Leading article: A nation divided by more than race


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The Independent Online

In many respects, Britain in 2012 is a far better country than it was in 1993, when Stephen Lawrence was murdered. At least as far as race is concerned, non-white people get a fairer deal from the education system; it has become less acceptable to express racist views in public – including on the football pitch – and there are more non-white people on television and in Parliament. Apparently contrary statements can both be true: that Britain, always a relatively open-minded country, became more tolerant over the past 19 years; and that racial prejudice is still a serious problem.

In our special report today, we detail the statistics that spell out how different life still is for non-white citizens, whose outcomes at every stage in life tend to be worse than for their white counterparts. There are still too few non-white faces at the top of the City and the professions, including the media, and indeed this newspaper.

That said, the long story of the search for justice for the Lawrence family helped to change the Metropolitan Police, and other police forces. The outcry over the murder, and the shock of the Macpherson report on the Met's failings in investigating it, forced the pace of change in attitudes and recruitment. But we have a long way to go before our criminal justice system treats all citizens equally.

As we report today, non-white people are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, more likely to be given custodial sentences if found guilty, and likely to be given longer sentences than white people convicted of the same offences.

The nature of racism has changed, however. The growth of the Muslim population, and the prejudice against them since 9/11, has clouded the picture, as has the the arrival of white immigrants from central Europe to expand the workforce since the enlargement of the European Union in 2004.

Recently, however, something else has happened. Hard economic times have exposed the extent to which some problems that were seen through the prism of race are as much questions of class and inequality. As Paul Vallely writes today, the Lawrence case is similar to that of Rhys Jones in 2007 and of Anuj Bidve on Boxing Day, in that they were respectable boys killed by thugs, regardless of colour. It is no excuse, although it is sometimes a partial explanation, to say that racism can be an expression of white working-class alienation.

For a long time, it was easier to make progress against racism – and to push the class issue aside – because the long boom allowed all levels of society to feel that they were getting on, and because it meant that the bill for benefit dependency was affordable. That is why this newspaper has repeatedly criticised the coalition Government for its failure to follow through on its "all in this together" rhetoric. David Cameron, with the insight of a public relations professional, realised that it was important to be seen as wanting the burden of sacrifice at a time of austerity to be shared fairly. But he has failed lamentably to match words with actions.

Last week, the Prime Minister sounded weak and unconvincing in his New Year Radio 4 interview when pressed on what he intended to do about excessive executive pay. He accepted that "people are not satisfied" and hastened to add "I'm not satisfied", but, when asked what he proposed to do, he mentioned the bank levy that has already been imposed, and spoke vaguely about greater transparency.

Whatever else Ed Miliband may be failing to do as Leader of the Opposition, he at least managed to outflank the Government yesterday with specific proposals to curb unjustified high pay. By contrasting the difficulties of the "squeezed middle" with the apparent impunity of the richest 1 per cent, Mr Miliband has rightly put Mr Cameron under pressure.

Whether the threat to the social fabric is framed in terms of race, class or culture, inequality is the underlying challenge for 2012. Not just the gap between Mr Miliband's squeezed middle and the very rich: this may also be the year when Iain Duncan Smith's cuts to welfare benefits start to bite.

The summer's riots suggested that the alienation of poor urban youth is already serious. The stakes are high. Unless the implied social contract that holds us together can be renewed by this Government, the danger is that what progress has been made in improving the lot of the poorest in society – black or white – over the past 19 years will be reversed.