hy shouldn’t we say things about race that are true, asked Trevor Phillips in a Channel 4 documentary broadcast last night. And who could possibly disagree? Facts are facts, after all, and suppressing them just suppresses debate.
Certainly, the former race chief’s stance has cemented influential friendships. The Daily Mail lauded him on Monday with a front page headline: “At last! A man who dares to tell truth about race”. Its columnist Richard Littlejohn called him “the bravest man in the universe”. On a BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in this week, callers sang his praises. He’s right, they said: British people have become paralysed by a fear of being called racist.
Phillips is a significant voice on this issue: from 2003 he spent nine years as the head of Britain’s foremost race equality body – first the Commission for Racial Equality and then, after its abolition, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. But he’s been a controversial figure too: he opposed multiculturalism, and later said that Britain was “sleepwalking to segregation”.
Some of Phillips’ unsayable things are fairly mundane: “Irish people run the building trade”; “Indian women are more likely to be chemists”; “Indian and Chinese kids do best at school”. So what? But his crime-related observations are more controversial.
He talks to a former police chief who runs through a map of the capital, pointing out that in west London there are south Asian and Somali networks, who deal drugs and operate protection rackets; in east London crime within the Pakistani community has caused “a couple of very nasty murders”; in Hackney, there’s a Turkish influence to the heroin trade; and in central London there are Chinese sex traffickers and Romanian pickpockets.
I’m sure this is all true; but this one exchange highlights just why we need caution. Facts in themselves are neutral but their interpretation certainly isn’t. And while on their own facts cannot be racist, the way they are chosen certainly can be.
In effect, the police officer was merely pointing out where these communities live or work. And, yes, different ethnic groups will have different crimes – often due to their national history or culture – but that in no way means one ethnicity is inherently more criminal than another.
The police officer could equally have pointed to the City, and said that here white people commit banking fraud; or to Wapping, where they hack phones; or to Westminster, where they plot illegal wars.
The fact is, in all cases it’s just a small minority of any given group who are criminal. But the danger in all this is that if we keep repeating, and reporting, that Chinese do trafficking, or Turks trade in heroin, then in the absence of other information these entire ethnic groups can quickly become criminalised in the public perception.
This “ethnic profiling” is felt particularly sharply by Britain’s black population. Since the 1970s it has been reported that young black boys are more likely than other ethnic groups to commit street robbery. This is correct. But does this mean all young black men are criminals, or even most of them? Certainly not. Yet, as has been well recorded, black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.
When we hear about white criminality, we already have enough other information to be able to contextualise it
Less reported is the fact that in the overwhelming number of cases these stops produce no evidence and do not lead to arrest. So each year, because of one “fact”, thousands of innocent black people are put through the humiliation and inconvenience of a police search – simply because their skin colour makes them “look” like a criminal in the officers’ mind. Would Phillips wish the same common perceptions for Turkish, Chinese, Pakistani and Romanian people?
There is an infinite number of facts about any one ethnic group; so the issue isn’t whether certain facts are correct or not; but which facts are chosen.
When we hear about white criminality, such as football hooliganism, lager louts or paedophile rings, we already have enough other information about white people to be able to contextualise this, so we don’t leap to conclusions, and we don’t have high-level discussions about a “crisis within whiteness”. But in the absence of counterbalancing stories, it’s all too easy to begin to build stereotypes about minority communities.
The strongest recent example of this has been the shocking revelations of sexual grooming by mainly Pakistani-origin men in several British cities, with thousands of young victims. Hundreds of men are implicated in these horrific crimes. Yet in Britain there are 1.2 million people of Pakistani heritage. The vile grooming gangs are a tiny proportion (far less than one in 1,000), yet the stories have led to all manner of discussions about what is wrong with Pakistanis in general. Or, even worse, what is wrong with their religion, Islam, which has still less connection to the issue. Said one Radio 5 Live caller: “They can’t have relationships with their own young ladies because it’s forbidden so they go after young white girls.” Presumably “they” means all Muslim or Pakistani men.‘Phillips sees the death of Victoria Climbie as another example of PC-imposed silence creating a victim. Yet the evidence in this case was of a dysfunctional social services department.’ Photograph: PA
Tied in with the so-called suppression of facts is the implication that you can’t criticise black or Asian Brits – who, as a result, enjoy a kind of enhanced social status which can even give them immunity from the law. Thus emerges the myth that these gangs got away with it because people were scared to investigate for fear of being labelled racist. If officers across the country were really in fear of this, the stop and search figures would be inverted, with black and Asian people less likely to be stopped than white people. Why would it possibly be that in every other aspect of the criminal justice system the evidence is that black and Asian people are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted and to receive a prison sentence than white people? Yet somehow, for these particularly grotesque crimes, Asians were given an easy ride. There’s been much conjecture on the possibility that “political correctness” prevented their crimes being detected, but absolutely no evidence.
As shown by Jimmy Savile, along with the many cases of sexual abuse at children’s homes, the police have never listened to children from vulnerable, often scarred, backgrounds, when they’ve gone to the police for help. Until recent years the police would rarely even believe adult women rape victims, no matter what their background.
Phillips sees the death of Victoria Climbié as another example of PC-imposed silence creating a victim. The eight-year-old Ivorian was murdered by her guardians after several social workers missed signs of her abuse. He says this was because she was black, and that her meek body language and signs of bruising on her body were seen as part of African custom and culture. Yet the evidence in this case was of a dysfunctional social services department that later failed a white child, Baby P, in similarly tragic circumstances.
So each statistic becomes a sign of total racial or cultural difference, wrapping up everyone in a particular community, rather than being just one of a multitude of facts concerning that group. And it works particularly strongly against minorities who are less known.
And when some communities are believed to be doing certain things and getting away with it, or being favoured by those in power at white people’s expense, it’s not long before a rightwing backlash starts to take hold. These grievances add fuel to the surge in support for Ukip, and before that aided the BNP.
Phillips will no doubt see this article as another attempt to shut down the debate. Actually, I don’t object to his programme, or his right to make it: in many ways it’s good to have a discussion on this. But his analysis ignores the environment into which these facts are projected, and the selectivity of those deciding which we get to hear. When I see a tabloid splash with the headline “White Crime Shock” I might be persuaded. Until then, I’d advise anyone that when they hear facts or truths reported about any particular community, they should immediately think of the many more facts we never get to hear.