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It is Time To Have a National Conversation on Race in Britain

It is Time To Have a National Conversation on Race in Britain

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This paper calls for a new approach towards improving race relations in the UK through the implementation of a national dialogue whereby the society engages in a frank, honest and respectful dialogue on race.
This paper calls for a new approach towards improving race relations in the UK through the implementation of a national dialogue whereby the society engages in a frank, honest and respectful dialogue on race.

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Published by: Alatenumo on Mar 21, 2013
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It is Time To Have a National Conversation on Race in Britain


Margareth Rungarara-Keenan and Ahmed Sule, CFA March 2012

It is Time To Have a National Conversation on Race in Britain

Margareth Rungarara-Keenan and Ahmed Sule, CFA March 2012
Introduction Britain plays host to different people of different races from different parts of the world, thus making it one of the most diverse countries in the world. This diversity has sometimes resulted in frictions among the races, which have been expressed in a number of forms including racism, hate crime, hate rhetoric’s and mutual distrust. Improving race relations in the UK has been a challenging issue, consequently, in the past couple of decades the government, the public, race representatives, religious and civil societies have carried out a number of positive actions towards improving race relations. For instance a number of government officials have publicly condemned racist actions, legislations have been put in place to improve race relations and a Commission for Racial Equality now replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is in place. A number of inquires to investigate racial incidents have been set up, in addition, the month of October every year is devoted to Black History Month. However, despite these efforts, race relation in Britain is still in a deplorable state. The country eagerly anticipates the Queens Diamond Jubilee Anniversary celebrations and the Olympic Games, which take place later on in the year. These two forthcoming events have been described as a good opportunity for UK to be united as a community. Perhaps the year 2012 could also be a starting point to adopt a new approach towards improving race relations in the UK. In short, it is time for Britain to have a National Conversation on Race. In this paper, we address the following: Why a National Conversation on Race is necessary? Who should be included in the dialogue? How should the process be structured? What issues need to be discussed? What needs to be in place to ensure its success? Why Britain Needs To Have a National Conversation on Race Britain’s relationship with people from other races has evolved over the past centuries. Between the 16th and 18th century, Britain was a key player in the trans Atlantic slave trade which involved British slave traders invading parts of Africa and taking millions of Africans as slaves to British colonies in North and South America. The 19th Century witnessed the establishment of the British Raj in India in which the UK dominated India. Britain also established colonies in other parts of the world including Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Furthermore, British traders engaged in international trade with different people in other parts of the world, while a number of Brits chose to settle in various parts of the British Empire. By the middle of the 20th century, the cracks in the British Empire began to appear after the independence of India and the Suez Canal crisis. By the late 1960’s most countries under the sphere of the British Empire had gained independence and the era of the British Empire was effectively over. After the collapse of the British Empire, Britain began to experience an influx of people of different races especially those from a number of its former colonies. Britain is now home to millions of people of different races. Some of these people are descendants of former immigrants and have now gained British nationalities. Others are in Britain for other reasons such as studies, work or fleeing from autocratic regimes in their home countries. As a consequence, Britain has become a melting pot playing host to people from different races including Blacks, Arabs, Jews, Travellers and Asians. The legacy of Britain’s historical interaction with other races has contributed to mutual suspicion among the races in present day UK. For instance, due to Britain’s colonial and trans-Atlantic slavery past, people of Asian and African descent living in Britain feel aggrieved about the illtreatment accorded to their ancestors in addition to the negative legacy of Empire, which continues to affect their countries of origin; whereas most people in Britain feel that these events happened in the past and should be forgotten.

Furthermore, each race often operates within its own silo. Besides interacting in the offices and sometimes during sporting and music events, people of different races rarely engage with each other. Most aspects of daily life in the UK are segregated, with people of different races living in separate residential areas, attending separate educational centres and congregating at separate places of worship. As a consequence of these attitudes, there is an atmosphere of racial misalignment as people have little understanding about other races, thereby resulting in mutual suspicion, stereotyping and racism. This environment of racial misalignment often results in the build up of racial tensions, which could remain suppressed for a long period of time. However, once in a while when these tensions reach an intolerable level, it usually triggers a reaction, which explodes beyond control. For example, some of the riots of the eighties were triggered by high unemployment, poor housing and racism faced by the Black communities. With the current financial crisis entering its fourth year, racial tensions are once again at elevated levels and traces of these tensions can be seen in the rise of racism. Black footballers are being racially abused on and off the field, anti-Semitism is on the ascendency, the far-right is on the increase, a number of African and Asian men and women have been racially insulted on the trains, there have been a number of hate crimes – in one instance an Asian man was killed in Manchester in a racially motivated attack by a white man, while in another case, a white boy was beaten up by a group of Asian boys. It is important to note that these incidents though reported in the press are not isolated incidents and understate the true scale of the suppressed racial tensions prevalent in the UK. Due to the sensitivity of race matters in the UK, racial matters are rarely discussed; on one hand, some fear that if they express their views regarding other races, they may be branded racists, while on the other hand, some fear that if they complain about being ill-treated because of their skin colour, they may be accused of being too sensitive, using the race card or having a victim mentality. This has resulted in people keeping their views on racial matters to themselves, thereby increasing the racial tensions. A National Conversation on Race (NCR) would provide a forum for people to express their views on racial matters and thereby bridge the racial divide by improving racial understanding among the different races and promoting positive race relations in the UK. Structure, Participants and Success Factors In the USA, Bill Clinton the former US President called for a national dialogue on race in 1997. Furthermore, Eric Holder, the US Attorney General also called for a national dialogue on race. However, despite these calls, there was no effective structure in place and so consequently, the dialogue did not kick off on a national basis and therefore failed to have any meaningful impact or coverage in America. To avoid these mistakes, the British NCR should adopt a top-down and bottom-up approach. It should involve a cross-section of British society. To get the buy-in from the British public, it is important that the initiative is led at the beginning by the Prime Minister. By championing the NCR, the Prime Minister would be sending a strong signal to the public that the government is determined in seeking a lasting solution in improving race relations. The Prime Minister could start the NCR by publicly announcing the programme and directing the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to draw up a year-long programme to facilitate a national dialogue on race throughout the country. After announcing the programme, the Prime Minister could commence the first National Conversation on Race by participating in a televised town hall format dialogue with a selected number of citizens including but not limited to senior religious leaders, business leaders, academics, media representatives, race representatives and members of civil society. The NCR should also take place at the grassroot level, covering different parts of Britain. Furthermore, other members of the coalition government (including senior ministers) could visit different parts of the country to discuss issues relating to race. A broad spectrum of participants including people of various races such as Blacks, Arabs, Asians and Whites (including Eastern Europeans, Jews and Travellers) should be encouraged to participate in the dialogue. In addition, members of the far right parties such as the English Defence League and British National Party could be included in these dialogues; however, the moderators of the dialogue would have to ensure that participants do not constitute a disruptive influence during the conversation. Moreover,

participants in the NCR would have to abide by a code of conduct to ensure that the various conversations are orderly and respectful. The NCR could take place in both formal and informal settings. In schools, teachers could encourage their students to engage in constructive dialogues on issues pertaining to racial matters. Students of different races could watch films about each other’s culture, as this would help them to understand and appreciate each other. In addition, the school curriculum could be updated to educate students on the impact of the legacy of the British Empire from not only the perspective of the coloniser, but also from the perspective of the colonised. Students involved in sports could be taught the importance of racial harmony for instance by learning of the role played by Nelson Mandela in healing South Africa’s racial wounds when he wore a Springbok jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. The conversation on race could be extended to the workplace and community centres. Experts on race matters could be invited to give lectures on selected topics on race. Workers in the offices could engage in honest conversations with colleagues on race matters. People should be encouraged to invite their neighbours across the racial divide to discuss racial issues. The NCR could be extended to the football stadium where racism is once again on the ascendency. Even though football and racism has always been an issue in the UK, a question worth considering is why do we not get this openly displayed racism in other sports like rugby, cricket, and boxing? Could it have something to do with the supporters and players? A way of addressing the issue could be for adverts to be shown on the big screen during half time in which matters relating to racism are discussed. By viewing these adverts on a consistent basis, football fans could be educated on the ills of racism. Furthermore, the match programmes could contain a section in which a prominent member of the club or club management discusses the issue of racism in football. In order to make the national conversation effective and meaningful, it is important for the discussions to be ongoing. It should not stop after the Prime Minister starts the initial conversation. Moreover the various conversations must be frank, honest and respectful. Care should be taken to ensure that people expressing an honest opinion are not branded racists, troublemakers or angry. Neither should they be accused of using the ‘race card’. Talking Points Prior to any conversation on race, it is important for the moderator or the instigator of the conversation to state clearly the purpose of the National Conversation on Race i.e. to encourage dialogue among different races with a view to promoting positive racial harmony in the UK. The issue of race is a sensitive and broad topic, and though we acknowledge that all issues worth discussing are not covered in this paper, however, the following issues detailed in the next couple of paragraphs could be considered during the national dialogue. Britain’s Historical Past: Toni Morrison, the African American Nobel Laureate once remarked: “if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great more about contemporary life.” A major cause of friction among races is partly due to the activities of Britain during the British Empire. There is a two-view understanding of the British Empire. On one hand most people in Britain are proud of the accomplishments of the Empire, while on the other hand, people with ancestral ties to former British colonies view the empire as an exploitative and evil empire that plundered the resources of the colonies and ill treated the people of the colonies. A dialogue could entail both parties discussing Britain’s past role in colonialism, commerce, rule of law, education, religion, imperialism and the trans Atlantic slave trade. Barriers To Honest Dialogue: Participants should feel free to discuss what factors prevent them from wanting to discuss racial sensitive issues. An honest dialogue could help Britain change its current race avoidance attitude. Stereotypes: A consequence of the limited interactions among people of different races in Britain is the prevalence of negative stereotypes, which is often used to describe ethnic minorities. A NCR will help bring to the open these stereotypes and it will give members of the stereotyped race the opportunity to dispel such labels.

Racially Offensive Actions: Very often, when a racial controversy occurs, there are often two perspectives towards the issue. The aggrieved party/race argue that they have been racially abused or ill-treated, while the offending party/race, often sees nothing wrong in their action and would regard the complaining party as either using the race card or being emotional and sensitive. This asymmetric perception of the issue occurs because the offending party fails to view the issue from the perspective of the insulted race. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Spanish Insurance Company, Groupama, which has a subsidiary in Britain, produced an advert featuring Liverpool’s goalkeeper Pepe Reina. The advert showed Reina, meeting a black tribe in a forest. The chief of the black tribe was actually a white man who blackened his face and arms in order to look black. The advert portrayed the tribe as a group of cannibalistic savages. Shortly after the advert was relayed, Operation Black Vote (OBV), a civil rights organisation called for the advert to be removed as it was racist. When the incident was reported in the British press, a number of people failed to understand OBV’s concern. This is probably because they did not have an understanding of the historical portrayal of Blacks as animals, monkeys and cannibals in addition to the minstrel films of the early twentieth century, which portrayed Blacks as fools. This explains why a number of people made some of these comments detailed below in relation to the incident: “Are you for real? I thought black people were supposed to be tough. Lately I've seen that's definitely not the case. Anyway when black people were taken from Africa that in the advert is how they were.” “Ridiculous. All this racial abuse accusation is getting over the top, out of control and beyond political correctness by miles. Give it over.” “People really need to chill out. Sensitivity's through the roof. I really don't see anything wrong with the advert, the story truly is just an organisation looking for a bit of press. If the tribe were somehow white I don't think you'll hear anyone complaining.” A dialogue on race would educate people to become more sensitive to others on the other side of the colour line. Immigration: Discussions should cover the role of immigration in British society. There are often two contrasting views in relation to the role of immigration in Britain. On one end, a number of people within the host community believe that immigrants contribute little to British society. They argue that immigrants prefer to keep to themselves rather than integrate into British society. They also feel that immigrants milk the system and engage in criminal activities to the detriment of the general population. They think that immigrants are taking the jobs that should be reserved for ‘true Britons’. On the other end, a number of people from the immigrant community believe that they contribute to the British economy by carrying out jobs, which members of the host community do not want to do. They also feel that they should be appreciated because they pay their taxes, they help in the funding of the educational sector by paying higher tuition fees and they contribute to improved productivity in the country. While some immigrants engage in criminal behaviours, it is important for the dialogue to highlight that this should not be a reason to demonise the whole immigrant community. Media Portrayal: Very often, people from the ethnic minority communities are portrayed negatively in the British media. These negative portrayals often reinforce the racial stereotypes that are prevalent in people’s minds. In addition, a number of people have used the media to project racist views without participants of the offended race getting the platform to attack such views. Moreover, when racial issues are discussed in the mainstream media, the more knowledgeable and articulate race representatives of the ethnic minority community are usually not invited to participate in these discussions. It is therefore important that the role of media in race relations is discussed in the national dialogue. Unconscious and Institutional Racism: When racism is conscious, it is easy to identify, thereby making it feasible for one to put measures to either control its impact or mitigate future racist activities. While conscious racism can be described as spoken, acknowledged, direct, exposed and not so subtle, unconscious racism is often unspoken, denied, indirect, hidden and subtle. Very often, unconscious racism occurs when the perpetrator of the racist act lacks an awareness of the effects of the action on other people. A derivative of unconscious racism is institutional racism.

While measures have been put in place to tackle conscious racism, institutional and unconscious racism continues to attract little attention from policy makers. Institutional racism which occurs in a cross section of key British institutions including the police, the judiciary, health care, education, housing and financial sectors has contributed to a situation whereby Blacks, Asians and Travellers get a high dosage of the bad things of Britain and a low dosage of the good things of Britain. This asymmetric distribution of misfortune has resulted in Blacks, Asians or Travellers having the highest unemployment rate, the highest criminal justice referral rate, the highest stop and search ratio in Britain, while the asymmetric distribution of fortune has resulted in Blacks, Asians or Travellers having the lowest life expectancy rate, the lowest GCSE attainment level, the lowest access ratio to business bank loans and the lowest level of access to quality housing in Britain. Some people may argue that ethnic minorities are always using one excuse or the other to cover up their shortcomings, others may argue that ethnic minorities are playing the race card or have a victim mentality or are just emotional; however, this line of thought ignores a number of realities. It ignores the reality that according to the Office of National Statistics, in 2011, the unemployment rate for young black men between the ages of 16 to 24 was 55.9 per cent, which is over double the unemployment rate for whites of 23.9 percent. It ignores the reality that a research commissioned by Diversity Works for London revealed that some recruitment agencies see race as a factor in their decision-making processes as evidenced by the fact that only 29 per cent of Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates were offered a job through recruitment agencies compared with 44 per cent of white applicants even though the ethnic minority candidates in the sample were more qualified than their white counterparts. It ignores the reality that according to the Ministry of Justice, Blacks and Asians are seven and two times respectively more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. This stop and search experience can be very distressing. For instance, the police stopped a brother of one of the authors of this paper who is also a consultant medical doctor. Despite showing his ID Card, the two police officers still doubted his explanation. Eventually, he made a complaint to the police department and told the officer that: “ I am making a complaint because I do not want my son to go through this same experience….. there are some experiences that change you from a Trevor McDonald to a Malcolm X.” The above examples demonstrate that the issue of institutional racism needs to be discussed at all levels during the National Conversation on Race. It is also important to discuss ways of addressing institutional racism. Issues that could be addressed during the dialogues could include: strategic institutions such as the police force, judiciary, banking and educational institutions putting measures in place to ensure that employees attend courses on race relations. Whistle blowers in these institutions should be encouraged to report instances of racial discrimination without fear of recrimination for reporting. Furthermore, institutional racism indicators should be factored into performance and bonus targets in these key institutions. After the Dialogue, What Next? It is one thing to have a meaningful dialogue about race and it is another thing to translate the issues raised during the dialogue into concrete action. The success of the dialogue will have to be judged by how the information generated during the conversations is used to improve race relations in the UK. To convert dialogue to action, it is critical that there is a feedback mechanism whereby issues raised during the various conversations are collated and analysed. The Department for Communities and Local Government could have responsibility to collate and analyse the data emanating from the various dialogues. Once the results have been analysed, the Secretary of State will present a final report containing the findings, recommendations and action plans to the Prime Minister who will communicate the summary of the report to the British public. The details of the National Conversation document could be made available to the public via the Internet. A Declaration of Positive Race Relation Charter could be issued in which the UK Government and the British people make a commitment to treat all races with respect and agree not to discriminate on the basis of race whether consciously or unconsciously. Key institutions should nominate a race champion to ensure that recommendations relevant to these institutions are implemented. Furthermore, the dialogue should be ongoing, perhaps the Holocaust Memorial Day or a selected day during the Black History Month could be used to continue the discussion on an annual basis.

Conclusion Throughout history up to the present time, Britain has played a major role in trying to bring about peace in different parts of the world. It has attempted to bring about peaceful harmony between Israel and Palestine. It was a key player in organising the Friends of Libya Summit, a summit set up to bring stability to Libya. Britain recently organised and hosted the Conference on Somalia to help Somalia build a stable future. However as Charles Dickens eloquently put it many years ago: “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.” As Britain, works towards putting other countries houses in order, it is equally important for it to put its own house in order. Britain must not forget that it has a big racial problem on its own doorstep. So just as the UK government encourages Israel and Palestine to dialogue, it should also encourage Blacks and Whites residing in Britain to have a frank and honest dialogue on race; just as the UK government provided a platform for leaders from around the world to dialogue on Somalia’s future, it should also provide a platform for Asians, Blacks and Whites in Britain to dialogue on finding a lasting solution to institutional racism. Just as the UK government encouraged leaders from around the world to dialogue on ensuring a smooth transition in Libya, it should also encourage its citizens of various colours and culture to dialogue on how to bridge the colour line. Selah.

Ahmed Sule, CFA suleaos@gmail.com Margareth Rungarara-Keenan mrkee1997@yahoo.com

Ahmed Sule is a Researcher at Diadem Capital Partners while Margareth Rungarara-Keenan is a final year PhD student at the University of Essex

The views stated in this article are personal to the writers and do not represent the views or opinions of any company or organisation with which the authors are or were associated.


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