“Things We Won't Say About Race That Are True“ Trevor Phillips

by Andy Gregg, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda.

Trevor Phillips

In his controversial and misguided programme “Things We Won't Say About Race That Are True“ Trevor Phillips argues that white people are so afraid of being called out as racists if they criticise black people or minority ethnic communities that they would prefer to stay silent even when serious abuses are taking place. He argues that this "political correctness" stops us telling a number of truths about race and racism and goes on to suggest that this is why there has been a growing UKIP style backlash.

Phillips sets up a parody of multiculturalism, a straw man that he then proceeds to burn down with great delight, but achieves little apart from to distract our attention from the real issues that need to be addressed – the structural and institutional racism that continue to infect all of our institutions in the UK.  He selects a number of “facts” and then misinterprets them in a way that a GCSE Statistics student would be ashamed of and he ends up by reinforcing the worst stereotypes including some around black people and criminality that are deeply worrying.

His critique of multiculturalism is based on a confused and confusing notion of integration and his underlying philosophy reinforces a kind of racist essentialism that is a large part of the problem rather than its solution. He suggests that “different ethnic groups commit different sorts of crimes”. Nothing surprising about this you might think. Except that without any attempt to explain why this might be – the social and economic reasons and context for this phenomenon - we are left with merely cultural explanations (which are not really explanations at all, but actually disguised prejudices). This argument ends up not far away from the view that essentially “Black people just are more violent”, “Jewish people just are better at making money” - tropes that are deeply dangerous and irresponsible. To put it another way it should be no surprise that “white collar crime” tends to be committed by white people (because they are proportionately more likely to work in white collar jobs) and “street” crime is more likely to be committed by people from poorer backgrounds (a higher preponderance of whom are likely to be Black or minority ethnic). To fail to factor in non-ethnic variables (in particular class) which might be more helpful in explaining such conditions is just laughable.

Phillips begins his programme by talking about his work heading up the Commission for Racial Equality. He says of his time there that "campaigners like me sincerely believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them. Now I am convinced that we were utterly wrong". Well, if the CRE and then the EHRC really did believe the bizarre notion that stopping people saying something racist would somehow make the thought behind it disappear, then it was far more confused than any of us even realised at the time. As a Theory of Change this is on a par with astrology. In any event, whether or not Trevor Phillips ever believed this, his assumption that other more sensible anti-racists ever believed anything like this is just a rather cheap caricature.

Multiculturalism is identified by Phillips as the leading villain because he insists it differentiates and then divides people on ethnic lines and leaves  them stranded in their own embattled communities, competing for resources with other ethnic groups. This is a very questionable description of multiculturalism, and whilst it may have some veracity when used to describe places like Blackburn and Burnley it is not so helpful when applied to a hyper diverse city like London. It is true that there is a lazy kind of cultural relativism that sometimes masquerades as multiculturalism. This view purports to argue that Police or social workers from one culture cannot and should not make judgements about the views and behaviour of another one.  Phillips characterises this position as political correctness and sees it and the fear of being called a racist as stifling debate and legitimising such appalling outrages as sexual grooming in towns like Rochdale and Rotherham. He thus attempts to blame  his caricature of  "multiculturalism" for many  of the ills of society and for the breakdown of our communities. 

Like many anti-racists, I have never believed in this cultural relativism -  that some communities should be subject to different standards and norms because of their different “cultures”.  If people from any "cultural background" break the law or contravene the basic human rights of their own or other community members then of course they should be brought to book. For a very long time many of us have campaigned against issues such as forced marriage, FGM, and “honour” based violence. We start from the principle that it is human rights that should be applied universally rather than any right to cultural immunity from them. Sexual exploitation and violence takes place in all cultures and racialising its occurrence makes it more not less likely that we will fail to identify it when it occurs in hitherto unnoticed arenas. Incidentally it is worth asking why the appalling activities of Cyril Smith, Jimmy Saville, Gary Glitter et al have not been racialised as peculiarly "White" crimes in similar fashion.

According to Phillips “People prefer segregation”.  After the 2005 London bombings he warned the country was "sleepwalking towards segregation". He says that for many years he has known that “some groups were becoming so isolated that values and ideas which most people would find alien were tolerated and even encouraged.”   Isolation does sometimes occur between communities and greater efforts need to be made to challenge such segregation as well as attitudes that can lead to extreme radicalisation. However it would be helpful if Phillips would look at all the evidence rather than just the parts of it that support his thesis. The fastest growing cohort of young Londoners is those from mixed heritage families. How does this square with the statement that "People prefer segregation"? We would do much better to ask not just why it is that in some circumstances they do prefer segregation but how can we learn from the many instances when they don't.