In October last year, Prospect magazine published a set of articles by black and Asian writers under the banner ‘Rethinking Race’. The authors, who wrote about the negative effects of anti-racist polices, asserted that race is no longer the significant disadvantage it is often portrayed as. Importantly, they raised the question of how difficult it is to discuss race in an open and honest way.
Most have welcomed Prospect’s contribution to what has tended to be censorious, deadlocked debate, and the articles seem to have inspired a forthcoming debate by the ‘race-equality’ think-tank, the Runnymede Trust, next week. Of course race is a significant disadvantage if you’re being racially abused or discriminated against. But the Prospect authors patently don’t mean that. They are referring, more broadly, to a society that is less racist, less intolerant and palpably more at ease with diversity than ever before. This fact ought to be something of a no-brainer and a cause for anti-racists to celebrate.
After all, surveys and polls consistently show that most white, black and Asian people agree Britain is more tolerant than in the past. They also indicate widespread acceptance of so-called ‘mixed-race’ relationships. This fact is underscored by academic research showing that almost 20 per cent of Britain’s under 16s are from an ethnic minority with nearly 10 per cent living in mixed-race families (1). In London almost half of children under five can be categorised as ‘mixed-race’.
However, the same surveys and polls show that we tend to think racism is increasing: The Home Office Citizenship Survey 2007/08 states ‘over half (56 per cent) of all people feel there is now more racial prejudice than five years ago’ but also notes ‘people from minority ethnic groups (32 per cent) are less likely than white people (58 per cent) to feel there is now more racial prejudice’(2).
The mismatch between perception of racism and its reality may offer a clue as to why anti-racists feel so very reluctant to celebrate. Anti-racism, by definition, focuses on the extent to which its target has not vanished. As others celebrate, anti-racists turn up their racist-incident radars fearing that the problem may quietly incubate and suddenly loom out of the mist. But this slightly panicky ‘racism watch’ approach is a problem all by itself. Too often it mistakes its target. One primary school headteacher, bewildered by local authority pressure to report playground ‘racist incidents’ (however trivial or unintended they might be), pointed to the harmonious anti-racist incidents breaking out every minute of every day. ‘Who’s counting those?’ she lamented.
Highlighting the unprecedented superdiversity breaking out in Britain’s schools seems to irritate anti-racists. In a singularly bad-tempered review of my Manifesto Club report The Myth of Racist Kids, Institute of Race Relations writer Jenny Bourne stated: ‘If children do, as the author asserts, all get on so well, in what is termed “a spirit of enthusiasm for growing social diversity”, it is precisely because there has been a long and distinguished struggle against racism in this country.’
Bourne goes on to attribute the intrinsically colour-blind, intermixed generation of kids currently swarming Britain’s schools (which she’d prefer to disavow), not to diversity itself but to ‘the efforts of generations, including teachers, social workers and others in liberal professions’. According to Bourne, it is not the lived experience of diversity that we should applaud, it’s the management of diversity. On managing ‘racist incidents’ in the nursery and the playground she says: ‘“Catching them young” is a way of ensuring that subliminal notions do not become fully fledged prejudices and go on to lead to racist behaviour.’ This is, indeed, the management plan favoured by local authorities UK-wide who, for the year 2008/09, identified well over 30,000 racist incidents in England and Wales alone. Utilising the officially recommended definition of a racist incident (‘any incident perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’), the dragnet effortlessly scoops up an abundance of incidents from the everyday banter and name-calling of primary school children. Forms are filled, children admonished, parents written to. And, of course, no race-relations management plan as daft as this would be complete without someone assessing the yearly statistics, flagging-up ‘a problem’ and ensuring more educational interventions on racism, identity and race (and more racist-incident reporting).