Sorry if this column makes some of you miserable or cross on the first Monday after the Christmas break. I feel weary and dejected, too, as I turn once more to think and write about racism in Britain. The subject divides people and these days is seen as insolence or treachery. Tweets will fly, blogs will burn with indignation, online comments will get nastier and more menacing. I am only the messenger. Blame the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin for setting off the latest furore.
Last month, the National Archives released papers from 1985. Among them was a note by Letwin to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, penned after the Broadwater Farm and other inner city riots. The government was alarmed by their scale and fury; some ministers and civil servants argued that policies were needed to reduce poverty and improve opportunities for embittered and excluded black Britons.
Not so, Mr Letwin, who has long been considered a caring and wise Tory. Investment in black businesses, he opined, would inevitably go to the “disco and drug trade”. Furthermore, “riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes. So long as bad moral attitudes remain, all efforts to improve inner city life will founder.” He has now apologised and has found many willing to assure us that Letwin is a fine man, who would never say anything so crass today. I am sure he would not say anything so crassly racist today, even in a private memo.
Society has become more civilised and does not tolerate expressions of bigotry. Public discourse on race is far less vicious and malevolent than it once was. Nobody admits to being racist, presumably because the word is stained with shame. And from time to time, politicians of all parties make emotive speeches on equal opportunities for all. The prize for the best of these goes to David Cameron, who at his party conference orated thus: “In our country today, even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get callbacks for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names ... that, in 21st-century Britain, is disgraceful.” It is progress of sorts.
Does this mean racism has been wiped out, except in small, extremist circles? That we are living in a post-racial paradise, where all can pick fruit off the trees without fear or favour? Of course not. Online, racism, prejudice, sexism, bigotry and group hatreds spread. In real life too, many of us people of colour are entering an age of understandable pessimism. It suppresses aspirations, hope and the imagination. In all institutions, every profession, almost all workplaces, race discrimination has returned with a vengeance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Roy Jenkins, Lord Lester and other influential, fair-minded men and women pushed through the first race relations legislation. The laws were weak, but gave a strong message: migrants were equal citizens who would be protected by the state. But discrimination carried on. In 1981, the then Home , Willie Whitelaw, appointed Lord Scarman to look into the causes of the Brixton riots. Scarman concluded that racial disadvantage, inner city decline and unaccountable racist policing were to blame for the “disposition towards violent protest”. Many of his recommendations were implemented by Thatcher’s government. You would not get such a constructive response from Cameron, who is more to the right and more of a charmer than the Iron Lady.
Labour in its last years in office also turned away from race equality: 9/11 made them all paranoid and focused on Islamist terrorism – a real and deadly threat which has only got worse. The Lib Dems remain a white party. One Lib Dem funder told me recently: “The party never reached out to the minorities. Nick Clegg and co never cared about the white poor either. I do not know a single coloured [sic] person. No wonder we were wiped out.”
The truth is that none of the parties cares. Highly qualified, talented black and Asian doctors, teachers, lecturers, lawyers, journalists and artists are denied their big breaks through fortified glass ceilings. Ironically, this is happening when we have more men and women of colour in the Commons and Lords than ever before. The BBC, Channel 4 and most other media outlets think they have done more than enough for racial minorities and that we should be grateful. A producer before Christmas informed me that I was “on too much” on BBC News. Were Polly Toynbee, Peter Hitchens, Steve Richards also told off for being “on too much”?
Opportunities are better for low-paid black and Asian workers and recent migrants, partly because most white Britons decline to take up these jobs. Employment rights are no longer protected and taking cases to tribunals is prohibitively expensive. Western lives are deemed more valuable than the lives of those from the East or South. Students who object to the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford are daily vilified for challenging white-washed imperial history.
Attacks on Muslims and migrants are increasing and sympathy for the victims is waning. We who question white male power, or fight for equality and justice, are branded “racist and sexist”. And when riots break out, our PM denies they are about race or austerity: the protesters have a “twisted moral code”. Just as Letwin observed way back then.
Racism today is more invidious than it was even in the days of Mrs Thatcher, and it is harder to get any redress. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is scandalously silent on the matter. Poor blacks and whites are pitted against each other and there is no collective movement for a fairer nation. I feel things will only get bleaker.
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