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How not to tackle race Trevor Phillips style

'UNSPEAKABLE TRUTHS': Trevor Phillips

THREE YEARS ago, I attended my first race equality training.

A pair of warm-hearted, well-meaning liberals gave us a list of words relating to race, gender, sexuality and class, and asked us to divide them into three categories: acceptable, unacceptable and not sure.

Many of us were, understandably, appalled by this superficial and patronising approach to race equality.

So much so that, some time later, I included it in an article for this newspaper: “The ‘unlearning’ of racism and other forms of discrimination is still rather like a primary school teacher instructing a group of pre-adolescents not to swear. The teacher tells the children which words are unacceptable, and that they may be punished if they do not comply.”

Just as a primary school teacher wouldn’t take the time to teach children the etymology of swear words, or their derogatory implications, Trevor Phillips, in his documentary Things We Won't Say About Race That Are True, appears uninterested in the history and power that lies behind racism.

Phillips’s hard-headed approach, which seems both wilfully and blissfully unaware of the histories of black political struggle, black critical thought and contemporary economic analysis, began with some carefully selected facts about wealth accumulation.

Thomas Pikkety’s highly empirical book, Capital, a best-seller in 2014, shows how European and North American states – and their corporate and financial institutions – operated in a manner which resulted in perpetual wealth inequality.

Phillips, however, focused on the disproportionate number of Jewish people within these institutions.

Pikkety’s award-winning book, praised by Nobel Prize-winning economists, identifies the dominance of inherited wealth in reproducing inequality.

The financial institutions identified by Phillips have well-documented historical roots; they were founded by people who did not happen to be white, but by people because they were white.

This was closely related to the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and to the European competitive colonisation which accompanied and preceded it.

There is a simple reason Phillips identified the disproportionate wealth of Jewish people nationally, rather than that of white people globally.

White accumulation of wealth isn’t seen as something to be identified, but rather as the normal functioning of society, as natural as the changing of the seasons or a solar eclipse on a cloudy day.

Only trends which diverge from this norm are “unspeakable truths” which must be spoken, alongside any others which disturb the apparent bliss and tranquility of the white, upper and middle class ideal.

It is therefore unsurprising that amidst the greatest child abuse scandal in British history, implicating the heart of the British political establishment, key decision-makers in Britain’s broadcasting establishment, and, of course, the British police, Phillips would spend so much time and energy analysing the Pakistani Mirpuri community.

The logic of such an analysis is, of course, the very essence of racism: if someone non-white has done something morally reprehensible, it is because of their race or ethnicity, and if they get away with it, it is because of their race or ethnicity.

On the other hand, if someone white does something morally reprehensible, it is for every possible reason except their race or ethnicity.

So while we analyse how such child abuse went unreported for so long in cases involving Pakistani men, the abuse and the widespread cover-up over decades of case implicated establishment figures (much of which did not emerge until those who were implicated had died) remains unspoken.

Phillips closes the documentary by identifying white working class boys as the “new blacks”.

This observation is particularly interesting, because figures show that while white working class boys are performing marginally worse than their black counterparts (by about 2 to 9 per cent), this gap is dwarfed by the gap between white working class boys and their white middle class counterparts, which is more than three times bigger.

But again, white middle class dominance is the norm, never an issue to be questioned or contested, particularly by New Labour’s former equalities tsar.

It makes far more sense for working class pupils of various ethnic groups, achieving at relatively similar rates, to squabble among themselves for scarce resources, rather than identify where, as in many other spheres of life, the real disproportionate power and privilege lie.

Like a primary school teacher dealing with a class of preadolescents throwing a tantrum, Phillips doesn’t have the energy to explain why racism is historically rooted, or morally reprehensible.

Telling them to “be quiet” hasn’t quite worked, so he’ll instead just let them shout at the top of their voices, perhaps hoping they’ll eventually tire themselves out.

This approach might make him more popular with the class for now, but as with his previous approach, it is both patronising and counterproductive.

It is deeply unfortunate that anti-racist thought must devote time and energy to debunking such half-truths and falsehoods, but making visible the structures of real inequality and injustice is the only way we can all have a critical, progressive, and most importantly adult conversation about race and racism in Britain today.

*Adam Elliott-Cooper works in the philosophy department at UCL and is a PhD student at the University of Oxford

Watch him on the BBC here:

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