Anti-racists urge Straw to pull out of debate with 'deplorable' scholar

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Jack Straw was criticised yesterday for agreeing to share a platform with an American academic who claims black people are genetically less intelligent than whites.

The Home Secretary was urged by anti-racists to withdraw from a debate next Tuesday with the social scientist Professor Charles Murray, or face protesters.

But Mr Straw said last night he was determined to take part. "I deplore many of the views Mr Murray has espoused but I also believe in argument and his ideas need to be engaged and challenged. My opposition to racism and profound commitment to a multi-cultural society is unequivocal."

Dr Murray caused outrage with his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which advocated the abolition of benefit payments to single mothers and claimed black Americans had lower IQs than white Americans. Although he denies saying blacks are genetically inferior, he is accused of claiming they are predisposed to poverty, as part of his call for the abolition of the welfare state. Dr Murray's views have been seized on by right-wing extremists, including the Ku-Klux-Klan.

The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight issued a statement yesterday accusing the Home Secretary of giving Dr Murray "credibility". It said: "It is not difficult to see why racist groups revere Murray. His book The Bell Curve renders racism, not as an irrational prejudice, but as natural.

"The view is that if blacks are over-represented among the poor, the indigent and the criminal, it is because their intelligence does not allow them to rise any higher in society." Searchlight said Mr Straw and his fellow speakers, Liberal Democrat Sue Slipman and writer Melanie Phillips, should pull out. "Would they debate with David Irving or fascists about whether the Holocaust took place?" it asked. "Almost certainly they would not."

The debate on Britain's underclass has been organised by The Sunday Times at Church House in Westminster.

Dr Murray, who has accused Britain of being blind to the problems of the underclass, is expected to speak on the rise of violent crime in Britain and an increase of more than 50 per cent in the proportion of men aged 18 to 24 not in work over the past 10 years.

The Sunday Times says Dr Murray will warn of indicators in Britain leading to conditions "associated with the growth of a class of violent, unsocialised people who, if they become sufficiently numerous, will fundamentally degrade the life of society". One indicator for the emergence of an underclass, he says, is the proportion of British children born out of wedlock, nearly 40 per cent.

A senior Home Office source said Mr Straw would argue that the way to prevent the emergence of an underclass was to "tackle social exclusion, crime and drug abuse and to support families of all types".

Dr Murray has had enthusiastic support from the Conservatives, and his belief that single parents were a destructive social phenomenon responsible for a crime-ridden underclass helped to inspire the ill-fated "back to basics" policy.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, met thesocial scientist last month during a fact-finding tour on law and order in America.