Leading Article: Prejudice, politics, and the fight for equality

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The Independent Online

Thirty one years after it was established by the Race Relations Act, the Commission for Racial Equality has issued its final report. The CRE will be subsumed at the end of the month into an overarching "Equality Commission". So have the CRE's founding objectives of eradicating racial prejudice and discrimination from British life been achieved? Far from it.

Of course there have been improvements over the past three decades. Outright racial discrimination is no longer acceptable. As the report notes, the days when boarding houses could put out signs saying "No blacks, no Irish, no dogs" are over. The National Front is no longer a force in British politics. The Scarman and Macpherson reports have led to a general improvement in the behaviour of the police with respect to ethnic minorities.

But things have been slipping back on the criminal justice front. The number of young men from ethnic minorities being stopped and searched has rocketed in recent years, as the police make full use of their sweeping anti-terrorism powers. The National DNA Database is another screaming example of how the criminal justice system remains biased against ethnic minorities. The database contains the DNA of nearly 40 per cent of black men and 13 per cent of Asian men, many of whom have not been charged, let alone found guilty of a crime.

Education is another area where prejudice persists. Black boys are far more likely to be excluded from school, despite the fact that their behaviour is often no more disruptive than that of their white counterparts. And so the list of inequalities goes on. Ethnic minority groups are less likely to have access to decent health treatment. They are more likely to live in substandard social housing. The ethnic minority faces in positions of power in the worlds of business, the law and the media are disproportionately few. The CRE's final report concludes that Britain is still a place of inequality, exclusion and isolation. It also sees society increasingly fractured along ethnic lines, both geographically and mentally.

Why do such divisions persist in an age when racist views and behaviour are supposedly unacceptable? Some on the right of the political spectrum have attempted to lay the blame on "multicultural policies" that have ghettoised communities and impeded integration. But the opposite is the case. The process of changing attitudes has, in fact, been too slow. The problem is one of too little multiculturalism, not too much.

There remains a powerful hostility towards "outsiders" in modern Britain. This is evident in the widespread abuse heaped on migrant workers and asylum seekers. A general hostility to Muslims is rife in parts of the mainstream media. Yesterday, the chief constable of Cambridgeshire argued that foreigners "need to be told what they can and can't do" and implied that they routinely carry knives. The peddling of such negative stereotypes does a huge amount of harm to community relations.

Another reason for the lack of progress is that our political leaders have failed to take a lead in combating xenophobic stereotyping. Rather than denouncing such views, governments have too often pandered to them. We see this in the "tough" posturing of ministers over asylum. We see it in the Prime Minister's recent demands for "British jobs for British workers" with its distasteful implication that foreigners have been undermining domestic employment prospects. When people hear their prejudices subtly echoed by those in power, it is no wonder that they cling to them.

The CRE has done important work over the past 31 years and Britain is a more tolerant and harmonious place because of its efforts. But we should not fool ourselves that its work is anything like complete.