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Has talking about race become a taboo itself?

Kurt Barling | 11:12 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

In 1968 when Enoch Powell delivered his so called "Rivers of Blood" speech, I personally recall the racial taunts over the following weeks and months at school and on the streets of North London.

It was an uncomfortable, unpleasant and sometimes downright dangerous time for many individuals whom it exposed to raw prejudice. Bigotry had seemingly been legitimised by a hitherto widely respected public figure.

Some twenty odd years later over lunch I discussed the impact of his speech on public discourse with Enoch Powell himself.

I made a very simple point; that I believed his speech had cursed all public debate on immigration, race and racism to that day. Powell didn't appear to regret the impact his speech had. He clearly believed it would remain a vexed issue for generations.


In many ways the issue is less vexed now. For example, it is accepted in public institutions that the standards that can be expected by minorities from public services have changed utterly. It may still take a fight to assert those rights, but those rights are now enshrined in the conventions of public services.

I was reminded of my tete a tete with Powell last week by the reaction to John Denham's speech on a new government strategy document "Tackling Race Inequality."

It would seem there are few subjects in public discourse which are so wilfully misinterpreted as that of race. I am only hazarding a guess but many of the commentators on Denham's speech cannot have read the full text of the Minister's speech.

Let's be clear I'm not writing this to defend a government minister. He has more than enough supporters or sycophants who, I'm sure, can do that. But in a society still struggling to be at ease with its diversity, can it help intelligent and open debate if the moment someone mentions an alternative course for public debate on racial equality, people challenge the speech without addressing its contents?

Suggestions that the speech marked an "End of Racism" claim seem wide of the mark. What it does show is that it remains extraordinarily difficult to have a robust public debate about race, discrimination and inequality at the same time as making the argument society must be fairer for all.

It is plain wrong to say that racism is a thing of the past; that Britain has expunged prejudice, intolerance and bigotry from its social fabric.

It is equally wrong to say that racism defines the human condition of all ethnic minorities at all times, particularly in a diverse City like London. I personally can't see where John Denham's speech claimed the former; he was rather redefining the latter.

For example, it is more difficult today than it was when I was a teenager to assume that you can determine someone's social-economic standing simply by the colour of their skin.

Of course that doesn't mean that a black or Asian person who has moved a few rungs up a professional ladder or has middle-class attributes will not face discrimination in the workplace (or elsewhere for that matter) but inevitably the scale of the disadvantage and the implications will be different the higher they climb.

Although it remains thoroughly nasty and unacceptable, I suggest it is probably much easier for individuals to face intolerance, prejudice and bigotry if they have a greater measure of personal and financial security.

What this also probably means though is that the discourse on disadvantage has to be more sophisticated; less Black and White.


I can only assume this is what John Denham means when he says; "rather than reducing our efforts to tackle racism, we have got to be more nuanced in what we are doing (to tackle inequality)".

Ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be poor but the reality in London is that statistically there are many more white people who live in poverty. To recognise that and say that it needs addressing is not to harm the interests of minorities; it is to recognise a stubborn and enduring reality.

I suspect the British National Party is making inroads in parts of London which are less well-heeled not simply because of a perception that there are too many migrants, but because times are tough and the economic problems these communities face seem to them to be intractable.

Dealing with the poor results at school in these communities, rubbish resulting job opportunities and the consequential impoverishment are just as important challenges for government as tackling other forms of inequality.

Those with ambitions to promote equality cannot afford to ignore a world where many young white boys from poor backgrounds are as likely to be raised in dysfunctional family settings, end up in the criminal justice system, with addiction problems, leading to poor mental health as any other disadvantaged social grouping.

Of course not all white working class boys are permanent victims of disadvantage any more than all black boys are always victims of their colour.

Having read John Denham's speech a couple of times, I've struggled to find where he has made striving for racial equality a less important objective than achieving greater social or economic equality.

John Denham it seems has at least set out his stall. A debate on inequality must in his view look at the causes of inequality of outcomes for citizens.

If there is overwhelming evidence that the lives of black and Asian people continue to be thwarted because of the colour of their skin let it be heard. But let's not allow the weight of that evidence drown out the debate about enduring inequalities throughout our unequal society.

I can recall entering the restaurant on Queens Gate in 1991 alone with Enoch Powell. The memory of the reverberations of cutlery on china still brings a smile to my face. Either diners thought I was dancing with the devil himself, or perhaps that Powell had had a miraculous conversion. Inevitably the truth is always far more complicated.

Unfortunately Powell's enduring legacy in the debate on how we deal with immigration, discrimination and race is that the debate itself remains mired in a near-paralysing fear of causing offence.


  • Comment number 1.

    Whilst I do not accept that racism is an attractive human trait, it is nonetheless part of a much more wide ranging and vital one, prejudice. The day the human race loses this facility will be the day we disappear from the earth.

    As a personal example, I don't like lefties, trivial I know, but in this country one is swamped by them.

    By the way, in my experience black, brown and yellow people are just as racist/prejudiced as white people, thankfully.


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