'That is what they want; to play on people's legitimate
fears, to create division and destroy the mutuality on which
our society depends.' David Blunkett, home secretary (1).
In his three years as UK home secretary, Blunkett has
painted a terrifying picture of racist thugs roaming the
streets of Britain and religious extremists stoking up hatred
between communities. The government has toughened penalties
for racial and religious hate crime, and plans to introduce
an offence of incitement to religious hatred.
In its consultation paper, Strength in Diversity, published
in July 2004, the Home Office promised even more measures
and laws to eradicate racism (2). The implication is that
ordinary people are vulnerable and in need of protection
from an army of race and diversity policy advisers. This
view is shared by much of the race relations industry, with
fears of growing Islamaphobia since 9/11 and far-right extremism
in the guise of the British National Party (BNP).
But first we ought to question how racist society is today,
and whether greater regulation of speech and behaviour might
do more harm than good for race relations.
While everyone in the policy world is talking about the
rising problem of racism, the reality is almost the opposite.
While there are still serious cases of racial discrimination,
on the whole the British Social Attitudes survey shows a
dramatic decline in racist attitudes over the past two decades.
Of people surveyed today, twice as many view racial discrimination
by employers as wrong, as compared with gender discrimination.
Indicators such as the rising numbers of interracial relationships
suggest a high level of social integration.
The curious paradox is that while people may be less racist
than before there is a widespread perception that racism
is growing. Forty-three per cent of people surveyed by the
Home Office felt that there was more racism now than five
years ago. Interestingly, it was white people who were more
likely to say this, while ethnic minorities were more likely
to say that there had been an improvement. This suggests
that heightened sensitivity to racism does not accord with
the lived experience of ethnic groups. At a time when race
relations have never been so smooth, increasing numbers
of people are pessimistic about racial issues.
I would argue that this trend reflects the impact of race
relations policies introduced by the government after the
Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, headed by Sir William
Macpherson. A raft of new legal and policy measures was
initiated to eradicate institutional racism - the most significant
of which was the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000. This
places a duty on over 43,000 public authorities to 'promote
relations between persons of different racial groups' -
effectively requiring bodies to prevent acts of racial discrimination
before they occur. Social institutions such as the police
force, education system, and health service are now legally
obliged to monitor people's interaction with each other
in order to tackle racism.
But the more public authorities talk about racism and
devise anti-racist policies, the more they racialise people's
everyday experience. It seems that everyone today is seen
as a potential racist who needs to be monitored and every
member of an ethnic minority as a potential victim of racism.
Race relations policies are having a dramatic impact in
the modern workplace, by encouraging the growth of diversity
training throughout the private and public sector.
Diversity training is supposed to help 'promote good relations'
between different ethnic groups and capitalise on workforce
diversity. However, there is warranted scepticism about
whether such training alleviates tensions or exacerbates
them. Much of the content of this training is overreliant
on pop sociology and pseudo-therapeutic techniques. Participants
are expected to talk about stereotypes they harbour deep
in their subconscious, and disclose feelings of harassment
and victimisation. Trainers claim to eliminate stereotypes
in the workplace, yet in talking about 'different cultural
perspectives' they end up generating new and more insidious
stereotypes in their stead.
Participants are instructed in the 'correct' ways to engage
with people of other cultural groups and how to tread carefully
around their different values. Yet the little evaluation
that has been done on diversity training schemes shows their
spectacular failure. A recent in-depth study by the Commission
for Racial Equality (CRE) on diversity training in the police
force admitted that a large proportion of officers felt
their training was patronising, and resented the implication
that they were closet racists.
The CRE's inquiry also revealed the extent to which such
schemes create a heightened sense of racial difference and
anxiety among officers about 'causing offence' to other
racial groups. The authors noted that black and Asian officers
in the Metropolitan Police Service were up to two times
more likely to be subjected to internal investigations and
written warnings. The reason given was that 'supervisors
often lacked the confidence or experience to tackle problems
informally with ethnic minority officers, that they were
wary of doing the wrong thing' - so they were more likely
to report these cases to the professional standards department,
which happened to be overzealous in its approach to handling
complaints. Unsurprisingly, ethnic minority officers felt
that they were being unfairly targeted.
A typical workplace is knee-deep in office politics that
need to be managed effectively, but the duty to 'promote
good relations' is so vague that it risks conflating acts
of serious racial harassment with people just not getting
on with each other. When tensions between individuals are
labelled as racist by a third party, it can frustrate the
efforts people sometimes have to make to get on together.
Ethnic minorities are also encouraged to be on guard and
report the 'unwitting prejudices' of their colleagues, making
them more likely to view bad experiences as racial victimisation.
Where diversity schemes are introduced in an institution
or community, the number of reported racial incidents often
rises. The clearest example of this trend is in the USA,
where diversity training is already a mature, multi-billion
dollar industry populated by consultants and video and guidance
literature. Its most notable achievement has been a year-on-year
increase in complaints and racial harassment litigation.
Institutions are not the only targets of diversity management.
Since the mid-1990s, whole communities have been subject
to such policies and practices. The town of Oldham provides
the clearest example of what can happen when public authorities
take on the role of diversity managers.
In the 1990s, the Oldham police force began a deliberate
strategy to raise awareness of racially motivated crimes
in the area. Officers were so keen to demonstrate their
commitment to dealing with racism that they treated crimes
between whites and Asians as racially motivated, even when
they were not reported as such.
Along with other UK public institutions, the Oldham police
used Macpherson's open-ended and highly subjective definition
of a racist incident as 'any incident which is perceived
to be racist by the victim or any other person'. As a result,
the number of racial incidents recorded in Oldham between
1997 and 1998 was 238, almost twice as many as the next
highest division, Rochdale, which recorded 122, and over
four times higher than in any other division in Greater
Manchester. These statistics do not prove that Oldham is
more racist than its neighbouring town, only that the police
drew more attention to the issue. In the absence of interrogation,
such 'statistics' gave the misleading impression that community
relationships in the borough were deteriorating.
Oldham was also unique in that the majority of victims
of racial incidents were white - 116 out of 204. The local
BNP was strongly vilified in the media for pointing to this
figure as evidence of white victimisation by ethnic minorities,
but it was the police who promoted such explosive statistics
in the first place.
Indeed, much of the BNP's opportunistic strategy has piggybacked
on the racial divisions flowering under official policy.
Long before the BNP started to make an impact, Oldham council's
multicultural policies had begun to racialise communities
and make divisions seem like a natural fact of life. When
white people in Oldham are constantly told in the classroom,
the police station and the local library about how culturally
different their Asian neighbours are, perhaps we should
not be surprised if some of them start thinking that Asian
people inhabit an alien world. In the wake of policing and
other diversity policies, the perception of hatred between
Asians and whites gathered pace. Part of the result was
the explosion of racial tension in Oldham in the summer
So what about those people who are racist - how do we
deal with genuine prejudice where it surfaces? The first
step must be honest debate and the freedom to challenge
prejudices out in the open. Free speech is important not
so that extremists can have their say, but because in a
democratic society people are trusted with the right to
listen to anyone and form their own opinions.
On the night of Oldham's local elections in 2001, all
the elected candidates were banned from speaking on the
grounds that they might fuel racial tensions. Implicit here
is the notion that the people of Oldham cannot be trusted
to listen to their elected representatives and debate with
each other without descending into fanatical violence. Many
residents felt that the decision was patronising and fuelled
a sense of disenfranchisement. More importantly, it closed
down debate on race issues in Oldham, perhaps where such
debate is needed most.
While diversity policies are supposedly introduced in
the name of protecting ordinary people they inevitably result
in policing and managing them, making race relations worse.
Left to their own devices, individuals today are more tolerant
and willing to engage with each other than in the past.
But as government and policy-makers implement diversity
policies in institutions and communities, they risk storing
up distrust and anxiety for the future.
Munira Mirza was commissioned by the Institute of Ideas
to write a response to the Home Office's consultation paper,
'Strength in Diversity'. See the full response, on the Institute
of Ideas website.