The search for racial equality: 31 years of fighting racisim

The final report by the Commission for Racial Equality paints a grim picture of a deeply divided society. And yet, says Andy McSmith , we shouldn't forget how far we have come
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Black and Asian policemen did not patrol the streets. There were no ethnic minority MPs, or business tycoons. Television viewers were just starting to get used to the idea of a black man – Trevor McDonald – reading the news. And the England football team remained an all-white squad. This was Britain in 1976.

It was into this society that the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) was thrust. That body will disappear in two weeks. The country it leaves behind is unquestionably a radically different one from that which it encountered upon its establishment.

For the Britain of 1976 was a nation riven by racial divide, suspicion and deep inequality. The echoes of Enoch Powell's infamous "rivers of blood" speech made eight years before hand still sent chills down the spines of those who had travelled across the globe to improve their own lives and who were by then enriching the country they had chosen to make home.

As the Labour peer Bhikhu Parekh pointed out recently: "Compared with 1976 we now have more ethnic minority MPs and peers, and even a few ministers, including one, and previously two, in the cabinet. Ethnic minorities are accepted as part of society and are good at using the political system. The media are generally more sensitive, and include ethnic minority reporters and columnists."

The idea that a mainstream British politician could make a call such as Powell's is now unthinkable, but in 1976 it was still a factor in everday life for thousands of new Britons. Every day they would overhear comments encouraging them to "go home", while television comedy shows repeated such urgings – all, of course, "in jest". The National Front marched through the streets of London and other UK towns and cities.

Since then Britain has been on a journey that has transformed it from the black-and-white nation it was in the late Seventies to a much more integrated and representative one. That journey though, has at times been painful.

Ask the pioneering black footballers, such as Viv Anderson, who won his first England cap in 1978, or Cyrille Regis, who was part of a West Bromwich team booed at grounds across the country – because they were black. As bananas rained down on them from terraces, they felt the pain. But Britain was being forced to look up and accept it was changing.

Sportsmen and women were at the vanguard of a revolution in community relations. And for all the problems they faced, the glories of the sporting field did much to promote peace off it. Yet, in the early 1980s, while the likes of Daley Thomspson and Tessa Sanderson were striking gold for Britain abroad, inner-city ethnic populations remained in a state of rage.

Battles with the police were fought from Brixton to Toxteth, producing moments of horror such as the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in Tottenham in 1985. But the notion of Britain as a country containing one large white community and one small black one and that the two were largely exclusive was crumbling.

After years of chipping away South Asian medics were starting to penetrate the upper echelons of the NHS. White teenagers embraced music that grew out of the American inner cities and had been viewed as "black". The sons of parents who had come to the UK from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent began to represent England at cricket.

By the 1990s the migrant culture that had been mocked 20 years beforehand was starting to be embraced as the driving force behind an urban renaissance. And by the early years of the 21st century it was positively booming. Parts of cities that had been branded racial ghettos became the hippest places for artistic crowds and creative communities.

Of course for many, the pain goes on. The victims of sporadic inner-city youth violence remain largely black. The death of Stephen Lawrence in 1998 again drew attention to failings within a system that numerous members of ethnic minority communities feel is still skewed against them. The deaths of many more black youths in the years since have added to the belief that the white establishment and the police care little for their welfare.

And in its legacy report, A Lot Done, a Lot to Do, published yesterday, the CRE made it clear that the UK remains a nation of great racial issues – problems that may be tackled by a successor body that looks at the issue of race alongside other factors of social division.

The report declared Britain to be "a place of inequality, exclusion, and isolation". If you are black, you are likely to have left school early to go into an ill-paid job, or no job at all, to have clashed with the law, to be ill, poor, and cut off from the white community.

The report said: "An ethnic minority British baby born today is sadly still more likely to go on to receive poor quality education, be paid less, live in sub-standard housing, be in poor health and be discriminated against in other ways than his or her white contemporaries. This persistent, longstanding inequality is quite simply unfair and unacceptable.

"We live in a society where people may live side by side, occupy the same spaces and schools and shop in the same high streets, but too often they lead parallel lives that never meet.

"On top of this, our society is fracturing. The pace of change in Britain over the last few years has unsettled many, and caused people to retreat into and reinforce narrower ethnic and religious ties."

The report points out that those from ethnic minorities remain frighteningly underrepresented at leading universities and in the workplace. It mentions that only 3.5 per cent of police officers, 4 per cent of prison officers, and 7 per cent of court staff are from ethnic minorities, and that at the present rate of progress it will take until 2080 before ethnic minorities are properly represented in the House of Commons.

Poor as these figures may be, each one is an infinite improvement on 1976, when representation was virtually non-existent and the problems of immigrant communities largely ignored – while many hoped they would simply go away.

Now the picture is more fractured. There is not one minority community but a whole range, some of which are faring far better than others. Children of Chinese and Indian descent are doing better at school, generally, than white working-class boys. Of the different black and Asian groups, the Bangladeshis generally suffer the worst social problems, but their children are probably better off than the children of Irish or gypsy travellers. Some of the poorest living conditions are now experienced not by black immigrants, but by white migrant workers from eastern Europe. Indeed, yesterday it was the issues raised by this latter group that prompted the chief constable of Cambridgeshire Police to speak out this week about the matter of migrants and tackling crime.

Meanwhile, events such as the July 7 suicide bombings have created a new public anxiety about young Muslims, born and educated in Britain, who manifestly are not demanding to be integrated. The veil, which never used to be a source of controversy, is now regarded as a symbol either of Muslim separatism, or patriarchy, or both.

Against this background, the decision to abolish the CRE as a separate organisation has been controversial. It is as if the Government has decided that white racism is no longer a distinct evil, but is just one among of social problems that act as obstacles to self-fulfillment. The underachieving black boy, the man in the wheelchair who cannot find work, the battered wife, the gay who has been beaten up in the park are just some of the people coming under the wing of one big new super quango – the Equalities Commission.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz, for instance, has fought against the reform since it was first suggested, three years ago. He suspects that it coincided with a political reaction against "multiculturalism", which is blamed by some for driving communities apart, and he fears that one organisation trying to speak for every disadvantaged group will produce endless muddle. "A white gay man does not encounter the same acts of discrimination as an Asian woman; nor a white disabled woman and a black man," he said.

However, for all the gloom, the CRE report does at least open with one cheerful comment: "Only a few decades ago, it was acceptable to put up a sign in a boarding house saying 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs'. We don't see those signs any more, thanks to race relations legislation."

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The CRE has missed far too many chances to challenge discrimination

For the Commission for Racial Equality, the end is nigh and the lights must be turned off. I confess I feel no great sadness over its demise. Relief, maybe.

A time comes for us all to pass on. The CRE has aged, become less agile, disconnected from the real world, legally ineffectual and politically obliging. For some years now, PR, media benders and posh parties have commandeered more attention than individual grievances and test cases. The commission was not delivering what it was set up to do.

The last time it seriously attempted to meet its statutory obligations was when Herman Ouseley was the chair, the first black person to run the body. He understood the dynamics of racial discrimination and the attitudes that made it normative. Between 1982 and 1987, Sir Peter Newsam and his co-chair, Professor Bhikhu Parekh, skilfully managed Margaret Thatcher's antipathy to the discrimination laws and bravely challenged race prejudices within the criminal justice system.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry years later revealed how entrenched were these attitudes. Remember, that inquiry was not initiated by the CRE. The parents of the murdered boy had to get official redress with the help of sympathetic lawyers.

Trevor Phillips was the most compelling leader the CRE ever had. He was and is too close to New Labour and was at the helm when British society had become harder to describe purely in terms of white privilege and black disadvantage. For both these reasons Phillips was not as focused on racial and ethnic equality as he was on integration and latterly the Muslim question – issues that preoccupy the ruling party. Under him the CRE appeared to neglect its core functions. As an old battler for equality for all, I was at times perplexed, at times infuriated that the CRE had shifted so far from its purpose, into a social engineering institute.

Campaigning Muslims and ethnic groups demanding cultural rights diverted attention away from racism and I think the CRE allowed itself to be pulled by the tow. I have other criticisms: The CRE has not been able to stem the rise in hostility towards asylum-seekers and migrants; it never confronted the New Labour home secretaries who sought to exploit these attitudes; it has not taken on the still, almost wholly white top 10 per cent of all professions and has done nothing to halt employment practices that exploit non-white labour.

Indisputably this is a less overtly racist country than it was when the Windrush sailed in, in the late Forties, or when I arrived in 1972. Many of us black and Asian Britons have broken through the barriers and claimed our rights. A significant number of us are in positions of real power for the first time ever. Did the CRE make any of that happen? Yes, some and for that we must be grateful. There were, however, too many missed possibilities, not nearly enough challenges to society and, most dispiriting of all, white racism today is thought "understandable" and all the fault of terrorist Muslims and shifty migrants.


* The Commission for RacialEquality is founded.

* Ethnic minorities make up 3.3 per cent of British population

* Immigration is restricted by government legislation making it difficult to enter the country without a work permit

* Afro-Caribbean youths clash with police at the Notting Hill Carnival in west London

* The average weekly take-home pay is £67 per week for white Britons, £58 per week for ethnic minorities

* ITV is still screening Love Thy Neighbour, a controversial sitcom about white couple living next door to black couple.

* The National Party, a breakaway group from the National Front, has two councillors elected in Blackburn

* There are no MPs from ethnic minorities sitting in the House of Commons

* The 'Rock Against Racism' campaign is formed after Eric Clapton urges the audience at a gig in Birmingham to support Enoch Powell

* Asian women working at the Grunwick FIlm Processing Laboratory in Willesden, north London, strike for a year over poor working conditions

* Police are exempted from the Racism Act

* Gurdip Singh Chagger,18, is stabbed to death by a white gang in Southall, Middlesex


* Ethnic minorities make up 12.5 per cent of the population

* The Celebrity Big Brother race row involving Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty prompts outrage in Britain and India

* Immigration issues continue to dominate domestic policy-making, amid the arrival of workers from eastern Europe

* Police pose for photographs with costumed revellers at the Notting Hill Carnival

* The employment rate is 75 per cent but only 60 per cent of ethnic minorities are in work

* The BBC apologises after Iggy Pop refers to "Paki shops" during an interview in June

* A National Front candidate, Simon Deacon, is elected to Markyate Parish Council in Hertfordshire

* There are 15 MPs from ethnic minorities in the Commons

* The BNP distributes music outside schools, while the NME gives away a 15-track 'Love Music, Hate Racism' CD with its October issue

* Accusations of racial prejudice lead to indepedent investigations into the conduct of several police officers

* Four white youths convicted of the 2006 murder of Mohammad Parvaiz, 42, in Huddersfield

* The Commission for Racial Equality is to be replaced in October by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights