Tackling discrimination and inequality must take account of the importance of social class in holding people back rather than simply concentrating on race, Communities Secretary John Denham said today.
Launching a new Government document on race inequalities, Mr Denham said Britain had changed "immeasurably for the better" over the past decade and that a new "more nuanced" approach to the issue was now needed.
He pointed to the way that many pupils from Asian backgrounds were thriving in the education system while some of their white working class counterparts struggled to keep up.
While he denied that the issue of racism had "dropped down the agenda", he said there needed to be an understanding of the way it interacted factors such as economics, religious identity and migration.
"It is no longer enough to make simple judgments or assumptions which equate 'race' with disadvantage," he said.
"That would overlook, for example, the striking achievements of Indian and Chinese students - but it would also overlook the fact that white working class boys are struggling to keep up.
"It would overlook the growing black and Asian middle class - and the fact that they are now coming up against the old problems in new settings.
"Instead, we need to appreciate and understand the ways in which race interacts with other social factors - especially class - to influence and shape people's lives.
"So rather than reducing our efforts to tackle racism, we have got to be more nuanced in what we are doing."
His comments come amid growing concern among ministers in the rise in support for the far right British National Party in some parts of the country, which Mr Denham acknowledged was linked to the impact of immigration.
"In some places we've seen antipathy against Eastern Europeans or Muslims becoming more acceptable - justified on the grounds of religious difference but manifesting itself in terms of racial prejudice and gaining a political voice through the BNP and other far right groups," he said.
He said the approach of the Government's Equalities Bill, currently going through Parliament, was to promote equality for everyone across the country and not "single out any particular group for special treatment or prioritise one over another".
Simon Woolley, a commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, endorsed the Government's approach set out in the Bill.
"Many people from ethnic minority backgrounds still experience unfair disadvantage in their lives," he said.
"However, the commission believes that socio-economic status also remains one of the biggest drivers of continuing disadvantage and inequality for many people in society.
"In many parts of our nation the colour of disadvantage is white as much as it is black or brown."
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