Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Trevor Phillips's pessimism is unfounded

Click to follow
The Independent Online

That we need to be concerned about the divisions within our country is not in dispute. Tribalisation is growing between and within black, Asian and white British communities. The Commission for Racial Equality findings that few people have friends across races and ethnicities is an issue to be confronted.

That we need fresh thinking and dynamic policies in these times of terrible rage and violence and uncertainty is also beyond doubt. Schools in some neighbourhoods have ended up with clusters of a single ethnic population or sometimes only children of colour, worrying trends. In northern towns such as Oldham, streets can be found showing similar population profiles. Alarmingly, large numbers of uneducated young black men are in prison; increasingly, Muslim boys are going the same way. Too many citizens feel detached from or hostile to the British nation and its structures and meanings, a disheartening fact, and potentially dangerous in a small country with many people.

But the pictures painted by Phillips, and the comparison with the US, do not bear sober scrutiny. We are not, nor will we ever be, like the US, because we have never had a history of legalised racism against slaves and ex-slaves; the BNP at its worst is not the Ku Klux Klan (still strong in some states). We have never had to struggle against official exclusionary policies in schools, buses and other public spaces, because we don't have the settled, de facto apartheid you see in every major city of the US.

We are different when it comes to the good news too. Affirmative action - like it or loathe it - undoubtedly helped to break open American institutions and industries. Once in, talented and ambitious African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities determinedly moved up the elevators to the top rooms of real power and influence, in universities, the media, politics, business, the army and so on. In the UK, the top 10 per cent still remains almost wholly white.

Individual success has not led to group betterment in the US. Nevertheless, Americans, the poorest and most troubled included, feel American in their hearts. The power of the American identity enters their blood young. Not so in the UK, where Britishness is always contested and endlessly consumes a nation that still has to find its modern identity.

The UK has the highest numbers of mixed-race families in the western world, and the trend spreads from the working classes to the middle classes. In our large cities we mingle easily. A few years back, I was in Atlanta for a conference. One evening, we were in the hotel restaurant with a band playing. A black British lawyer and I got up to dance, and then realised that everyone, including the waiters (mostly black) and the band itself, were staring as if we had landed from another planet. We sat down, and our American colleagues whispered that such inter-mixing was uncommon in this state, and frowned upon too.

Every campus in America has racially discrete fraternities and sororities; we have no such institutional arrangements, although student societies are now developing along these lines, a development to fear and beware of. No significant area in British cities can be described as a fixed ethnic enclave. From Brixton to Hampstead, areas shift and change their complexion, sometimes within a decade as in the case of Brixton or gentrified areas of Hackney.

Demographer Danny Dorling challenges Phillips's pessimistic scenario: "Racial segregation is not increasing. The carefully studied conclusion of academics in Britain is that there are no ghettos here. Racism is rife here but not expressed through rising levels of neighbourhood segregation nor are any ghettoes likely top be formed in the near future."

In truth, segregation is falling. Racists will love Phillips's predictions; it is what they want to believe. The carelessness of his words is disturbing. Why talk only about "coloured" ghettoes? The two tribes in Northern Ireland have become more segregated; why no panic about that? Communities and families locked in hopeless lives in deprived areas include whites, blacks and browns. Does white poverty not matter as much as black?

Then there are the contradictions in his views. Phillips wants "white" schools and universities to open up to other races, but still passionately supports faith based schools and special schools for black boys. His master, Tony Blair, loves pandering to Muslims who have shaped politics to suit their own ambitions for Muslim power and influence, disconnected from anti-racist struggles and the greater good of society. This blows apart any visions of a united country.

Let us say that Trevor Phillips is right and his detractors wrong. Let us say he understands the situation better than any of us, because of his job as head of the CRE, and that what he has learnt in that position is that the rest of us are sleepwalking to doom. If so, who does he blame for this? His party has been running the country for eight years now, promoting endless targets and monitoring and policies to promote "multiculturalism". The Army, police, BBC, big business, sports bodies, lawyers have all bought into these policies and the new laws protecting minorities against discrimination and incitement to hatred.

Why is it that we are falling apart, and are less integrated than we were under the Tories? Has the illegal and senseless war in Iraq and the vile demonisation of refugees contributed to the schisms? Will Trevor Phillips demand tough answers from his party, which has presided over the catastrophe he sees before him? If he thinks he is right, surely he has no other choice.

n Last week I criticised Christina Lamb, the foreign correspondent who allegedly once left her newborn baby in an incubator to go on an assignment and said she didn't deign to go to parents' evenings. The information came from a reputable broadsheet. Ms Lamb informs me that her views were distorted, that when she described these events it was to show how motherhood had compelled her to balance the demands of her job with her deep commitment to her child. I sincerely apologise to Ms Lamb for causing her distress.

Comments