisation of black staff.

The Government's response commits the Home Office to providing a day's racial awareness and equal opportunities training for top management, a new complaints scheme, targets for recruitment and promotion and improvements to job vacancy advertising, selection and promotion. A leaflet has been circulated to departmental staff, and the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office said: "A more concerted, systematic and sustained effort is needed."

No doubt the anti-political correctness lobby will be squirming out of the woodwork as I write. There is virtually no more insidious phrase in social policy debate than political correctness. An American import, its brilliant tactic is to label anyone who thinks we should do anything about racism, sexism or homophobia as "PC", thus meaning that we don't have to listen to them. In fact, anyone who suggests discrimination even exists is deemed to be "intolerant", "humourless", "Stalinist", "fascist" or "patronising".

The most ridiculous manifestation of this debate are the thousands of column inches devoted to the "crisis of masculinity" we are all meant to be experiencing because women are supposedly taking over. Men are apparently feeling unappreciated, and now everyone is meant to feel sorry for us. The anti-PC lobby is just a reactionary backlash against legitimate gains made by women, black people, lesbians and gay men. Far from having gone "too far", most of those gains have not gone far enough, as a glance at the dreadful economic position of black people in the US would show.

At the Greater London Council we tried our best to take our obligations under the Race Relations Act seriously. We established an ethnic minorities committee, which was much derided at the time. It is clear from reading the comments of senior civil servants in the Home Office that they have come to many of the same conclusions about tackling racism in their department that the ethnic minorities committee came to then. Through the adoption of an equal opportunities policy, backed up with positive action, the GLC introduced compulsory equality training for all interviewing staff, ethnic origin monitoring linked to equality targets, new grievance procedures and an imaginative "Second Chance" training programme.

Through such measures the proportion of ethnic minority employees increased from 8 per cent in 1983 to 11 per cent in mid-1985. That success, if the GLC had not been abolished, would have still had some way to go before we came close to 18 per cent, which was at that time the proportion of ethnic minority Londoners.

The question for the cynics is: what would you do instead? At the GLC we tried to deal with the poor employment of black people in the fire brigade, which had just six black fire fighters in 1981 and more than 100 by mid-1985. Not a massive number out of 7,000 in total, but it would not have happened at all if the siren voices of the cynics had been listened to.

Jack Straw's initiative is timely in the light of the amazing revelations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which has served to underline the crisis of confidence that exists amongst the black communities towards so many institutions, none more so than the Metropolitan Police. The relationship between the police and the black communities is at an all time low. As the National Assembly Against Racism points out, "the perception of the black communities is that the police are racist, aggressive and increasingly corrupt". Evidence submitted to the Lawrence inquiry on stop-and-search figures and black deaths in police custody only reinforces that feeling.

Home Office national figures show that black people are nearly eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people, with the Metropolitan Police stopping and searching 189 black people per 1,000 of the black population, compared to a national average of all stops and searches of 17 per 1,000 people. These searches have doubled during the last 10 years, and half of them are in London.

A Home Office report by the Police Research Group published on the day after Jack Straw's announcement of the Race Equality Action Plan showed that black people were disproportionately likely to die in police custody, particularly as a result of police action. Of the 32 deaths linked to police or other official action between 1990 and 1996, nine were of black people.

The worst thing is, the more you look at the statistics, the worse things seem. The low number of black police officers; the even lower number of senior black police officers; the negligible number of police officers who have been disciplined for wrongful arrest, racist abuse and harassment of black people; the disproportionately high black prison population; the level of racist harassment and intimidation which goes unreported. It is a mountain of shameful figures, and sitting on top of it is the symbolic failure of the authorities to bring anyone to justice for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Are we going to let it carry on or are we going to follow the Home Secretary's example with his race equality action plan for Home Office staff and take the first fundamental step: accept that the problem exists?