I caught Trevor Phillips on LBC radio this evening encouraging white people to report racism committed by Black and Asian people. Just the sort of headline-grabbing man-bites-dog story this ex-TV journalist knows the media love.
Phillips is also the consummate politician so of course slips in the odd qualifying statement (“most of the hostility travels in one direction”) but the bulk of his interview with Tory ex-blogger turned presenter Iain Dale was clearly aimed at the typical listener who will experience a rush of elation as they exclaim: ‘A-ha! You see! They’re racist against us!! Look, even Trevor Phillips is saying it!’
Clever Trev knows which buttons to press. And he’s certainly got form. Whether he is proclaiming there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘coloured’ to demanding immigrants learn the English language, or arguing that St George’s Day should be a public holiday so we can celebrate Englishness, he is ever careful to nuance his arguments sufficiently to claim he’s being misunderstood when facing criticism but, as a smooth media operator, knows full-well how to manufacture a snazzy headline to please the likes of the Daily Mail.
When he pronounced that multiculturalism is dead and that institutional racism was no more he knew exactly what he was doing. Get hold of the full text of his speeches and he said a lot more than that, but really, who is going to bother to do that? All Britain remembers is that he said multiculturalism was dead and institutional racism is no more.
And that all adds to a negative public discourse that has sidelined race while all the evidence shows racial disadvantage getting worse. It encourages obnoxious newspaper columnists to push he boat out that bit further and says to politicians they can keep race off the agenda.
Back in 2009 I wrote that perhaps it was time to reassess Trevor Phillips. After years of being wound-up by his public statements there were signs that he was finally moving in the right direction during his second term as chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Well he’s left the EHRC now (on its’ knees, actually). And if tonight’s radio appearance was anything to go by it’s time to re-reassess Trevor Phillips. Again. But perhaps that’s exactly what he wants; to divide opinion, to please and annoy in equal measure. And of course to stay in the media spotlight. A bit like a former Big Brother contestant who will do almost anything to revive the fame they once enjoyed.
So what did he say tonight?
“Prejudice, bias and abuse by people who are not white towards people who are white is not surprising. This is not a new idea. Myself and others have addressed it over the last few years.
“Acknowledging the fact that racial hostility can work both ways also takes people marked Black and Asian out of the box labelled ‘victim’. We need to reassure and encourage people who are white to come forward if they feel they are victims of racial abuse.
“For many young kids a lot of crime visited amongst white kids are visited by gangs that include people who are black or Turkish or whatever.”
Asked a question about the Equality and Human Rights Commission, he said:
“It’s important that people understand that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is anti-discrimination and not to [just] look after black people. They are there for use by everyone.”
And in response to a question about education, he added:
“The people who are least favoured by the education system used to be African-Caribbean boys. Now if you have to pick a group it’s poor white kids. We shouldn’t think of disadvantage as something that affects people who are black.”
Can you imagine the reaction if a white Conservative said all this? There would be an outcry because, resonating at a higher pitch than Phillips’ calm and reasonable vocal tones, is a rather shrill and unpleasant dog-whistle.
A message that screams: ‘Black people and the race relations industry are always going on about how bad things are but what about us? We suffer racism from them! But we don’t get help from their organisations! And what about poor white kids? Forgotten with all this talk about black kids!’
Most of all Phillips’ comments lack perspective. If most racism flows in one direction why devote most of the radio interview to talk about the minuscule amount that might flow the other way? As a quasi-academic with years of service in the race relations field why avoid the ‘power plus prejudice’ debate which defines the varying cause and effects of white-on-black racism from black-on-white?
And if he was serious about talking about disadvantage in the education system why present an ‘either/or’ argument pitching poor white children in competition with African-Caribbean children? After all, the good GCSE achievement gap between Black pupils and the national average is still a massive 28 percentage points which surely means there must be no let-up in the focus on reducing this gap.
Especially when the dynamics are very different from poor white kids. Black children have to cope with disproportionate school exclusions, low teacher expectations based on colour and culture, and the fact that class makes very little difference; no matter how well-off the Black family is their child still faces the same colour-based hurdles. But raising these points would no doubt lessen the impact of Phillips’ interview so they went unsaid.
It was Phillips back to his worst. Yet he no longer occupies a lofty public position, so perhaps this time his words might fall on stony ground for once. A year ago his LBC interview would have guaranteed an appearance in the morning papers but today it could be ignored completely.
And if that occurs then I too will ignore him from now on regardless of what he says. Maybe I don’t have to re-reassess him any more after all…
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway