n 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.