When I took over as chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in March 2003, I was braced for trouble. Race and religion are the most divisive and potent flashpoints in Western societies.
I was pretty well prepared for the job of race relations tsar. I had been a journalist for 25 years; I had run several public bodies; and I had been elected to chair the London Assembly.
Like most men of my age and background I’d also managed to get myself stopped by the police in pretty much every model of car I’d ever owned. I thought I knew what I was taking on. But to paraphrase the famous Monty Python sketch, nobody expects to be shot in the face.
In autumn 2005, what I thought was a car backfiring outside the office turned out to have punched a hole in the window next to my desk.
The would-be airgun assassins missed. But had I been less lucky I might, I guess, have lost an eye. The police came, investigated, but never had much chance of finding the culprit. We repaired the window, stepped up security, warned staff to be careful leaving the building and forgot all about it.
Like many people in my position, I find that such threats are a routine occurrence. If you’re not white, they come with their own special menace. But that hole in the window beside my desk at the CRE’s offices in South London should have been a stark warning of the passions that were already being roused, even in this mild-mannered nation, by Britain’s growing ethnic and cultural frictions.
It had been central to the New Labour project led by Tony Blair that Britain’s attitude to a multi-ethnic society would be transformed. We thought that if the government tackled discrimination with enough vigour then we didn’t need to worry too much about racial and religious divisions, which would just melt away in time because, after all, we were the same under the skin.
When it was announced on July 6, 2005, that London had won the 2012 Olympics with a pitch based on Britain’s ease with ethnic diversity, it seemed as though the whole world had bought our philosophy.
But the very next day it became clear that not everyone shared our enthusiasm for multiculturalism. On July 7, 52 people were murdered and more than 700 injured by four explosions on the London transport system.
When it emerged that the bombers were all young British Muslim men, we were faced with a single devastating question: if our multiculturalist dream was working so well, why had this happened?
For me the shock was compounded by a dawning realisation that I might have to bear some personal responsibility for failing to see what was coming. Because I had made it my business to spend part of each week in a community outside London, I already knew some groups were becoming so isolated that values and ideas which most people would find alien were tolerated and even encouraged.
But we had said little about it and done even less. After 12 months at the CRE I had come to the conclusion that, while beautiful in theory, in practice multiculturalism had become a racket, in which self-styled community leaders bargained for control over local authority funds that would prop up their own status and authority. Far from encouraging integration, it had become in their interest to preserve the isolation of their ethnic groups.
In some, practices such as female genital mutilation — a topic I’d made films about as a TV journalist — were regarded as the private domain of the community. In others, local politicians and community bosses had clearly struck a Faustian bargain: grants for votes.
And I saw a looming danger that these communities were steadily shrinking in on themselves, trapping young people behind walls of tradition and deference to elders.
Of course none of this was secret. But anyone who pointed the finger could expect to be denounced for not respecting diversity.
I myself had been quick to criticise others; in the autumn of 2005 I found myself the object of exactly this kind of witch-hunt. When I spoke publicly about my concern that Britain could be ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, I expected some mild debate. I didn’t anticipate the political fire-storm that would break.
On the evening of my speech, both the present Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Liberal Democrat Schools Minister, David Laws — who were then in opposition — argued on the BBC1’s Question Time programme that I had gone too far.
Worse still, one of my Labour colleagues, David Miliband, who was Minister for Communities, dismissed my concerns as ‘fatuous’. Today, ten years later, we know better. On the face of it we should be a nation completely at ease with our growing diversity. But we are not.
In 2015, non-white school-leavers are more likely than their white peers to head for university.
Yet while many clever young Muslim women head for the top medical schools, a handful are boarding planes to become the brides of Isis fighters. We learn from his former headteacher that Jihadi John had attended a school where more than 70 per cent of the pupils were, like him, Muslims.
It is not Islamophobic to wonder if such a closed community might have nurtured a fatally narrow world-view. No one in France now doubts that the sickening violence that left a dozen dead in the Charlie Hebdo shootings was at least in part a consequence of the disastrous segregation of the French banlieues, the ghettos to which many Muslims have been consigned.
Yet simply pointing out these facts is thought to be so sensitive that they have become virtually unsayable. In a world that rightly venerates the memory of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, the modern secular sin of being a racist (or an anti-Semite or an Islamophobe, its religious cousins) is by far the worst crime of which you can be accused.
The perverse and unintended consequences of our drive to instil respect for diversity is that our political and media classes have become terrified of discussing racial or religious differences.
Our desperation to avoid offence is itself beginning to stand in the way of progress. And all too often the losers are minority Britons.
If African Caribbeans are statistically more likely to commit some kinds of crime than other people, as indeed they are — we are especially proficient at murdering other African Caribbeans, for example — it might make some sense to understand why, so we can stop it happening.
Not all Jewish people are wealthy; in fact, some are extremely deprived. But if — as is true — Jewish households in Britain are on average twice as wealthy as the rest, might it not pay to work out what makes these families more likely to do well? Is there something that the rest can learn from their traditions and behaviour?
We all know why these things cannot be said. The long shadow of slavery and the Holocaust rightly makes us anxious about the kind of slack thinking that led to the dehumanising of entire populations.
Yet should history prevent us from understanding the differences between us — especially if those insights might improve life for everyone?
For example, one of the great educational successes of recent years has been the dramatic improvement in the performance of London’s schoolchildren at GCSE level. Many explanations have been advanced — better teaching, new academies, innovative exchanges of classroom practice.
The one explanation that almost every Establishment report seems to reject is also the most likely. It is that during the past ten years the capital’s classrooms have seen a huge rise in the numbers of high-performing immigrant children — Chinese, Indian, African and Polish — and a contraction in the numbers of under-achieving African Caribbean and white children.
A rigorous analysis conducted by Simon Burgess, professor of economics at Bristol University, has largely been ignored by the Establishment, although not by parents. Smart middle-class parents in London now visit schools with an eye to putting their child in a class with as many Asian children as they can find.
Burgess’s study shows that it’s not only the high-flying minorities who are doing well — they’re dragging up the averages among their white classmates, too.
The instinct to avoid offence is understandable. But its outcomes have been shown in practice to be disastrous. Victoria Climbie, an Ivorian eight-year-old, was tortured and murdered in 2000.
The subsequent inquiry by Lord Laming showed that doctors and social workers, desperate to avoid charges of racial insensitivity towards a black family, ignored or misinterpreted signs that should have led to her rescue.
Latterly, the unfolding tragedy of the street grooming of children by largely Pakistani Muslim gangs in several British cities has exposed a culture in which public authorities would do almost anything to avoid being accused of stigmatising an ethnic group — including turning a blind eye to abuse.
The Times reporter Andrew Norfolk, who exposed the street grooming scandal, recently uncovered a film that had been commissioned by child protection chiefs to warn young people of the dangers. It was suppressed in 2008 for the simple reason that it featured a white girl groomed by a young Asian man — the most probable scenario, but one that was deemed unacceptable to be shown to the girls at risk. Instead, another film was commissioned. It features a white abuser, a black victim and no discernibly Asian characters.
One of the few senior figures who has never been afraid to speak his mind is the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Back in 2006 he stirred controversy by saying it would help him to communicate with his Muslim Blackburn constituents if women were prepared to remove their veils so he could see their faces when he spoke to them. He was denounced as insensitive and worse. He told me that ‘a lot of white politicians are nervous about this. They lack confidence about what their views are and they think somebody will criticise them . . . [call them] racist or some nonsense like that.’
Ann Cryer, the first MP to blow the whistle on the street grooming scandal, in her Keighley constituency, now says she discovered that others in her local party had been aware of it for years, but neither the police nor social services would take her complaints seriously.
She says she found it difficult to raise the issue without being called a racist. In the end she went public, because ‘if you pretend it’s not happening, as many people in Rotherham did, then you go down the road of condoning it.
‘You’re actually saying, “This is all right, because it’s what they do in that community”. Well, it’s not. It’s not all right.’
The actor Benedict Cumberbatch recently found himself in hot water after trying to make a perfectly reasonable — and much-needed — case for the employment of black actors in greater numbers.
Yet the star’s main point was buried in a shower of condemnation for using the ‘outdated’ term ‘coloured’ — although, in fact, in America the phrase ‘people of colour’ is the most common way of describing black and Asian people as a group.
There is a real cost to this type of intimidation. The upshot is that the next time a white person wants to speak up for minorities, I would guess they’ll hesitate and ask themselves: ‘Will I make things worse by speaking out?’
It’s not just the impact on free speech that we need to be concerned about. We find it more and more difficult to address real problems in our society because we are afraid to describe them.
In the past decade, more than half a million white Londoners left the city for the suburbs, not because they are bigots but because they wanted homes with gardens and better schools. Fewer non-whites made the same move, leaving the capital a far less integrated place.
Even among those who stayed, research by the Social Integration Commission showed that social mixing across the lines of race and religion was, relatively speaking, least likely in multi-ethnic London — because the more choice people have, the more they choose to hang out with their own kind.
The revelation that schools in Birmingham had been taken over by a small, religiously motivated clique — the so-called Trojan Horse scandal — shows that children’s education is at risk of being sacrificed on the altar of religious orthodoxy.
And the Electoral Commission has voiced its concern about the corruption in segregated and closed neighbourhoods.
The problems aren’t limited to the conduct of people of colour. Last week, it was reported that one employer has advertised for workers, suggesting Polish speakers would be especially welcome — not a demonstration of an equal opportunities policy, but part of the growing trend for factory and shift work to be organised by ethnicity and nationality.
It’s a phenomenon I noted when conducting an inquiry into the meat-packing industry a few years back. It’s practical common sense — the workers and their supervisors communicate more readily and there are fewer fights on the production line. But is this really how we want to live?
Few of us want to go back to the days of ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ notices. Most people would rather that racial distinctions played no part in our lives. Should there be limits to the racial or ethnic mix we tolerate in schools, workplaces or neighbourhoods?
Would the publication and use of ethnic crime data lead to racial profiling and provide an excuse for fresh discrimination by the police and criminal justice system?
In an unequal world, if we are to tackle the problems of racial inequality and segregation, we at least have to be ready to name the problem. And we have to face the political consequences of our mealy-mouthed approach to race.
Britain’s lack of frankness is echoed in every major European country and it is fuelling a growth of angry, nativist political movements across the continent.In Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Greece and Holland, far-Right parties have steadily built a solid presence on the political landscape. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is tipped to win next week’s round of local elections.
At the heart of these parties’ appeal is a simple, oft-stated claim: we are the only people ready to speak the truth.
Nothing could be further from reality. But the po-faced political correctness that cramps all the conventional parties is allowing these frauds to get away with it.
Preventing anyone from saying what’s on their minds won’t ever remove it from their hearts. People need to feel free to say what they want to without the fear of being accused of racism or bigotry.
That means we’re all going to have to become more ready to offend each other. If we do, we might — in time — begin to see each other in our true colours. And surely that’s what the aim of changing Britain’s attitudes to race was all about.