Racism is not over, Mr Phillips

Thomas L Blair

Talk of the "end of racism" gives a misleading impression that the long struggle for racial equality has finally been won. Supporters argue that a new generation of younger well-educated Black-elected officials has emerged. Typically, they have moved on from the confrontational politics of the 1960s civil rights era. They herald the advent of a "post-racial nation".

Originating in the US, the post-racial-future ideology has most recently been bandied about in Britain by Mike Phillips, a Guyana-born,novelist-crime writer in The Observer, London, 24 August 2008. However, the facts negate this fanciful and unsubstantiated view applied to British race relations.

Disparity in the health and well-being of Black (African and Caribbean) people is one glaring example of continuing race-based problems. Most shocking, reports show the rates of ill health are worse among Black families and youth born in the UK than they were in the rough-hewn, migrant West Indians in the mid-20th century.

Moreover, Black people face the worst levels of health and well-being in 60 years of the National Health Service, according to official statistics. This dramatic decline drives up fears that deteriorating working class income poverty and unemployment in recent decades have taken their toll. The energy-draining symptoms appear earlier in their children, according to The Ethnicity and Health survey of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Office (2001).

This woeful scenario of disparities will have pernicious effects. They add an intolerable burden on youth already grappling with poverty, insensitive policing, poor parenting, low aspirations, and limited job prospects.

Phillips, once a BBC broadcaster and media lecturer, stumbles his way through this contested terrain. He says he is "a relatively respectable gent" observing that things have gotten much better through "moderate change". Best proof, he says, is "the ease with which black people navigate the city [London and major urban areas]" since the Notting Hill riots of 50 years ago.

Campaigning Black activists are adamant. All forms of discrimination must be fiercely fought. Black Britons deserve more than moderate, tolerated survival. They need more proof of navigating up the political and economic ladder than mere talk of liming in the city.

Simon Woolley, Operation Black Vote head, told participants at the Mayor of London's Black Leaders Dinner, 28 August 2007, "We need to be clear that racism still thrives in the UK. Black people are still seen as inferior".

Woolley blasted the chains on the aspirations of youth. Black people "are still much less likely to get a job than their white counterparts. They tend to be born into deprivation. And deprivation can breed criminality . . . and the depiction of young black men as criminals is part of that".

Many of the top-level personalities at the dinner - politicians, entrepreneurs, musicians, actors, pastors and athletes - hold similar views. Signing up Black Britons to a manifesto of   Equality in our Lifetime is urgent. Bringing Black and minority ethnic communities into politics and citizen participation is essential. Resolving such issues such as job opportunities, wage inequality, housing and day-care provision is of utmost importance.

Most famously, Nelson Mandela, the star of the Black Leaders Dinner, and hero of the global battle for racial equality, brought his wisdom to bear.He warned: "Leadership comes with the responsibility ... [to] ensure that you also empower those around you to scale the mountains with you."

Yet, even against this backdrop of irrefutable evidence, achievement and commitment from people making Black history, Phillips' end of racism argument cannot be dismissed as merely faux insights and journalistic meanderings. He co-authored the influential saga Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, 1998 (with his brother, Trevor, now head of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

With this established background, policy makers and reactionary elements of the British public may gladly join Phillips in declaring that eradicating the colour bar has largely been done. ("Come on. We've got a Black man heading the equalities super-watchdog. Black people are in Parliament. They lead in sports and pop music. Some even go to my daughter's school. So we must be
over it".)

However, Black political advocates say such talk impedes progress towards an ambitious public policy agenda. There is nothing post about post-racialism.

As Simon Woolley has pointed out: "If we're to move on from this situation, Black people must be the agents of change. We have to break the cycle of exclusion and start creating opportunities. We need Black people to have the same chances as everyone else".

* Thomas L Blair is a sociologist writing on creative renewal in Black Britain and Afro-Europe, see Chronicleworld web site http://www.chronicleworld.org