It’s mostly anti-racists keeping racism alive

While race-relations experts fret about managing people, young people are embracing ‘superdiversity’.

In 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.

Highlighting the unprecedented superdiversity breaking out in Britain’s schools seems to irritate anti-racists. In a singularly bad-tempered review of my Manifesto Club report The Myth of Racist Kids, Institute of Race Relations writer Jenny Bourne stated: ‘If children do, as the author asserts, all get on so well, in what is termed “a spirit of enthusiasm for growing social diversity”, it is precisely because there has been a long and distinguished struggle against racism in this country.’

Bourne goes on to attribute the intrinsically colour-blind, intermixed generation of kids currently swarming Britain’s schools (which she’d prefer to disavow), not to diversity itself but to ‘the efforts of generations, including teachers, social workers and others in liberal professions’. According to Bourne, it is not the lived experience of diversity that we should applaud, it’s the management of diversity. On managing ‘racist incidents’ in the nursery and the playground she says: ‘“Catching them young” is a way of ensuring that subliminal notions do not become fully fledged prejudices and go on to lead to racist behaviour.’ This is, indeed, the management plan favoured by local authorities UK-wide who, for the year 2008/09, identified well over 30,000 racist incidents in England and Wales alone. Utilising the officially recommended definition of a racist incident (‘any incident perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’), the dragnet effortlessly scoops up an abundance of incidents from the everyday banter and name-calling of primary school children. Forms are filled, children admonished, parents written to. And, of course, no race-relations management plan as daft as this would be complete without someone assessing the yearly statistics, flagging-up ‘a problem’ and ensuring more educational interventions on racism, identity and race (and more racist-incident reporting).

The nip-it-in-the-bud fantasy that animates official anti-racism flies in the face of any intelligent understanding of how children develop. It feeds off the notion that social change can be gently engineered via ‘early years’ interventions that somehow cut out prejudice (or add in self-worth). Children are viewed as hapless and helpless - permanently at risk from a cloying racism ingrained in both society at large and ‘the parents’ (typically denigrated as tabloid reading trolls).

The director of the Runnymede Trust, Rob Berkeley, is more measured, but neatly describes another shibboleth cherished by the modern day anti-racist. Commenting in the Times Educational Supplement, he said, ‘I don’t think its helpful to call a four-year-old a racist, but there will be another child on the receiving end whose self-esteem and learning will suffer’. The notion that a racist insult – whether it was intended as racist or not, or understood as racist or not – damages the ethnic minority child is central to today’s racial thinking. In the new anti-bullying lexicon, ‘resilience’ is set aside and almost anything can be a wounding word. But to insult ‘race’ is considered particularly damaging. In official government guidance, teachers are reminded that while all insults are hurtful, a ‘racist’ insult ‘goes to the very roots of someone’s identity’.

In January, Runnymede launched a Birmingham-based project on changing attitudes to race asking the question ‘can we end racism in a generation?’. Focusing on the children of parents now three generations on from the first major wave of post-war immigration, Generation 3.0 seems to have thrown-up something of a reality-check for Runnymede. Almost as though it were a new discovery, the Generation 3.0 research document excitedly reports that ‘contact between younger people from different ethnic backgrounds’ has led to an ‘increase in tolerance’ and views on ‘race and identity’, steadfastly held by an older generation of adults, ‘do not necessarily match the superdiversity that informs younger generations’ (3).

In other words, Runnymede seems to have noticed that where race equality is concerned, the kids are doing it for themselves. The obsession of older generations with sealing everyone into ethnic or religious boxes (an obsession shared by anti-racists and racists alike), and the endless hand-wringing over what is or might be racist or culturally offensive, is increasingly regarded as archaic (or just plain annoying) by younger people. As one 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl commented to the Generation 3.0 video-box, ‘we’re kids, we’re growing up… I think the older generation just need to be quiet!’.

For Runnymede, this may well be a catch-up moment. Diversity itself is washing away the racial boundaries long ago established by imperial powers who found racism a highly effective political ideology. In recent decades, racism has ceased to be a virulent social force readily promoted by politicians, magistrates and the police. Today, playing the ‘race card’ will backfire in no uncertain terms. And while its true that racism can sometimes lead to acts of violence or bigotry, it is now unplugged from any systematic, politicised pattern. As spiked has previously argued, in twenty-first-century British society it’s the rarity of racist violence and bigotry that makes it so shocking to us. Race is still a problem today but it’s more often anti-racism keeping it alive and kicking. Our belief in the existence of a pervasive, invariably hidden, social disease of racism requires no proof; effect is deemed sufficient evidence of cause. Armed with this article of faith, it is not surprising that anti-racists regard every shocking example as ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

Criticism of the way diversity is managed should not be brushed aside as though it were an attack on the lived experience of diversity itself. An impressive superdiversity is forming right under the noses of anti-racists stuck in yesterday’s world. Maybe some of those shrill voices, warning that criticism is no more than ‘an attack on multiculturalism’, just need to be quiet.

Adrian Hart is author of the Manifesto Club report, The Myth of Racist Kids – Anti-Racism Policy and the Regulation of School Life. For more information, visit his website.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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Footnotes and references

(1) ‘An analysis using the Labour Force Survey’, Lucinda Platt, Institute for Social & Economic Research (University of Essex), EHRC 2009

(2) ‘Citizenship Survey’ (2007/8), Home Office and Annual Survey of British Social Attitudes

(3) Passing the Baton, inter-generational conceptions of race and racism in Birmingham, Gill and Pall Sveinsson, Runnymede 2011