Things he didn’t say about race that are true

0528Phillips.jpgThings we won’t say about race that are true‘ aired on Channel 4, Friday 20th March, 9pm. In it Trevor Phillips examined what he now views as the failure of the race equality strategy of which he was a major architect. It is a piece of soul-searching so merciless that the most striking part for me (and not just the diversion of his gentian-blue contact lenses) was Tony Blair briskly telling him to stop flagellating himself. I feel a lot of warmth for Trevor Phillips but I wish he’d taken that advice.

I can understand his alarm, which is focussed on the rise of UKIP, the party of the people Matthew Goodwin refers to as the left-behind. UKIP are mostly white, older and furious. They’re furious with the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ who they believe favour minorities over them and they’re furious about white underachievement. They’re specifically furious about Pakistani men in Rotherham. Where they used to be abashed when charged with racism they’re now starting to shrug – and the reason for that is that the years of anti-racist messages from the CRE didn’t change their minds. Farage denies the existence of even institutional racism (racism without racists) and instead is pushing a kind of post-racism line where UKIP is colourblind and there is no place for anti-discrimination law. Trevor Philips’ dismay is understated – “Am I responsible for you?”, he asks Farage – but, along with disasters like 7/7 and Victoria Climbié the rise of these right wing populists is the cause of his pivot. His modest conclusion, which I’d strongly support, is that “Preventing anyone from saying what’s on their minds won’t remove it from their hearts”.

Airing taboos is also the documentary’s starting point, as he models non-racist ways of talking about the material success of Jews, the child abuse of Pakistanis, and the criminality of African Caribbeans. He is successful (except also wrong – in the late C20th most of London’s Jews were living modest existences in Redbridge having worked their way east out of Stepney) but was he too subtle? Because if, as he says, we’re going to have to be more ready to offend each other to protect children like Victoria Climbié and the girls of Rotherham, then it hadn’t it better not be because we’re being offensive?

After all, Farage is wrong. We’re not post-racism. Phillips was a key figure in the fight to remove structural discrimination from UK law –  and as he points out, the UK is now one of Europe’s most hospitable countries if you aren’t white – but is it any surprise we’re still living in its shadow? The bias in which we exist is profound. Bias is why identical job applications fare differently according to perceptions about the applicant’s name and it’s why black men are stopped and searched. We are not colour blind and we shouldn’t delude ourselves for one moment that we are or should be.

It may be true that the CRE strategy came to resemble dogma and mind control in some respects – that would explain the frisson UKIP supporters so obviously experience when Farage stamps on the eggshells they feel they’ve been walking on. Holocaust education is also experiencing this backlash – I think it was Arendt who warned that the response to piety (unquestioning, ritualised reverence) is often blasphemy.  It’s hard enough teaching school kids about racism without inadvertently reproducing stereotypes, let alone trying to reach adults. But if, as Phillips seems to suggest, this is a major reason for UKIP’s rise, there are at least two possible avenues in response. Adam Elliot-Cooper points to one when he draws attention to a major absence of class and history in the documentary.

“Like a primary school teacher dealing with a class of preadolescents throwing a tantrum, Phillips doesn’t have the energy to explain why racism is historically rooted, or morally reprehensible.

Telling them to “be quiet” hasn’t quite worked, so he’ll instead just let them shout at the top of their voices, perhaps hoping they’ll eventually tire themselves out.”

At one point Phillips explicitly tells us not to envy other people’s wealth. At another he’s at odds with former Equality Commissioner Simon Woolley where Woolley wants to talk about racism “as it is” rather than racism perceived as an unjust accusation. Elliot-Cooper wants to talk about how, on the back of exploiting other people in other countries, the UK became rich and created bloody havoc in the process. He wants to talk about whiteness as a factor in institutional racism, and he wants to talk about racism as morally reprehensible. So do I, and I think that is compatible with what Phillips wants to do, namely avoid what some call ‘the racism of low expectations’ – a double standard based on denying the agency of the group in question – and what he calls “the cultural exemptions from normal, reasonable, decent behaviour”. But this documentary was about reflecting on the failure of anti-racism and not about racism itself. Consequently it largely failed to challenge racism.

Is there a place, today, for a documentary responding to racism which limits its discussion to failed anti-racist strategies while pointing out superficial ways in which racists may be right and yet failing to distmantle the shaky edifice of prejudice they have constructed?

I think Woolley is right to worry about this:

TP: My point is the longer we keep soft-pedalling this [racially-coded criminality] and pretending that it’s not really true, the more we keep kind of fuzzing these things, the harder it is to tackle – the more these things become myths which affect whole communities.

SW: I don’t think you have to fudge it, I don’t think you have to dodge it – I think you have to be articulate about it, and if you are, you can talk about it as it is without having this generic stuff going on, Trevor – because that’s what I worry about, we have a lazy media we often have lazy politicians, and they will take what you say and too often – you’ve see this time and time again – they will use it to beat us with.

TP: But I would say that what you’re doing is inviting me to self-edit according to the values set by the Daily Mail & The Sun.

SW: I’m just saying, we have to be mindful.

TP: But the point is, whatever you say, they’re going to follow their line.

SW: Then don’t make it easy.

TP: And our problem is then that we never talk about any of these things. Because we’re all so afraid to say anything because we think that it’s going to be misused that we just shut up and we never tackle any of these things.

SW: We have to be smart, Trevor.

 Smart means not ghosting racism out of discussions about anti-racist strategy.



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