Let's see in colour, and celebrate

Young people have a positive attitude to ethnic identity. The melting pot was a silly idea, says Trevor Phillips, though he fears minorities may eventually marry themselves into oblivion
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The Independent Online
Let's face it: race does matter. And, thank God (ethnic groups are just variations based on His original design, after all), racial differences persist. Our problem is how to deal with them. For a start, we can bury that old melting-pot myth. In the early 1970s, if you wanted to see a black man squirm all you had to do was to play the hit song by Blue Mink. Remember these lyrics, and weep:

What we need is a great big melting pot,

Big enough to take the world and all it's got

Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more,

Turn out coffee-coloured people by the score.

Not even Madeleine Bell's voice could save this from terminal silliness. The idea that we could iron out all racial differences by a concentrated programme of inter-racial sex and create a deracinated mishmash was of course most useful to young men. As a student I had male friends who clearly took this literally and devoted themselves night and day to the cause of racial harmony. Lenny Henry's legendary chat-up line - "Do you have any African in you? If not, would you like some?" - made its first appearance about this time.

But while the whole of Britain was humming along to this drivel, I wondered what the person who wrote it could have been thinking about. What kind of coffee was it - black coffee, white coffee? Kenya Blend, or Colombian? And did anyone stop to imagine what it might feel like to hear that in this perfect world, your colour just would not be good enough?

However absurd, the idea has somehow taken hold that the answer to racial difference is to eliminate it. An authoritative and thorough survey by the Policy Studies Institute, out this week, blows this liberal delusion away. If anything we are heading in the opposite direction. Though there are substantial levels of intermarriage, there is little evidence that this is reducing consciousness of ethnic difference. Getting on for half of British children of Caribbean origin come from multiracial homes. Surprisingly, the same is true for one in five South Asian children. The PSI says that younger generations have a more assertive attitude to their ethnic identity, certainly compared with their grandparents, who typically arrived with a desire to fit in, even if that meant suppressing their own traditions.

The survey carries two important consequences. The first is that the findings are a conclusive argument for ethnic monitoring. Without this painstaking research, we would not know that despite the apparent success of some young people from ethnic minorities there is still a glass ceiling that shuts us out of the top 10 per cent of jobs. After all, when was the last time a non-white person appeared in the boardroom of a major company? Probably before dawn yesterday, actually, carrying vacuum cleaners and dusters.

Without research we would not know that the simply black-white dualism that we have borrowed from the US is now actively hindering our effort to remedy disadvantage here. If we did not know that the groups proving least successful were black men and most of the Muslim communities, how would we concentrate our resources properly?

We should stop being afraid of measuring differences between ethnic groups, as long as we are prepared to accept that there may be more differences within the groups than between them. For example, the equation between sporting success and race is one that makes most people uncomfortable. It is dangerous stuff, and conjures visions of eugenics. On the other hand, it would be perverse to ignore the evidence of our eyes: people of African descent are wildly over-represented in the ranks of top track and field, soccer, basketball and American football.

It is clearly too simplistic to suggest that this is due to a genetic predisposition, and I am not arguing that we should accept stereotyping - blacks are good at running, hopeless at rocket science ... Asians - great at accounts but rubbish at acting. However, unless we can understand the evidence of our eyes and explain it, how can we ever hope to tackle people's presumptions? The true answer to prejudice is not blindly to assert that we are all the same. It is to know how and why we are different.

The knowledge can be liberating. Last Saturday saw the emergence of a new hero on to national stage. Ruud Gullit, the Chelsea manager, has taken a mediocre club side and turned it into a Cup-winning ensemble. Gullit first made an impact as a commentator at Euro 96; he was fluent, intelligent and perceptive. He has also been graceful, athletic and inspired on the field. And outside the game he is stylish and much-imitated. After Gullit, no one can say that black people may be great athletes but can't be bosses. He, and an increasing number of black sportsmen and entertainers - Garth Crooks, Tiger Woods, Lenny Henry - are defying the stereotype which says that success in one area means that people from a given race cannot be successful elsewhere.

The other, implicit message of the PSI's work is likely to be more controversial. On present trends, the UK's minority population will eventually marry itself out of existence. That happened once before; in Georgian London there was a black community, the size of which was, proportionately, comparable to today's. They were principally servants, soldiers and former slaves; but over time they too intermarried, and except for the few families that retain a folk-memory of a distant dark ancestor they disappeared from view. But today's multiracial children are not meekly going to give up their heritage, according to the PSI; if anything they are more determined than their parents to maintain their multiple identities.

Why should a child with a white mother have to accept the designation "black" if that denies the existence of a parent they cherish? But there are wider reasons why these children embrace their ethnicity so strongly. The report suggests that those who have a partially Afro-Caribbean heritage see their colour as a defining aspect of their personalities, while young Asians, particularly those from Muslim homes, identify religion as their touchstone. It is hardly surprising.

Children growing up in the global village are more likely than their parents to find their identities as part of global tribes, and of the newest, most significant such tribes the black and Muslim tribes are possibly the most vibrant and most visible. Their unifying symbols are respectively colour and religion.

Multiracial marriages and partnerships are relatively more frequent in the UK than anywhere else. Thankfully, gone are the days when children were described insultingly as half-caste, and removed from their parents because white grandparents would not accept them, but much of the writing and discussion about children of multiracial families still focuses on their alleged confusion of identity. The truth is that it is the rest of us, black, white and Asian, who are confused and fearful of the new. And our fear may be losing us a huge opportunity.

A few years ago, a firm with which I was involved lost out in a delicate negotiation with an American company. It would have led to a huge boost in the company's fortunes. When asked why they withdrew, the Americans said, in essence, that the Brits felt like a company 20 years out of date. "We never saw anybody on your team who was not totally white; you can't get away with it these days." That is the world today - global markets, global people. Who is more likely to prosper and to be convincing in such a world than people who in their very person straddle continents? My own children can reasonably claim to feel comfortable in Paris, New York, London and Bombay - these, after all, are just the homes of their various grandparents. It is the young, multiracial crowd who have the flexibility and adaptability that the 21st century will demand. For them, moving between cultures and using several languages is a way of life that they imbibed with their mothers' milk. Instead of teaching children that the whiter (or blacker) they are the better, the real advantage may be in being able to count the number of different roots your parents have bequeathed to you.

Race is no longer a simple black-and-white issue. Inequality and discrimination are still central facts of life for most non-white people. But it is not enough to say that we need to solve them and the differences will all go away. They won't, and we should not want them to. Painful as it might be for some of us, the real world will continue to put a value on our ethnic backgrounds. The upside is that being a European with a white skin may be valued at a discount; but so will be being a "pure" anything. On the other hand, to mangle Orwell, we may find that the expression "one race bad, two races good, three races better" best describes what is about to happen to race. I hope so. But even if that is the case, you still won't get me to like Blue Mink.