The Independent – “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” – Why we should question the term ‘institutional racism’?

This business of race never seems to go away. Just when it looks like we’ve got it covered, out comes another initiative, another documentary. This week in the US, Starbucks is encouraging its baristas to kickstart a conversation about race at 12,000 locations, by scratching “Race Together” on the cups of waiting customers. In the UK we must settle for the more subtle approach of Trevor Phillips presenting last night’s Channel 4 documentary Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True.
Phillips is well-placed to tackle the subject, having been a Labour party member for decades and active in equality quangos for almost as long. He’s an established insider – privy to the rarefied sphere of political debate in which the language of liberalism is shaped. A few years ago he did a volte-face on multiculturalism that led Ken Livingstone to suggest that Phillips would “soon be joining the BNP”.

In the documentary he’s critical of the equalities industry and the manner in which racism is now tackled. A development that could perhaps lead to a less empathetic and inclusive society. One in which people in the media are “terrified” to discuss race, and in which multiculturalism is a “racket” exploited by those that opt for isolation, segregation and nativism. He says this because he can.

Meanwhile those watching from home feel less secure about voicing their opinions, fearing they need to self-censor in order to toe the ever-changing official line on racial etiquette. This documentary is being billed as a kind of glasnost on race. From tomorrow we will be free to discuss the issue without being dismissed as bigots – and presumably, without the need of a Starbucks coffee cup to get the party started.

It’s likely that many will agree with the points that Phillips makes – we are heading for a form of thought control, as the pursuit of equality and the fight against racism moves beyond public life and into the private sphere. But we can also expand on this by adding that the race industry, along with the foot soldiers of the left, tend to fall silent when murderers, suicide bombers, racist killers and grooming gangs are anything but British, COE and a whiter shade of pale. Any deviation alerts them to news the rest of us – whatever our class, creed, colour or county – has lived with for a while: yes, sometimes people with brown skins do bad things.

The serial rapes of teenage girls in Rotherham is the classic example – leaving something close to blood on the hands of the Labour partisans that failed to address it. As self-evident as all the above appears to the general public, it seems that television is late with the news on this one. On the one hand we hear how far we’ve come as a multicultural society, on the other it’s as though we are in the dark age (not a racial slur) of cake-walking minstrels and Jim Crow.

Yet in Britain, it is a long way from 1968, the year that race had its annus horribilis. It was the season of the famed Enoch Powell speech, and the formation of the National Front. (Those that voted for the National Front back then did so because of fears of what might happen; those that vote for Ukip now do so because of what has happened) – each a response to the legislation introduced to eradicate discrimination. Although this itself was seen as a softener from a Labour government that had previously tightened up on immigration.

The anti-discrimination law – the 1968 Race Relations Act – was an honourable and necessary attempt to address overt and actual racism regarding housing and employment. The rot set in later as we passed through cultural relativism, and on to the aforementioned approach to tackling racism that has become an outreach project extending to our homes, hearts and minds.

The emphasis shifted from the actual to the abstract, when the term “institutionalised racism” was ushered into common parlance.

The phrase originated in the US, following the Kerner Commission report on the inner-city riots of the 1960s. To critics it was a totalitarian term. “While absolving individual whites of guilt,” says David Horowitz in his book Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes, “it makes all whites guilty.” Horowitz, formerly a champion of the New Left and a sympathiser of the Black Panthers, describes the introduction of the phrase as the beginning of the second era of the civil rights movement. Its distinguishing feature being that it “squandered the moral legacy of the first”.

This appears to be the argument Trevor Phillips is heading towards, and again, an argument that is hard to disagree with. He has been reported as saying that although much of the  work of the so-called “equality movement” has changed Britain for the better, it has also led to consequences that could undermine what’s been achieved.

When it comes to this there is a mammoth in the room: the Macpherson Inquiry that followed in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder. It was at this point that it became official that there was one take on discussing race, from which no one was allowed to deviate. But, thankfully, someone did and he put the case quite succinctly.

The revered sociologist and Labour party activist Norman Dennis died in 2010. Ten years earlier, he criticised both the inquiry and the concept of “institutionalised racism” in Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics. He suggested that the inquiry had the hallmarks of a Stalinist show trial. “It is part neither of the English judicial process nor of English public inquiries to put people on trial for their thoughts,” he wrote. “The Macpherson Inquiry, unable to find evidence of racism, produced a definition of racism that at first glance absolved it from producing any.”

Central to the problem is that the end of racism is not an objective that has a finish line, and so the goalposts will shift whenever something close to it is in sight. There are jobs in academia, the public sector, the consultancy sector, human rights law that depend on it. Racism in its truest from has diminished over the years, yet the campaign that emerged to tackle it has, oddly, expanded into a billion-pound industry. The concept of racism continues to re-invent itself and expand its remit ad infinitum to justify the existence of this industry. It wants racism gone, but without it – it’s nothing.

Michael Collins is the author of ‘The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class’