The Race Relations (Amendment) Act
2000 is a start, writes Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but it will not solve the complex
dilemmas that arise in the day-to-day provision of social care.
What busy bees race equality experts
are these days, speaking at conferences, organising workshops, writing
guidelines and then explaining them, earning lots of money as consultants to
local councils, education authorities and others. The reason for all this
buzzing activity is the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which has brought
in some significant new responsibilities for anyone providing services in the
public sector. There is a much greater onus on public bodies to promote good
race relations. The Amendment Act was Jack Straw’s proud baby, which he carried
along the political journey through the two houses of parliament, always
emphasising practicalities, so that the act didn’t simply gather inertia after
it had reached the statute books.
Assessments, good practice,
outcomes, ongoing evaluations, forensic information on service delivery are all
part of what is now expected.
Social workers will soon be
grappling with the difficult challenges of what many people like to call
“institutional racism” – a term I don’t much care for. After the Victoria
Climbié case it should be obvious to everyone that it is no simple matter to
ensure that conscious or inadvertent racism does not interfere with responses,
decisions and the service provided by social workers. Would it have been racist
to take a firm stand with the great aunt of Victoria Climbié? There may have
been hysterical accusations that such actions were definitely racist, by the
aunt and her lover at least, and maybe some of the black social workers
involved who neglected to look after the interests of the little girl. There
are still too many professionals out there of all backgrounds who harbour
dangerous fantasies about black and Asian family life, believing that these
families have their own norms and must be allowed to do as they wish, even if
what they do militates against the most important social values all citizens
should hold dear.
Arguably, it was racist to not give
the protection to Victoria that she would probably have had if all the people
concerned had been white.
Similarly, what do you do if you
know a 15-year-old Asian girl is being denied an education and is being forced
into a marriage? Is it racist to interfere or racist not to?
The Amendment Act will not make
these complexities any easier. There are other developments too since 11
September that make this law and the practices now encouraged seem unwise, even
irrelevant and provocative.
When Oldham and Burnley blew up last
summer, it became clear that the
problems there were never going to be solved with a focus solely on race
equality. Reports by Sir Herman Ouseley on Bradford, the Oldham independent
review, the Burnley task force and the Ted Cantle report on community cohesion
all accept that one of the most serious problems in such cities is de facto
apartheid. The breakdowns in social cohesion within groups and neighbourhoods
will need a radically different approach from the traditional punitive
anti-racist measures that have been used.
White racist thugs must be punished,
no question. But what happens when young Asian men are targeting older white pensioners?
Or if black criminals intimidate multiracial areas? Or when black, Asian and
white residents start abusing and attacking asylum seekers? Where are the
strong guidelines on that? You cannot only punish white racism while leaving
anti-white prejudices alone. That only encourages white racism, especially
among people who feel left out in New Labourland.
Another concern I have is that the
same government that is promoting race equality is also the government taking
away the protection provided by the Children Act 1989 to asylum seeking
children. Immigration is still exempt from the amended race legislation. Social
workers who need to work with these vulnerable people will find that it is
harder to provide them with a fair and equal service.
A far better solution would have
been to go for a human rights commission that would cover all citizens whose
rights are being violated by citizens, public institutions or the private
sector. If a duty to promote community cohesion was part of this, much useful
work might be carried out on conflict resolution, trust building in
neighbourhoods, and between racial and religious groups.
So it is good that the government
responded to the need for better legislation on race equality after the
Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawerence Inquiry, but it is a shame that
ministers did not have the vision or the guts to come up with new ways of
dealing with racial, religious and ethnic discord to bring together all the
various peoples on these islands.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist