Under the influence

One of the most important lessons to emerge
from the Victoria Climbie Inquiry is that presumptions about
culture and ethnicity should play no part in child protection
decisions, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

In an unforgettable speech made direct to
camera on Channel 4 in 1988 Salman Rushdie said: “Black and white
people in this country live in separate worlds.”

has changed since then: de facto integration has transformed areas,
people, families and the nation. Researching my book, Mixed
Blessings: the complex lives of mixed race Britons
, I
discovered that the number of such families is rising faster than
anywhere else in the world. Not a day seems to go by without a
politician proclaiming the wonders and joys of our multicultural
island, and in the larger cities at least, lives and tribes, black
and white, are converging, making a new country where they feel
connected with each other and not forever apart. But unexpectedly
the pressures of globalisation have made people start to retreat
too, into their own neat tribes, white and black. This in turn
brings back into play special pleading, challenges to the very
notion of fundamental principles, of universal standards and human
rights and demands for separate provision and respect for cultural

conditions are benign, this traditional multicultural agenda may
divert people and resources from more imaginative initiatives,
which would bring people together and remake the nation. A loss,
wasted opportunities but not that serious. But when there is a
crisis or a dangerous situation, this approach can and does lead to
tragic consequences and terrible failures. By now it is accepted by
most caring people that this is one key reason why Victoria Climbie
did not receive the care and protection she was entitled

As the
Laming Inquiry comes to an end, we all await the (hopefully)
radical recommendations with considerable anticipation. Will there
be an uncompromising set of guidelines on this battle between
cultural protectionism and universal principles? Or will we get an
overhaul of the system, possibly a new Child Protection Agency,
which I would applaud, directions for joined-up action and all
sorts of worthwhile measures, but without anyone having the guts to
say that too many times social workers are paralysed by fear that
any intervention will be perceived as racist or an

Let us
be clear. It isn’t worse when a black or Asian child is abused by
the family or relatives. White children hurt and killed are as much
my concern. But in the case of most white children one can see
clear failures of the system or staff and inquiries can point to
these and hope for better. We know that a lack of resources, proper
professional practice and sometimes neglect led to the tragedies.
These will inevitably happen again because the failures are built
into the under-financed twilight service. I know who to blame; I
understand the failures.

with Victoria and the other black children who have been killed,
there is no such clarity. Often it is not neglect or professional
failure, but confusion, guilt, fear and the desire to please the
promoters of equality. These are mostly good people with the right
intentions but too often unable to extricate themselves from their
own passionately held beliefs about black families – that they are
only ever victims of racism, that they are incapable of child
abuse, neglect and worse, and that if there are children who become
victims of such families, there are all sorts of sensitivities that
make it impossible to point fingers the way they are if the
children are white. What will the good Lord Laming have to say on
this after the huge amount of money that has been spent and the
volumes of evidence gathered?

he say that henceforth all children, black, Asian and white, will
be assessed in the same way, that the same rules will apply and
that all children in Britain deserve these standards, indeed it is
their inviolable right to get no deviations? He must make this a
central part of his recommendations. There also needs to be brutal
clarity about the albeit small number of black and Asian carers who
seem to think that they can do what they want when it comes to
children such as Victoria because they know all about racism, and
about the role of supervisors too who can be unduly influenced by
the power of race talk. Racism is a real problem and must be
addressed, but racism did not kill Victoria unless you think it is
racist to give black children like her less care than she would
have got if she were white.

is a model. The government report on forced marriages two years ago
stated clearly that culture was no excuse for the violation of
basic rights. This bold approach liberated social workers from that
burden of silence and today forced marriages are being dealt with
as child abuse and a denial of the Human Rights Act 1998. That is
what we want from Lord Laming and what we are entitled

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a
journalist and broadcaster.

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