Trevor Phillips: 'Racial bias is emerging in spite of everybody doing the right thing'

The Monday Interview: Leader of the Commission for Racial Equality
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He says he has lost count of the number of times people have tried to paint a rosy picture of race relations by citing the many black and Asian faces mixing at their north London dinner parties. "The whole thing about people saying there are all sorts of people coming round my house is a north London phenomenon. It's not true in Leicester or Birmingham or Oldham or even in most of south London."

Such subjective analysis has skewed the whole race debate, says the leader of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), and helped to give the impression that if it was not for a small number of extremist groups like the "nasty BNP" we would not have a race problem.

"It is so wrongheaded, and frankly so disrespectful to the issue of race and race relations because this is the one issue where everybody thinks that they are experts based upon what happened to them in Tesco last week," said Mr Phillips. "And then they wonder why every time something like Birmingham comes along it comes as a big surprise."

No one could accuse Mr Phillips of being caught on the hop by the interracial tension that exploded along the fault lines of Birmingham's Asian and black communities and ended in violent rioting, leaving one Asian man dead.

Mr Phillips' recent speech, warning of Britain "sleep-walking to segregation", was perhaps more prescient than he could have ever known.

But at the time his warning attracted fierce criticism from many so-called experts on race who accused Mr Phillips of being out of step with modern multicultural Britain. Some even suggested he was trying to grab headlines by using inflammatory language.

Others have accused him of being too passive, saying he is a Labour placeman carefully minding the race beat for Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary. Critics have pointed to the Commission for Racial Equality's apparent reticence over concerns among Muslim leaders about the impact of Labour's terror laws on Asian communities.

Does he think he has become passive and compliant in the face of growing racial tension? Absolutely not, he says. "A lot of people resent what we're doing now because it would make everybody's life so much easier if I were an angry black man, and I can do that as well as anyone; I can do that better than Darcus Howe. But why would I? Why would I feed my ego? I would let another generation of children go by and fail again."

He says the best approach is one of cool analysis, not knee-jerk reaction. "A lot of my friends in politics probably think I am too passive about this issue and I have lost my sense of proportion. But I don't think I have, I happen to believe that the dividing lines between our societies are going to be along race and ethnicity rather than class."

Yet he acknowledges that his arguments have been hijacked by the far right to suggest that diverse communities cannot work in Britain.

"I am well aware that some people on the right are using my words to suggest that we shouldn't have a diverse society. My reasons for talking about this is exactly the opposite. I believe we can and should but we won't do it by sitting passively hoping everything will come right - we have got to work at it."

For the chairman of the CRE it is vital that we start treating issues surrounding race seriously or be ready to face the consequences. And he says the inter-racial social conditions that drove people to riot in Birmingham are also present in every other large British city.

Mr Phillips will not be drawn on whether Britain faces a winter of Asian/black race riots. Instead, he says that 40 years after the first race relations legislation was introduced in this country the problem of racial discrimination has not gone away - it has just become complex, more covert, more sophisticated and more unconscious.

"We are now getting into the territory where people don't want to do down black people, we are now moving into the far more difficult territory where patterns of racial bias are emerging in spite of everybody doing the right thing."

Mr Phillips, 51, has identified a fear among politicians and journalists about talking freely about race which he traces back to the "rivers of blood" speeches made by Enoch Powell 40 years ago.

Trevor Phillips was the last of seven children, born in Islington, north London, to Guyanese parents. His father worked as a British Railways clerk, having come to Britain from what was then British Guiana (later Guyana) in the 1950s. His mother was a seamstress.

In the 1960s, his parents moved to New York to improve the quality of their lives but, considering the city an unfit place to grow up, they dispatched Trevor to a school in Guyana.

Later he came back to Britain, attending a junior school in Haringey, north-east London, then a grammar school. Afterwards he had a spell at Queen's College boys' school in Georgetown, Guyana, where he flourished under a harsh disciplinary regime.

After Georgetown he went to Imperial College London to study chemistry and later became the first black president of the National Union of Students. He developed strong political contacts and it was at this time that he got to know Charles Clarke and Peter Mandelson, who was best man at his wedding.

But in the end he chose journalism rather than politics and began work as a researcher at London Weekend Television where he became a presenter.

After a spell as chairman of the London assembly, David Blunkett appointed him in 2003 as head of the CRE.

Mr Phillips says his own experiences of racism are no different from any other high-profile black or Asian figure working in Britain. When he was 23 he was sent his first race-hate mail. "It was a card with a picture of myself with a noose around my neck."

A few days ago he was reminded that, 30 years later, direct racism was still in evidence when John Sentamu spoke out about how after he was made Britain's first black Archbishop he was sent letters smeared in human excrement.

"It's important to remind people that there are black and Asian people up and down this country who day after day suffer real persecution. Their children are intimidated, they lock them in at night because they are afraid of what might happen if they go out to play."

But Mr Phillips knows that race has evolved into a much more complex issue. He wants to shake white middle-class Britain out of its lazy assumptions so that people use science rather than anecdotes to justify their views.

The product from some of this race relations science, which CRE has already begun developing, has produced some disturbing findings.

Research into the "friendship circles" in Britain reveals that most people do not have a friend who is of a different race, and that young people from ethnic minorities are more exclusive in their circles of friends. Young blacks and Asians are twice as likely to have a completely ethnic-minority circle of friends than their white counterparts.

Mr Phillips wants more white people to follow the lead of the former Telegraph editor Sir Max Hastings, who was honest enough recently to admit he had never had a Muslim round for dinner.

"When people actually sit down and ask themselves who are my friends, you suddenly find, whoops, it's not what I thought it was."

Does Trevor Phillips really believe that Britain's race problems can be solved by getting white people to invite more minorities for dinner?

The answer to this question is both yes and no. "Yes, invite people round if you like the person. What I don't advise is people running out and finding the nearest Asian and Afro-Caribbean and saying would you like to come to dinner because the reaction would probably be what you deserve."

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