The Guardian – Trevor Phillips says the unsayable about race and multiculturalism on Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True

That astute self-publicist, Trevor Phillips, has been at it again, getting a second bite of the media cherry for his Channel 4 programme on race on Thursday night.

He has just toured the studios and – by way of illustrating his thesis – provocatively asked if the dramatically improving story of London’s schools might be attributable to the growing presence of high-performing ethnic minorities pulling up overall standards.

Yes, he means south Asian and Chinese kids, but also Africans – lots of Nigerians among them, I suspect – and, of course, those motivated and ambitious Poles. Oh dear, oh dear, Trevor, you can’t say that. I can hear uneasy shuffling of liberal feet and cries of outrage without having to step out of the door on my middle class street.

Ah, but he just did. That must be why his Channel 4 programme is called Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True. Phillips, a journalist for many years before he became a full-time politician (does he still hanker to be London mayor?) and quangocrat, has written a boisterous summary (paywall) of his thinking for the Sunday Times, reprinted with the headline “At last a man who dares to tell the truth” in today’s Daily Mail.

Phillips rejects the bland “no need for race laws now” analysis of Nigel Farage, who appears in his programme and generated last week’s media ripples for the show, and says that, as a black Guyanese by birth, he has experienced his share of racial abuse and worse during his turbulent years as chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

However, as many readers know, he has also come to the conclusion that multiculturalism is a better doctrine in theory than in practice because it can, in some circumstances, allow public funds to be used to entrench the power of community leaders – always a potentially loaded word – by isolating them from mainstream society: thus “sleepwalking” into the segregation we rightly deplore in French ethnic ghettoes (French theory speaks of republican equality) rather than steady integration.

When Phillips first spoke of sleepwalking 10 years ago, even David Miliband tut-tutted, calling his concerns “fatuous”. It all makes it harder to discuss racial or religious differences, except, I would argue, in safe contexts like the varying susceptibility to medical conditions that we all know exist between different racial groups. Higher than average rates of cystic fibrosis among northern Europeans (apparently linked to cholera survival rates) is one I have recently encountered.

Yet petty crime patterns, high exam performance and levels of affluence are usually taboo if they threaten to carry a racial dimension: stereotyping is the usual complaint and, of course, it has some merit. Only some. Even a word of out place – think Benedict Cumberbatch’s well-meant remarks about the shortage of “coloured” actors – can raise a media mini-storm, though colour is again being used in the US to embrace all sorts of non-white ethnic groups.

Phillips cited familiar negative consequences such as the misplaced respect for others’ child-rearing habits which allowed social services to abandon Victoria Climbié, eight, to her grim fate and hundreds of Rotherham schoolgirls to the horrors of sexual grooming by men who were mostly of Pakistani origin. Grooming is not confined to ethnic minorities, replied the critics, when the Times reporter Andrew Norfolk helped expose a string of such scandals. No it isn’t. Nobody said it was, but it was in Rotherham.

Ann Cryer, the former Labour MP for Keighley and a doughty leftwinger (also a widow and mother of leftwing MPs), got in trouble for raising these concerns and those about the genetic consequences for families and the NHS of marriage between cousins. Jack Straw, the MP for very diverse Blackburn, did too for saying veil-wearing can impede understanding. Tim Lott wrote an article along these lines only the other day.

It seems to me that motive is crucial here. If a politician or overpaid columnist reports that Baa, Baa, Black Sheep has been banned in primary schools (Phillips insists no such school has ever been identified) the chances are that they are just trying to stir up trouble rather than inform enlightened public debate.

On the other hand, we have all had experience of the you can’t say that brigade – well-meaning liberals whose fear of causing offence or desire for an easy life prompts behaviour which is stifling in a different way. My late, much-lamented chum Simon Hoggart used to rampage against such folly. He wasn’t always right and these sensibilities are partly generational, but he was right more than Hoggart-bashers found it easy to acknowledge. During his final illness I kept him informed on the debate as to whether or not pygmy, as used by a Tory minister, can still be said in polite company.

In asserting that Chinese kids perform conspicuously well in school (that’s enough to make people nervous) Phillips is offering a think positive alternative to negative generalisations about black-on-black street violence or the propensity of a few teenagers from Pakistani homes to head for jihad instead of medical school as their doting parents planned.

Hence the remark about the turnaround of London schools – bottom of the heap 10 years ago – possibly being due to them containing fewer low performers, such as white and Afro-Caribbean pupils, and more south Asians, Africans and Poles. A study by Simon Burgess, a professor of economics at Bristol University, suggests that smart white middle-class parents have spotted this, with an eye to putting their children in such schools where averages are on the rise.

A labour economist, interested in behavioural change as well as poverty and fairness issues – unequal access to good schools, for example – Burgess doesn’t strike me as a Tory, judging by his CV. Indeed, another piece of his work suggests that grammar schools help create a more unequal society. They also happen to be a Ukip nostalgia policy.

Phillips and Burgess are saying that we should learn from such trends, not ignore them, as sometimes happens. Evidence, rigorously challenged and peer-reviewed, is always a good idea in policy-making. On a personal note, Phillips is actually being modest. When he was running the CRE, I noticed that he was one of several high-profile British Guyanese doing very well in this country. Meanwhile, in Valerie Amos, they were represented in the Labour cabinet.

I even suggested to a black reporter colleague closely engaged in these issues that he might want to check it out. He didn’t, but six months later was gracious enough to tell me that someone else had done so and I’d been right. Why? I don’t know, but a Catholic friend, also keen on good education, told me that it might be something to do with the Pope dividing the world between Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. The Jesuits got Guayana and bequeathed it rigorous educational standards.

It’s a good thought, if true. Over to you, Prof Burgess.