Don’t mention the R-word?

Should politicians pledge to keep silent on the race issue? Kenan Malik, author of The Meaning of Race, the CRE's Chris Myant, Tony Sewell, columnist for The Voice, novelist and critic Mike Phillips, and the UK Refugee Council's Jessica Yudilevich give their views.


Topics Politics

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Kenan Malik, author of The Meaning of Race:

‘Far from trying to close down debates, whether about race or any other issue, we should seek to open them up as much as possible. And far from creating artificial controversies about “pledges about racism”, it is time we had a proper debate about real issues, such as the government’s sordid treatment of asylum seekers. Most of the MPs who have signed the Commission for Racial Equality’s pledge against racism are the very same MPs who have voted for, and steadfastly supported, Jack Straw’s invidious campaign against “bogus” refugees. The problem is not that race has become a “political football” but that there is no real political debate, whether about race, asylum or anything else.’

Chris Myant, Commission for Racial Equality

‘The purpose of our compact is to enable a sensible debate about race issues in Britain, which we believe can only be achieved if you remove racism and negative stereotypes out of it. When people attempt to debate issues of race equality they get into stereotypes and stirring up prejudices, and debate will be closed off.

We need an open debate on race issues which is not based on negative stereotypes, or stirring up prejudices, but on a positive, rational approach to real existing problems.

One third of the British public respond to public opinion surveys indicating that in various ways they hold degrees of racially prejudiced views. Should we go around saying to those people, “Step out into the road and express those views, so we can counter them”? No. Do you think that one third of the British public should go around the place making racist expressions to their fellow citizens? That would not be a sensible thing for us to be doing.

We are seeking to get public debate conducted around important issues on the basis of fact, not on the basis of seeking to stir up racial prejudices. That will mean that some people who might have negative views about other people that are not based on fact but are based on prejudice, will keep those views to themselves.

We would hope that the development of public debate would help those people to learn that those views are wrong, and give them up. Public debate has developed in a way that has enabled an increasing number of members of the public and politicians to abandon expressions that have a negative impact upon people, and also to change their ideas.

We want a forthright, strong, public debate, about practical issues, and policies to deal with those practical issues. What we don’t want to see are leaflets going around saying “Fulham homes for Fulham people, keep bogus asylum seekers out”. That is basing the debate on the issue of prejudice, not on the basis of fact. We don’t want the Daily Mail running stories on “Ealing’s little Somalia”, with a copy on how all of these Somali immigrants sponge off public benefits. These are inaccurate facts, the wording and the presentation of which have the effect of stirring up prejudice against those Somalis who are living in Ealing.

Let’s have the debate about the impact of Somalis living in Ealing on the local authorities’ ability to run adequate public services. This is a legitimate area of debate. Let’s have a debate on the effect of expanding the Oxford Campsfield detention centre…or whatever. You won’t get these kind of debates so long as discussion around these issues is dominated by the trading of negative stereotypes – that’s when people come in and say, “hang on a minute, this is racism, rather than a debate about race equality issues”.’

Tony Sewell, columnist for The Voice

‘Even though I think that there are some sinister things going on from politicians, to put a pledge out saying that you don’t pander to race issues is nonsense. It allows Tories to present themselves as victims of excess – another CRE excess.

At the moment you can’t actually incite racism anyway – it’s illegal: you don’t need the CRE for that.

The pledge does sound a bit nannyish and a bit, like, “eat up your vegetables”, coming from the CRE, and not anything useful. When you get an old colonel Tory saying ‘England should be all white’, I actually think they just look bizarre. I would rather they continue with that nonsense, rather than be told that it’s politically incorrect to say these things.’

Jessica Yudilevich, advocacy manager, Refugee Council

‘The Refugee Council supports the principles of good practice and conduct from the CRE. It recognises that it is entirely proper for there to be a vigorous debate on asylum but that the right to free political expression must not be abused in pursuit of political advantage by inciting or exploiting prejudice on the grounds of race, nationality or religion.’

Mike Phillips, novelist and critic

‘I would not have asked for that pledge, because it is in itself meaningless. The way that we have traditionally defined racism isn’t important anymore. The real issue of ethnic minorities’ lives is not a lot to do with whether a Tory is offended by their presence or not – because we are all competing for political and cultural territory in this country, no matter who we are.

I was shocked and rather disappointed to hear Robin Cook echoing something that I had said last week. You know you are in real trouble when people like that start using the same language as you.

I don’t think those politicians would be interested in signing the pledge if it wasn’t for the fact that they themselves were so uncertain, and to a large extent hypocritical, about their own attitudes to race. All they have got is the language and these phoney assertions about being anti-racist, and they use those things as symbols, as signs of their intentions, because the truth is that there is nothing beyond that symbolism. The CRE is in a sense conspiring with this kind of empty symbolism in putting forward this pledge. What they need to do is go out and do some work.

The pledge is a symbol of how feeble and thoughtless and dim the whole debate about racism is in this country.’

Read on:

Cook plays the curry card, by Mick Hume

The new etiquette on asylum, by Brendan O’Neill

Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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