You have been silent too long about racism in Britain

'Facing the rage of third-generation black and Asian Britons who cannot claim their place in this society, influential whites and blacks have abdicated their responsibility to lead.' Yasmin Alibhai-Brown demands action
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Rita, my friend in the North, once a proud equal opportunities officer, now a management consultant with a flash red smile and BMW, informs me that these days it is passe to bring up the cause of racial equality. Mention it in polite company, she warns, and "Nobody will invite you round again. It's yesterday's talk."

Less fashion-conscious critics make more serious denunciations. Many genuinely believe race equality initiatives are a distraction, or that they are divisive and destructive. Martin Mears, the elected president of the Law Society, describes anti-discrimination measures as "corrupt and debased". Leo McKinstry, once an obscure local Labour councillor, has been inflated into a commentator not because he can write but because he can rant against race equality measures.

This month, the Express newspapers launched, with undue enthusiasm, The End of Racism, by the American academic Dinesh Desouza (from Goa) who argues that segregation was good for African Americans and that anti-racists cause more damage than racists by making excuses for inept, violent and anti-social blacks. At a public meeting, a black British journalist who agreed with him proclaimed: "Blacks need to get off their backsides and stop complaining." Many ambitious black and Asian individuals would echo this view.

A top Asian television executive claims that racism is not a problem but that "race wallahs" need to keep up the myth that it is. When Birmingham Council equality units were "downsized" in February this year, punters wrote joyful letters to the local newspaper.

Government ministers such as Ann Widdecombe tirelessly propagate the heartening message that we are much better at "race relations" than those xenophobic French and Germans. White liberals - some close friends of mine, who once simply loved going to anti-apartheid rallies - have had enough, they say, of this special pleading and endless culpability. The upbeat 1990s are about taking charge, not whingeing. And if things are so bad, how come that hardworking Trevor McDonald has made it, eh?

It is 20 years since the Race Relations Act. The Commission for Racial Equality has just had its budget cut. Is this because the problems the CRE was designed to deal with are receding or has the cause lost popularity?

Much has indeed been achieved. In spite of the collapse of the political consensus of the 1960s which led to the Act, in spite of the backlash and the deregulation of so much other employment protection, the Race Relations law has survived. In April, for example, two Asian risk assessors won pounds 29,000 each in a race discrimination case against Lloyd's.

We now have extraordinarily successful black and Asian scientists, industrialists, artists, media and sports stars. They see this country as a land of opportunity. Ongoing research at the Policy Studies Institute shows that East African Asians, Chinese and Indians are outstripping whites in some fields. Even more encouragingly, big companies now value diversity as an economic asset. The recent Race for Opportunity campaign spearheaded by Robert Ayling, chairman of British Airways, is attempting to encourage both the talent and economic potential of ethnic minority Britons. "As a country," says Mr Ayling, "we have thrived, improved and become more wealthy by taking the best of the immigrant community and utilising their skills. If we can't break down racial barriers between people, we won't work successfully as an organisation." Such radical talk among such folk was unthinkable even five years ago.

But this is only part of a complex story. Inequality and injustice are still pervasive. Research commissioned by BBC Radio 5 Live shows that a third more people, white and black and Asian, think racism is a more serious problem today than five years ago. Unemployment among black and Asian people is 19 per cent, more than double that for white people. One in six young black men in London is unemployed. More of them are in prison than in higher education.

There is one ethnic minority civil servant above grade 5, one national newspaper columnist, no editors, hardly any professors, judges, hospital consultants or business board members. The army is riddled with racism. Muslims are victims of blatant discrimination and harassment and can get no redress under our laws, because religion is not covered by the race relations legislation.

According to the British Crime Survey there are 130,000 racially motivated incidents a year. Several black men have died in police custody; others have received huge pay-offs after alleged maltreatment by officers. A young black motorist has just been awarded pounds 320,000 for one such incident. Since the failure of the criminal justice system to punish the killers of Stephen Lawrence, it is hard to find anyone in the black community who feels the law protects them.

Why are there so many people in denial about these massive problems? One reason is the visible evidence of advancement: like in the United States, where many people of colour have reached positions of unimaginable power, people are turning against affirmative action even though racism remains a fact of life for the rest. American blacks are among the richest and most powerful black people in the world. Among the wealthiest people in this country there is always more than a sprinkling of Asians who have made good. And yet the exclusion of the rest has worsened. Both countries find it hard to accept that the forces of progress and regression coexist.

Then there is the problem of race and politics. The political parties recently signed a compact with the CRE agreeing not to use race as a weapon. But both main parties are getting twitchy. Unpopularity may force Tories to play the race card. The danger of such dirty tactics being employed was demonstrated in the last election. And if this tactic is used again, Labour will be vulnerable. Hence the party's palpable silence.

Roy Hattersley, interviewed for my forthcoming Radio 5 Live programme, No Entry, says: "There's been no time when Labour has been so silent on immigration and race. Until two years ago we had at least an annual debate on community relations and immigration. It related immigration to race relations and the lives of those who came here 40 years ago. I think Labour - shall I put it charitably? - is being extremely cautious at the moment. Now either you follow the salamander and meet the issue head on or do the opposite and Labour at present thinks it is best not to meet it head on." There is also the issue of marginal seats where white voters, anxious about Labour and immigration, could swing the result.

Professor Zig Layton Henry of Warwick University, an expert on race and politics, is convinced that Labour has decided it has much more to gain by pushing women's issues than race equality. This week the BBC transmitted, for the first time ever, a programme where the three party leaders were questioned by Asians about their policies. Only Paddy Ashdown dealt with racism, and it was clear that Tony Blair was uncomfortable with many questions, especially those about problems ethnic minorities have getting selected.

So far only three Asians have been selected as Labour candidates. Even the Tories have seven. And yet the Labour Party expects black votes as a continuing act of faith. Many ethnic minority youngsters I meet don't trust the party and will not vote at all, although they are desperate for change. Charter 88 and the National Black Caucus are campaigning to encourage the black vote, but more is needed. People are also worried about New Labour's image. Where are the black faces among the bright young acolytes around Blair and Co?

We must also confront the withdrawal of white (leftie) liberals from the ideals of race equality and multiculturalism. Suddenly they are sending their children to church schools or elsewhere far away where they will not be contaminated by Diwali. Some are still reeling from the shock waves of the Rushdie affair which revealed their own limits of tolerance. Others are in angst over their identity in Europe and in Britain. Others still are disengaging from past labels. These are people whom Patrick Wright, the culture critic, describes as "refugees from the collapsing left, stepping out from behind all that discarded ideological baggage to catch up with the opportunities of a world where everything seems to hang free".

But it is not just whites who are responsible for the devaluing of race equality. Blacks and Asians are playing their part, too, including activists on the front line. Too many bang on as if nothing has changed, when much patently has. They don't accept that we have serious problems within the black and Asian communities which cannot be explained away by racism. The memories of the unpleasant and endless quarrels generated by Black Sections must in part be responsible for the way new Labour is behaving.

Too much energy is wasted on battles between blacks obsessed with historical, unforgiveable white guilt and whites, hell bent on total exoneration. The quarrels between the Anti-Nazi League and the Anti-Racist Alliance and the growing tensions between difficult ethnic and religious groups further discredit the cause. Sanctimonious voices noisily vie with each other as life passes them by.

There is a dearth of dynamic ethnic minority leaders, individuals who can inspire community as well as national respect. The old leadership, people like Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng, came through local politics and/or community based groups. These traditional routes are no longer delivering. Perhaps we will need to look elsewhere. There are individuals like Peter Herbert of the Society of Black Lawyers, or Claude Moreas of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, who seem to have what is desperately needed. But we need more, especially those who are capable of entering the inner sanctum of the Labour Party and influencing policies which fit the dreams of those longing for change.

White politicians too must provide the kind of leadership a mature multi- racial democracy needs in the next century. They might begin by dislocating immigration from race. Even Hattersley, who invented the equation that tight immigration policies made for better race relations, now rejects that position and feels that it has actually worsened race relations. We need political leaders who speak out - as they do on crime and education - on the benefits that immigrants have brought to this country. We could learn from the Germans, who have research to show just what migrants have contributed to the national economy.

We are today faced with the rage and disappointment of so many third generation black and Asian Britons who still cannot claim their place in this country. It is tragic that whites and blacks with influence have abdicated their responsibility to lead and so failed to turn Britain into a standard bearer for racial equality in Europe.

Roy Hattersley's interview will be broadcast on 'No Entry', part of Radio Five Live's 'Race Around Britain' series which begins on Saturday. The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.