‘Not all people of colour think the same’

Trevor Phillips on how identity politics harms minority communities.

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Topics Politics UK

Race has dominated the news since the killing of George Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. Prior to this, the Covid-19 pandemic was having a disproportionate impact on Britain’s ethnic minorities. Back in April, when Public Health England announced an inquiry into this disparity, it initially gave Trevor Phillips (and his company Webber Phillips) a leading role. But his appointment was greeted with howls of outrage from certain groups purporting to represent ethnic minorities. A month earlier, Phillips was hounded out of the Labour Party. So why does Phillips – one of Britain’s best-known anti-racism campaigners and the founding chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – draw so much ire from some sections of today’s left? Phillips joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract. Listen to the full conversation here.

Brendan O’Neill: You were heavily criticised when people heard that your company would be involved in the review of Covid-19 and how it has impacted on ethnic minorities. Some people suggested that BAME people would be unlikely to trust you. How did you feel when that reaction came?

Trevor Phillips: I have come to expect it from some sources. I felt mildly insulted because they had not even bothered to look at who I am. I am a scientist. My company is a data-science company. All the people who are yelling about credibility did not even bother to check out what I actually do for a living. I was a bit hacked off about that.

If I am honest, what I was really angry about was this: people claim to be speaking on behalf of ethnic-minority people. Their claim, to be honest – let us put it generously – has yet to be proven by any recognised method of understanding representativeness. Those people are completely prepared to put the risk to ethnic-minority individuals in this country second to their political vendetta.

A lot of this is all about things which I am supposed to have said five years ago. They have only just discovered that something I wrote back then is apparently terribly insulting. Supposedly, groups of people from ethnic minorities up and down the country are shocked and disgusted, including presumably the thousands of people to whom I speak at small meetings every single year, none of whom has ever mentioned their disgust. We have a situation in which the media can be hoodwinked by small groups of people who happen to be dark skinned, and who claim that they speak for everybody.

There are racial attitudes and racial attitudes. One of the ones I do not particularly like is the idea that all people of colour share the same view – and it happens usually to be the view that is being advanced by a particularly liberal perspective – and that anybody who is not of that point of view is somehow an evil traitor.

It is probably best exemplified by Joe Biden saying that not simply anybody who voted for Trump, but anybody who could not make up their mind whether to vote for him or Trump ‘ain’t black’. I cannot think of anything more racially denigrating than the presumption your colour makes you absolutely certain to vote this way or that. I thought we had left all that behind.

One of the things I think some of the more liberal white folks on this end really most hate about me is that I do not have to rely on their charity.

O’Neill: One of the things I am very interested in is the new racialism. I think your journey as an individual tells us a lot about where the politics of racial justice has gone. You have a long history of working on issues of racial justice and equality. But at some point, you became a problem for people who claim to be representatives of ethnic-minority groups and who claim to represent the spirit of racial justice. I think what has actually changed is the understanding of racial politics, from something that was traditionally campaigned against to this much more identitarian view of fixed communities whose relationships must be managed by experts and representatives. I think you find yourself at the centre of that shift from a progressive form of anti-racist politics towards a regressive style of racial identitarianism.

Phillips: Yes, I think there is something in that. Have I changed? Probably. I am a scientist by background, and I have gone back to science. The central position of the scientist is that you have an idea or a theory and you know it is eventually going to be shown to be wrong. But the question is, is it good enough to deal with the problem that we confront? That is the point of science. Twenty years ago, we had a view about educational success, which essentially held that minority failure was down to teacher racism – sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit. I have never doubted that is a part of it. But actually, what we discovered through better data capture and more granular analysis is that it could not explain the fact that some people of colour actually did better than average, while other people of colour did worse than average. Thus, we had to change our minds about what was going on because we had better information.

I changed my view about that quite dramatically. In practice, that meant that we did some things that are more radical. Dr Tony Sewell runs a great programme called Generating Genius. He wrote to me asking me to help him launch it. We said we were going to focus on African-Caribbean boys. Before that, we would have said we were going to focus on anybody who was not white. But actually, the data showed us a place where we could make a difference. I freely admit that I change my mind all the time, because I know that what I currently believe can always be improved. Most people in politics go the opposite way. They see the data does not fit their theory, so they try to find some new data.

On the question of what people think about me, other people can probably talk about this more authoritatively. But what I will say about it is this. One of the things that the British political elite really dislikes is a person of colour they cannot patronise. They really hate it. In the end, they like to approach a person of colour as somebody who is a supplicant. The few of us who are lucky enough not to have to be in that position are going to get it in the neck, because we do not go about appealing for sympathy. I do not have to tell everybody about the last time I had a racist insult or a death threat. I could do that every single bloody day because it happens every single bloody day. But why do I need to tell everyone? I do not need anybody (except the police where it is necessary) to help me deal with that.

We can do better for people of colour, who should be doing better than they are. Our company places hundreds of people every year in top jobs, roughly half of them women, and last year between 20 and 25 per cent people of colour. That is a useful thing to do – fighting against the tendency to pass over talented people of colour. Instead of going about telling people to feel sorry for me, what I am doing is finding jobs where people of colour can exercise decision-making powers, they can model good behaviour, they can persuade people that people who look like me are not necessarily idiots, or people who are just good at singing and dancing and running and jumping – we can actually run things. That is a useful thing to do.

But if that is what your focus is, it steps right outside the narrative of the supplicant. And I know that there are people who just hate that, because what they really want people of colour to be is useful stooges and pawns in the battle against capitalism or neoliberalism or whatever it is. Our job is to be downtrodden, oppressed, rebellious and the reason for revolution. And the minute we stop behaving like that, we are going to break that situation, and we become less useful to these people. That is why they hate it so much.

O’Neill: Where do you think that narrative of the supplicant comes from? Obviously, this politics has a long history, but would you say that in its modern form it is a function of multiculturalism? You have criticised multiculturalism, particularly as it developed in the Blair years. You have described it as a racket, and noted how multiculturalism created a layer of community representatives who became, by some form of magic, the spokespeople for vast, diverse sections of society. It strikes me that the problem with people like you is that you implicitly call into question the role that these people presume that they are playing.

Phillips: I am going to choose my words really carefully here, because I know exactly how what I am about to say can be interpreted. A particular form of multiculturalism, which is what came to hold sway in this country, is actually an emanation of racism.

When we first talked about multiculturalism, we were really talking about the politics of recognition. I cannot show you the graves of my great great grandparents in an English village because that is not my history. But I am part of today’s Britain. And my multiculturalism simply claims I have a different formation, I have a different history, and that should be honoured in the same way as anyone else’s.

Where I think things went really wrong was when multiculturalism essentially got taken over by people who wanted to deploy ethnic-minority groups as part of their struggle, as part of Labour Party factionalism. You can get this lot or that lot to support you, but you can only do that because you have got agents inside each minority community, and they will bring their people to vote, because they have only heard one side of the story. They are not stupid, but closed communities do not necessarily hear every part of the story.

My objection to the particular form of multiculturalism that started to hold sway was not that I thought diversity was a bad thing – precisely the contrary. It was actually that the form of multiculturalism that was being practiced was essentially one that ignored and suppressed the potential of people of colour, and simply used us as stage armies.

Even today you see it – if the government has got to appoint a bunch of people to a board, they will rightly say, we need to make sure there is diversity, there are women, there are people from minorities. But they will go to some group which claims to be representative of minorities, but may have no idea at all about the retail business. They will tell them to find a brown face they can put at the table. And I think the reason I am constantly in conflict with people over this is that I want us to be treated in the same way, with the same respect, the same level of scrutiny as everybody else. I want our talents to be recognised for what we do, not what we look like.

You could say there is a race-driven form of multiculturalism, and a capability-driven form of multiculturalism. If you believe people of colour have all sorts of great capabilities, and you have confidence that if people give us the chance we will do well, then you will believe in capability multiculturalism. If you think that basically black people are a bit dumb, and actually will only get a chance to do things if you give them the opportunity because of their colour, then you will go for the race-based multiculturalism.

Trevor Phillips was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

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