Leading article: Forty years of progress, but no room for complacency

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The Independent Online

The 40th anniversary of the 1965 Race Relations Act seems a good time to reflect on the history of race relations in modern Britain. Especially since we appear to be slipping into a sea of angst over questions of identity at the moment.

The Act was only the start of a long process of outlawing racial discrimination; it did not cover housing or employment. It took three years before it became illegal for employers and landlords to reject someone on the basis of their skin colour. And it was not until 1976 that a competent public body - the Commission for Racial Equality - was established to examine racial discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. Other important steps forward were made by the judiciary rather than our politicians. Lord Scarman's report into the Brixton riots in the 1980s drew attention to the iniquities of policing in London. And the 1999 Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence forced the police to face up to institutional racism.

The past 40 years have been an unremitting struggle. There can, however, be little doubt that Britain is a healthier place because of this struggle for equality and human rights. We are more ethnically integrated than other nations in Europe. Opinion polls show that Britons are increasingly at ease with living in a racially diverse society. And the last census in 2001 showed that the number of inter-ethnic relationships in Britain continues to grow. The UK has one of the fastest growing mixed-race populations in the world.

There has also been genuine progress in making public life more diverse. MPs from minority backgrounds are increasingly represented in parliament and in government. And this year, the Ugandan-born clergyman, Dr John Sentamu, was appointed the Archbishop of York. Indeed, Britain probably has more prominent ethnic minority figures in public life than any other country in Europe. On top of this, there are scores of cultural indications that we have become a mature nation with respect to minorities. Newsreaders from immigrant backgrounds are a regular feature on our screens. Comedians like Bernard Manning have become anachronisms. From the success of the Notting Hill Carnival to our diet, to the make-up of our football teams, Britain is increasingly colour-blind.

Despite all this, there is no room for complacency. White racism still lurks in the background. The recent revelation that the impressive Dr Sentamu was sent human excrement through the post upon his appointment is proof of that. Ethnic minorities - particularly those living in poorer areas - still suffer daily harassment and discrimination. And, as the horrific killing of Anthony Walker in Liverpool recently showed, this can result in murder. There is also a festering resentment towards "foreigners" that manifests itself in the excoriation of asylum-seekers in some quarters.

There are deep-set problems in some minority communities, too. Stop and search by police is on the rise again and creating a new sense of resentment in Muslim areas. The Asian riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001 should give us pause before assuming that the violence we are witnessing in France could not be replicated here. The creation of communities with entrenched economic problems is always going to create tensions. To this extent, Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the CRE, is justified in worrying about the creation of new ethnic minority "ghettos". The important thing is that our society continues to move in the right direction. We must demand equality before the law, insist on toleration and confront racism whenever it appears. If this country makes the same amount of progress over the next 40 years, Britain will become a vastly better place.