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Sorry Samir, race is an issue

race-not-an-issueA recent article by the former head of a think tank claimed “race is not an issue.” Simon Woolley says all the evidence suggests it is.

If I was living on planet Zog, I would emphatically agree with my friend, and outgoing Chair of the Runnymede Trust Samir Shah, that ‘racism is no longer an issue’. He claims this in an article for the Spectator.

In fact, I’d go further; I’d confidently state that on planet Zog there is no sexism, homophobia, ageism, or any other ‘ism’.

Back on planet earth, and in particularly the UK, anyone with a modicum of objectivity would sadly conclude that in so many ways racism not only still persists, but in some areas it is actually getting worse.


Samir Shah

Not surprisingly the right wing rag – The Spectator – jumped at the chance of a prominent Black figure proclaiming to whoever will listen that racism is dead.

Shah’s pseudo-thesis is based on anecdote: 20 years ago a BBC junior colleague assumed he was their taxi driver. Shah suggests that type racism doesn’t happen now.

Furthermore, he conflates some minority ethnic tensions, and differing levels of social economic success, that somehow disproves there must be something other than racism that explains why Pakistani’s and Caribbean’s have not done well and, ‘Guajarati Indians, Chinese and some Africans’ have.

Having dismissed institutional racism, Shah concludes the greatest factor that is holding people back – Black or white –  is ‘Cultural Cloning’. In effect Oxbridge-types culturally cloning themselves and keeping the riff raff out.

Simon Woolley

Simon Woolley

I’m disappointed in Shah, because he has always been someone who I have held in high esteem and respect.

Moreover, when you have been chair of a think tank such as Runnymede for as long as he has, one would expect evidence based academic rigor to be at the heart of a provocative piece such as the article he wrote.

It isn’t, far from it. For example, a cursory bit of research would have informed Shah that a significant proportion of Gujarati business and academic success has an historical link to those East African Gujarati’s – who in the main were a business class – able to transfer their business acumen to a British context.

Furthermore, when British banks would not lend that first generation money, they were able to borrow off each other or had access to funds in India.

A similar business pattern is paralleled in the success of some Africans here too: well educated, middle class and fantastically entrepreneurial.

The tale of course for the rural Pakistani communities that came to work in the Northern cotton mill towns in the eighties would have a different social-economic trajectory particularly once the mills closed.

Likewise, with the professionally-skilled Windrush generation, reduced to working on the buses, would not find social mobility extremely difficult.

Returning to Shah’s main point, ‘cultural cloning’, which does of course have some validity in his argument. Those interviewing others for jobs unconsciously look for cultural references to which they glean important-family, university, circle of friends – but on it’s own it doesn’t explain the glaring omissions that were outlined in a recent report that job applications with Asian or African surnames were less likely to be interviewed than ‘white’ Christian names.

But if Shah needed any more evidence that there is a persistent race penalty that holds talent back he should speak to the well educated, well spoken, and well placed individuals such as Baroness Prashar, Tariq Ghaffur, Peter Herbert, Ali Dizaei, Shamit Saggar, not to mention Lord John Taylor (before and after Cheltenham)… all of whom have found to their horror that their professional culture counted for little on too many occasions when it came to promotion.

Shah is correct when he asserts the UK has made improvements, but let’s not get carried away. We have a political party – the BNP – based on racial hatred gaining unprecedented support.

And there continues a race penalty in education, the criminal justice system, employment, health and housing, that is still at unacceptable levels.

As we introduce an Equality bill, and brace ourselves for massive public spending cuts, we ignore these glaring facts at our peril. And lastly, I once went to BBC White City for an interview, only to be greeted by a BBC employee inquiring: ‘Are you my taxi?’ Sadly, Samir, that wasn’t 20 years ago, but barely a year ago.


3 Responses

  1. I agree Simon.

    Incidentally, I think that classism is the biggest dividing “ism” in Britain today, but institutional racism is a very close second. And I also agree about the Oxbridge-types cloning themselves.

  2. Shah is right in the sense that class is the biggest divide in this country. But he also knows that minorities especially those who are ethnic minorities suffer the most under this system. You cannot make sweeping statements but ignore the glaringly obvious.

    While there have been vast improvements over the years, the pecking order has not changed. I’m surprised to hear this come from Shah, but not surprised to see this type of narrative paraded with glee by The Spectator.

    This reminds me of the other headline grabbing leaders who once had integrity. Maybe Shah wants to run for Mayor too.

  3. This article is days after a robust evidence-based government report shows racial discrimination still happens in recruitment http://news.icm.ac.uk/business/racism-still-exists-in-recruitment/4211/

    …and also days after participants on a TV programme equate racial discrimination with being ridiculed for being fat, or having to dress smartly and have a shave for work.

    James has alluded to the class point, and I think what Mr Shah is probably guilty of subliminally admitting that his class privilege shields him from much of the discrimination he thinks doesn’t exist.

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