The Strangeness of Race

Is race an illusory construct we should eradicate?

My experience as a journalist has taught me that there are always stories to tell which can present a particular point of view without revealing the truth of the wider picture. It was just such a story, on what I felt was inaccurate reporting on the North London Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, which brought me into journalism in the first place.

My experience in life has taught me that far from black and white, the answers to questions of identity are invariably grey. What drives us towards the simple answers is the desire of so many people to have clarity and certainty in an uncertain world. In the end, the only thing in life that is certain is that life is uncertain.

As my career developed over the decades first at the London School of Economics and then the BBC, I recognised that there are legions of people who remain in denial on all sides of the so-called ‘race’ divide, who cannot help us heal the traumas of the past if they continue to live by the defunct codes of that past.

The language of race and racism are the unholy descendants of a false science. So how do we emerge out of the oppressiveness of the language of the past? What do we need in order to become a country that recognises difference, but accepts that the diversity of talent is not colour-coded? How do we ensure we can see the wood despite the trees? Does skin colour really explain everything in life’s experience? Do the headlines on racism continue to reflect the underlying story, or is it just good copy?

The paradox in modern Britain is that where there is a profusion of cultures and cultural mixing this simplicity breaks down utterly. This is a long way from the prophecy of Enoch Powell when he saw Britain as Rome with the river Tiber ‘foaming with much blood’. A speech that made my second year at primary school such a misery.

Ironically in British politics, ‘race’ has remained a taboo subject because of this, which means precious little advantage comes of remaining attached to a category that cannot deliver a change in the exercise of power in a reasoned public culture capable of simultaneously promoting both self and collective social development. It is not a sustainable association when the law and regulation strives to create a level playing field.

I am alive to the fact that by expressing an antipathy towards ‘race’ I could be accused of betraying those activists whose fight has for so long been to secure equality of opportunity, equal rights and justice for people of colour. I merely observe that this form of political association has proven increasingly unstable and progressively unreliable as a means of achieving equality. Even Martin Luther King paid the ultimate price when he began to argue that justice and equality transcended ‘race’ in the fight for political change. Even he was seen to be betraying a cause by some who used ‘racial’ determinism to justify the means as well as the ends.

The more sceptical we become of the status of easily visible difference, captured in the categories of ‘race’, the more we shall be obliged to ask how a spectrum from human sameness to human diversity is to be calibrated. Indeed whether it has any intrinsic value beyond natural curiosity.

Let’s not overlook my premise that racism begat ‘race’. Racism is a rational outcome of the fear of what is different. Classifying that difference became ‘race’. So, although ‘race’ may not exist in the way Europeans who first cast the scientific concept had it, the white supremacist ideas on which it was founded to explain ‘the other’ have not necessarily died the same kind of neat death.


" Identity politics has taken the optimism of multiculturalism up a political cul-de-sac."

Let me be blunt here to. Failure has too often been seen as a means to acquire successful redistribution of resource. There is a danger that success becomes failure even when the empirical evidence suggests the failings have been overcome.

Let me use just one example, which I think speaks highly of Britain’s institutional flexibility and the hard work and aspiration of minority communities.

When I did my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the 1980s in the humanities and social sciences, I could count on one hand the number of students of colour I encountered. The ones I did were invariably the sons and daughters of the sub-Saharan African intelligentsia.

In broad terms, the latest figures from the regulator of universities suggest that minority students in all categories reflect a proportionally growing appetite that surpasses that of their ‘white’ counterparts. 23 per cent of university entrants in 2013 were from a BAME background, which reflects a year-on-year rise. That’s around 356,000 students a year. In another set of figures from UCAS, which strips out the European Union students, the largest increase in entry rates to university in the period 2006–14 is shown to be amongst black school leavers (Caribbean and African), rising from 21 per cent in 2006 to 34 per cent in 2014 – a proportional rise of 60 per cent. This should be big news. It is a sign of significant change.

The statistics paint a complex picture of modern Britain. It is no longer a 1960s ‘black and white’ story. Accustomed as we are to seeing real stories on the impact of racism on people’s lives in the headlines, a broader sweep of the statistics indicates that there is a narrative about the improving landscape of a more ‘cosmopolitan’ Britain.

It may appear to be a paradox that evidence of individual episodes of racism (in particular an increase in reported hate crime) persists, whilst at the same time there are improvements in the ability of individuals to harness opportunities and transform their lives irrespective of skin colour. The real issue is that both conditions exist in Britain. Just because racism affects some people’s lives doesn’t stop others finding they can make the best of their talents and thrive in a more inclusive society.

This is my argument. I believe we have to go beyond the set beliefs and old campaigns, which did so much to challenge the foundations of racism, but at the cost of having consolidated notions of ‘race’ and fostering a crude politics of identity. Identity politics has taken the optimism of multiculturalism up a political cul-de-sac. A world of politics in which ‘racial truths’ are propagated and used to dictate irrelevant policies is just one outcome of this bankrupt language.

The battles our forebears fought bequeathed us an opportunity to construct a level playing field using the rule of law. By the way I am writing here of British law, not American law. Why do I say that? Because too much of our debate on diversity and difference is conditioned by what has happened in a corrupted American discourse. It is not for us to lose sight of this in our disappointments. We must not be diverted or befuddled by a new linguistic mire where we uphold the mythical gods of ‘race’ as something that can protect us through a kind of racial exclusivity. There is an assumption that progress means that our gains will be permanent. This would be a big mistake. Progress is always reversible. We are still haunted by 1930s Germany.

Let me reiterate to avoid misunderstanding: racism does still exist. But for more and more people it is not the principal prism through which life is experienced in Britain.


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