A fact cannot be racist, but if not properly explained it can be explosive
Offence – the right to give it and how to take it – has been the hot topic of 2015. Trevor Phillips’ C4 documentary ‘Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True’ entered that debate with a well-intentioned forcefulness, laying the charge that our reluctance to talk about race has led to a climate of fear and enhanced segregation.
Phillips, a former chair of the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) – which he partly blames for the ‘racket of multiculturalism’ – says many wise and interesting things, although the programme is not as ground-breaking as the crowing of the Mail would have us believe.
For example, he talks about how the confused mantra of political correctness, whose rules are ever shifting, has facilitated the rise of UKIP, and even more right-wing parties in Europe, because it gives them a weapon: the ability to say they are the only people who speak the truth. As Phillips wrote in a column for the Mail,
“Nothing could be further from reality. But the po-faced political correctness that cramps all the conventional parties is allowing these frauds to get away with it.”
This seems about right. The moment people feel that their opinions are suppressed they start to feel that they are victims of the state, and begin looking with renewed suspicion at their original scapegoat. This is what Phillips means when he says that political correctness is making segregation worse.
What the programme doesn’t do is explore the anatomy of racism. Phillips sets out a list of statistics that play into racial stereotypes but are, nevertheless, true: Romanians in London are far more likely to be pickpockets; black Britons are twice as likely to be sentenced for violent crime; Jewish households are twice as wealthy as the rest.
But these are behaviours, not characteristics. ‘ A fact cannot be racist’, Phillips says. This is true, but the problem is when facts lead people to conclude ethnic or racial traits. So while it is not antisemitic to point out, as Phillips does, that there are a relatively large proportion of influential Jewish businessmen in the UK, it is antisemitic to conclude that Jews must be money-grabbing. It would have been braver to explore why Jewish households tend to be richer rather than hiding behind numbers.
Similarly, Phillips does not look into the socio-economic factors behind his statistic about black Britons – he does say that we need to do this, but I think he should have used the programme to do it. Otherwise he’s just preaching to a choir who already think that black people are inherently more prone to violence, and not dismantling that connection at all.
Also: Stop and Search. Not only does the fact that black Britons are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white ones cast doubt on Phillips’ figures about sentencing, it puts a hole in his argument. Because if all white people are so afraid of being called racist that they accord ethnic minorities special treatment, then why are black – and Asian – people so much more likely to be stopped and searched by police?
The documentary showed Phillips talking to a strangely frozen-faced Tony Blair about the failure of the EHRC. They discuss Phillips’ view that the EHRC’s work to eliminate bigotry had the unwanted effect of making it impossible to report or investigate crimes with an ethnic dimension because everybody feels too awkward about it. Blair tells Phillips he is being too hard on himself and I’m inclined to agree.
The few high-profile cases where the fear of seeming racist has hampered the pursuit of justice – the Rochdale sex abuse scandal, the murder of Victoria Climbié – have blown this idea out of proportion. What about the case of Baby P, or the Jersey child abuse investigation, or the historic sex abuse at the BBC and in the Catholic Church? There were failures and cover-ups in all these cases, but not because of concerns about race.
Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley who accused Blair’s government of covering up the Rochdale sex scandal was decried for blaming the abuse on ‘cultural practices that have been imported into this country from Pakistan’. This is the kind of thing that we need to be able to have a debate about – is there any truth in this idea?
And afterwards, can we look at the cultural backgrounds of white sexual abusers? What do they have in common? We shouldn’t only be looking at the cultures of minorities (incidentally this programme did end up being more about culture than about race).
Phillips is adamant that the failure of the EHCR was that it assumed that if people couldn’t express their prejudices, they wouldn’t feel them. Phillips has recanted on this, but it doesn’t mean that the opposite is true. People tend to talk about race and politics with people they trust, their friends, who are likely to hold similar views, so it’s not the case that airing bigoted views will spark a debate capable of stamping them out.
But this is not to say that there isn’t truth in what Phillips is arguing. And it’s not only the perpetrators of crimes we should be talking about, but the victims. The International Development Select Committee estimated that up to 20,000 girls and women in the UK were at risk of FGM because officials wouldn’t report their suspicions in case they were accused of racism.
We need to dismantle the idea of cultural and moral relativism, which so often makes women from ethnic minorities – the very people it is trying not to offend – its victim. And as Phillips says, we need to acknowledge that it’s time to create new rules about how to live and thrive in a diverse UK.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.