Leading Article: Racism beneath the surface of society

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The Independent Online
IT IS to Britain's credit that racism has not taken hold in national politics. Ethnic minorities have not been treated as scapegoats during a recession when they might have feared political victimisation. The ignorant blundering of Winston Churchill MP into the immigration issue found no favour with Tory politicians who might have appreciated an opportunity to shift the blame for economic ills. The consensus against his foolishness was so strong that simple presentation of the facts - rarely important in such emotive debate - were sufficient to dismiss the Conservative member for Davyhulme.

Thus far so good. Britons can look across to the Continent and see the evils of racist violence in France and Germany. They can feel fortunate that, here, most politicians have in recent times stopped short of playing the race card. This is not simply an expression of particular British virtue. It is also a mark of the fact that immigration has been tightly controlled.

However, yesterday's annual report from the Commission for Racial Equality provides ample warning against complacency. Beneath the surface of British society, racism remains widespread. Last year the number of racial attacks reported to the Metropolitan Police doubled to more than 4,000, just over half of the national total. Each of those people expects more from politicians than simply an avoidance of political opportunism. So will the family of Stephen Lawrence, the 18-year-old black student murdered in April by white teenagers.

A first step would be more robust leadership from Downing Street than has been the case in Germany, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl has failed to associate himself publicly with the victims of racial violence. There, a political vacuum has been created which the extremists are ready to fill. Michael Howard, the new Home Secretary, could establish his credentials with a forthright condemnation of such violence in Britain.

More generally, the reluctance of public figures to discuss race issues means that the pain of those suffering discrimination is rarely assuaged. Britain should not wait for a riot to examine why people of colour seem confined mainly to low-paid service jobs and are under-represented in the professions. The offence they feel at this discrimination will not disappear just because nobody talks about it.

Britain's ethnic minorities are also changing in the ways they perceive themselves. Muslims increasingly define their identity in religious rather than racial terms. Historic antagonism towards Islam, fuelled by distaste for the treatment of Salman Rushdie, could produce a polarisation between Muslims and other Britons unless greater mutual understanding is fostered.

This offers a role to the Commission for Racial Equality. As a government- funded body it may be tempted to be cautious about raising difficult issues. But diffidence would be an abdication of responsibility. Under Herman Ouseley, its new chairman, the CRE should be courageous in educating Britons and pricking their consciences to live by the best of their political principles.