Like some missing piece of a jigsaw, black people are finally being sought after. After years of overt abuse or just pretending non- whites were not there, national institutions are co-opting Afro-Caribbean, African and Asian faces into their ranks.

Take for example The Sun, which after rebranding itself a paper "dedicated to the people of Britain" earlier this year, ensured that an Asian waiter appeared reading the paper in an expensive TV campaign. Or the Tory party's William Hague, who popped up at the Notting Hill carnival, partying away.

New Britain feels the need to "include" black and brown faces to proclaim itself a vibrant, multi-cultural place. The most obvious reason for this is the need for modern society to seek to abolish racism. The idea that some of the nation's most powerful bodies victimise their citizens because they are not white undermines the concept of the Britain they aim to uphold.

For some, this has meant confronting powerful adversaries. Hague, who has called for a "patriotism without bigotry", did not hesitate to attack the saloon-bar politics of Lord Tebbit when the peer warned that multi-culturalism could turn Britain into another Yugoslavia.

Facing down the prejudice of individuals is easy; coping with the racist nature of a vast organisation is more difficult. The army has come up with a novel solution. For years, its record of racial discrimination appeared of little concern to the top brass. So, its white chief, General Sir Roger Wheeler, publicly admitted the army had made mistakes and pledged a five-fold increase in the number of non-white soldiers. At the same time, generals wheeled out British Afro-Caribbean, African and Asian cadres to say they had "no problems" with their careers in the armed services.

However noble the intentions, the army's PR is weakened by the experiences of non-white faces who have entered the service only to be subjected to vicious abuse and physical attacks. Take for example Bombardier Nasar Khan who served in the Gulf War. During his 10 years with the armed services, he tells of being beaten up, claims he was told the Royal Military Police "don't take Pakis" after enquiring about a job, and repeatedly called a "fucking Paki" by his peers and superiors. His tale will hardly encourage other black people to sign up. With each horror story, the likelihood of more non-white faces in the ranks becomes more remote - hence the need to launch a recruitment drive.

Whitehall, for all its supposed meritocracy, has few black faces. The clubbiness of the Foreign Office is a good example of a pillar of British society where what school you went to counts more than what you yourself can or should do. In practise this has seen a pitiful number of black British diplomats emerge. Of 5,612 FO staff, only 189 are from ethnic minorities and of those some 160 are in the lower grades.

Aware that the image projected by the Prime Minister of a multi-cultural Britain is hardly represented by the current crop of ambassadors, ministers have jump-started the process by simply picking a black diplomat. Too radical a solution? Only if the alternative - a form of unintended apartheid - is considered palatable.