For the past decade Samir Shah has been chair of the Runnymede Trust, devoted to studying ethnicity. Now, he says, the real problem in Britain isn’t so much racism, but "cultural cloning".
I first arrived in this country from Bombay in January 1960. Harold Macmillan had yet to make his Winds of Change blowing through Africa speech. Coronation Street hadn’t appeared on our television screens. As an eight-year-old child, I recall looking up at a huge advertising hoarding in Notting Hill Gate showing an attractive blonde offering very smart chocolates. I loved chocolates and they looked fantastic, but I was depressed. Why? Because I genuinely believed that those chocolates were for white people only.
Fast-forward 27 years and I was appointed head of current affairs at the BBC. Determined to get to know my new department a little better, I decided to see one of my staff — a senior editor — in his office. I walked over to his PA and asked for him. Her response was unhesitating. ‘Ah, are you the minicab driver? The editor’s busy at the moment, I’m afraid. Please wait in the car and he’ll come down when he’s ready.’ No, I replied, I wasn’t the driver. I left my name and asked her to let the editor know that his new boss had come round to see him. You won’t be surprised to hear that he was round in a flash — with his poor secretary with him, apologising profusely.
That was two decades ago. Television is still my business, but I have, for the last ten years, also been the non-executive chair of the Runnymede Trust. A think-tank devoted to studying ethnicity and diversity, born in the white heat of the 1960s, Runnymede has been pretty good at influencing debate about race relations for the last four decades. This week, as I step down as chair, I have a somewhat unbuttoned contribution to make to that debate. What follows is not Runnymede’s official position — but it is mine.
My point is a fairly simple one. Britain is, by any definition, a damn good place to live if you are not white. I can buy any chocolate bar I like. And today — although a curiously large number of Asians continue to like being minicab drivers — there are far too many non-white executives running various companies for anyone to repeat the mistake made by that hapless BBC secretary.
The glittering prizes of British society are plainly distributed to a far wider section of British people than ever before. At the top of almost every tree you will find black and brown people as well as white. In accountancy, software, medicine, technology, retail, business, law, arts and the media — the visible minorities are making their way to the top. Take the V&A Museum, where I have the good fortune to be a trustee. When I look around the board, I see the estimable David Adjaye and the impossibly elegant Michelle Ogundehin. It is, of course, a very British line-up. Ah well. It was quite fun being the only non-white in the village.
The flip side is that it is equally mixed at the bottom. We find not just black and brown people eking out a living, but white people as well. Studies into gang violence in Britain have shown that — as opposed to America — there is no ethnicity factor at all. The racial makeup of British gangs reflects that of the city where the gang is based. So if a version of the American television series The Wire were made in Britain, then the colour of their skin would not be a factor. It is a strange boast, but Britain’s gangmasters are indeed equal opportunity employers. Seen through the hackneyed black versus white prism, Britain is making tremendous headway on integration — from top to bottom.
But look deeper, and the real problems start to emerge. The breakthroughs are mainly being achieved by a very specific group of ethnic minorities: the Indian middle class, East Asians, the Chinese, and some African blacks. And while life at the bottom in Britain is very much mixed-race, certain groups do seem stuck there. Pakistanis, for example, are twice as likely as Indians to be unemployed. And the Afro-Caribbean community still have the worst educational results of any ethnic group.
Nor can the immigration debate be seen as an issue about colour. Those voicing concern about jobs and scarce resources include the children of immigrants — and often immigrants themselves. Two years ago, government research showed almost half of British Asians and blacks arguing that there are too many immigrants. Concern about immigration is certainly a burning issue in Britain. But it is no longer possible to dismiss objections to immigration as being racist.
All this marks a far cry from the days when — in the early 1980s and as a producer at London Weekend Television — I took a politically incorrect line over the business of illegal immigrants. Silly me. I thought that they were making life difficult for legal immigrants by provoking the implementation of stringent immigration controls. I was accused of being a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside, white inside). Nice.
Another myth that has been laid to rest over the last decade is that we immigrants are all in this together: that we would all man the barricades shoulder-to-shoulder against Whitey. In practice, the tensions which exist within Britain’s immigrant communities are arguably more deeply felt and widespread than between whites and blacks. Liberal, secular, middle-class Indian doctors whose families emigrated from Gujarat have very little in common with Bangladeshi families that originate from the villages of Sylhet. And while Afro-Caribbeans and Africans share the same skin colour, we can no longer pretend they are soul brothers.
Instead of being ghettoised, there are now suggestions that Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community is integrating so quickly that it might vanish altogether. The evidence is striking. Peaking at over half a million three decades ago, it has been on the decline ever since. Today, almost half of all children of Caribbean heritage have one white parent. Earlier this year, a report by the Institute for Social & Economic Research at Essex University said that the Afro-Caribbean community will ‘virtually disappear’ — dissolving into the white mainstream.
The Afro-Caribbeans may well be the single best-integrated minority group — but this, of itself, has not helped them. They remain stuck at the bottom of the rung — for example, three times more likely than whites to be expelled from school. The Afro-Caribbeans who emigrated to America are healthier, wealthier and far closer to whites than those in Britain — even if they may not be so well integrated. The sad fact is that the Jamaicans who climbed aboard MV Empire Windrush in 1948 would have fared far better if the boat had sailed west to New York rather than east to Tilbury.
This is not to say, of course, that immigrants do not prosper in Britain: just look at the Sunday Times rich list and the performance of East African Asians. But this country’s experience shows that integration per se doesn’t help you break out. So focusing too hard on integration — as the race relations industry tends to do — risks overlooking other serious features which are holding people back.
So what does determine success or failure if not race? Let’s look again at the groups that cling to the bottom. The plain truth is that Britain is developing an underclass who share more in common with each other than they do with other members of their own ethnic group. What are these traits? Everyone will have their own theories. But here are mine.
The first impediment to progress is a community’s determination to cling on to elements of their own cultural traditions and ways of life. Parents from certain Muslim groups, for example, have a tendency to bring up their children in such a way that they never interact with members of other c
ultures — restricting the ability of their children to get ahead. Then take the ‘babyfather’ phenomenon. David Cameron has urged Afro-Caribbean fathers to attend to their parental duties — an issue because half of black children live in lone-parent households, double the ratio of whites. Jack Straw made this point rather well with the surprisingly pithy ‘Lads need Dads’. The need for a father is not specific to children of any race.
If we are to hunt for discrimination in 21st-century Britain, then we should look at other factors that make us different. Each distinguishing feature — class, culture, accent, being Northern — plays a part. For example, in some liberal industries such as the media, being right-wing doesn’t help. But why should this surprise us? The kind of people who make decisions — white, middle-class, metropolitan, liberal, male — all think that the best people for the job are, er, white, liberal, metropolitan, middle-class and male. To describe this phenomenon as ‘institutional racism’ (as many are inclined to do) misses the problem by a country mile.
The real problem is what I call ‘cultural cloning’ — the human tendency to recruit in one’s own image. Recruitment, instead of being about picking the best people, becomes a process of finding people like the ones already there. The overwhelming need for a kind of cultural comfort blanket takes precedence over every other consideration — and rules out those whose backgrounds don’t quite fit. This is what a 21st-century Equalities Commission should have in its sights. Cultural cloning is, in my opinion, the main source of discrimination in Britain today.
These new realities don’t mean a wholesale dismemberment of the race relations industry (though I can hear the distant sound of hurrahs at the very suggestion). There is still a job to be done. But that job is profoundly different to what it was.
First, we need to take a much more sceptical approach to equal opportunity policies. We’ve all come across the drill: workshops, away days, ‘awareness’ courses, ethnicity monitoring policies and so on. Entire departments have been created within companies to manage schemes and monitor action plans. All this may, I suppose, have helped bring about some of the changes I mentioned earlier. But how much of it would have happened anyway, given Britain’s dramatic demographic transformation?
The truth is that no one dares to question the orthodoxy of equal opportunities — in spite of its obsession with process, and in spite of its clumsy social-engineering ethos. I have witnessed the impact of these policies for longer than most, and I cannot help but conclude that the whole area is long overdue an overhaul. There is a battle to be fought, but it’s not the same battle as that of the 1970s and 1980s.
To tackle a problem, one must first recognise it. We need to look beyond the easy headlines achieved by playing the race card, and find out what’s really causing persistent inequality. That means challenging employers to be open to all types of people — Northern, even right-wing — and not just the ones with whom they are familiar and comfortable. I do believe that cultural cloning — which can’t be described as any kind of -ism — will be the new enemy. It is where we need to focus our thinking over the next decade.
Too much of the race relations industry is scouring the country for a demon that now thrives mostly in isolated pockets of bigotry. Race, as a factor that determines one’s progress in life, should take its place alongside a wide range of other characteristics. Style, background, accent, dress sense and cultural (as opposed to ethnic) background and — most of all — your manner count just as much as your ethnicity in trying to land that job. This, of course, brings a whole set of problems that we need to overcome
In today’s Britain, it’s not so much the colour of your skin that matters — it’s the cut of your jib. And that is progress, of sorts.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 10, 2009