Former Equalities and Human Rights Commission head Trevor Phillips has warned about “not being able to have a straight conversation” about people’s “racial or religious differences”.
Trevor Phillips said the “cost” of not discussing the subject could be seen in the authorities’ approach to child abuse cases in Rotherham and Rochdale.
He also criticised remarks made by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, calling for race discrimination laws to be scrapped.
Mr Phillips said the laws were needed.
The UKIP leader’s comments came in an interview for Mr Phillips’ documentary, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True, to be shown on Channel 4 later.
Mr Farage said he would get rid of “much of” existing legislation.
He said that while concern over preventing racial discrimination in employment “would probably have been valid” 40 years ago, it was not today.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Phillips said: “I do not think Nigel Farage is right at all. It’s absolutely clear still in this country that some ethnic groups are less likely to be employed irrespective of their qualifications.”
He said studies had shown CVs with “recognisably non Anglo Saxon names” were less likely to result in job offers, adding: “We need these laws, there’s no question about that.”
Mr Phillips said he was making a “separate point” to Mr Farage, which was that “sometimes we need to think about these things positively rather than negatively”.
It is believed that educational performance in London schools has improved because of an increased number of “high performing ethnic minority groups” including Chinese and Polish children, he said, and it was important to learn why these groups were successful without “having an academic debate about whether we can have that discussion”.
Instead, he said, “people say that if you say that you are stigmatising others”.
He also cited the example of actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who apologised recently for referring to black actors as “coloured” when talking about a lack of opportunities for black actors in the UK.
Cumberbatch “wanted to say something very important” but it “got buried” by the row over his use of the word, he added.
Last summer’s inquiry into the sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham noted fears among council staff of being labelled “racist” if they focused on victims’ descriptions of the majority of abusers as “Asian” men.
The report, by Professor Alexis Jay, also stressed “there is no simple link between race and child sexual exploitation” saying the most common perpetrators of child sexual exploitation were white men.
Adam Elliott-Cooper, from the University of Central London’s philosophy department, told BBC News Mr Phillips was “nit picking child abuse in one specific community” which was “helping to reproduce stereotypes”.
“I think his intervention creates a false reality,” he said.
“He kind of picks and chooses little facts here and there… what Trevor Phillips has done is identify specific bits of the truth which are greatly decontextualised.”