Ethnic minorities are no longer automatically disadvantaged in Britain, says communities secretary John Denham, in a bold pre-election declaration. It gained him the headline in the Times that "Labour claims victory over racism". And continuing the spin, Denham intimates that the focus in tackling inequality should now shift to the white working class, who he sees as the main victims of disadvantage. That may all sound like a revelation, but anyone who claimed that every single black or Asian person was "automatically" disadvantaged could have only the most superficial grasp of the real meaning of racism. Discrimination is about general cases and general trends – and is in fact very difficult to diagnose in specific instances. In the same way, not every woman is disadvantaged by sexism, or every gay person by homophobia; but that doesn't mean they're not very real problems which have to be tackled head-on rather than trivialised. The fact remains that in terms of poverty, unemployment, educational underachievement, school exclusions, stop-and-searches and criminal convictions, many minorities are still shockingly overrepresented.
And yes, in some ways, since the Macpherson Inquiry report was published in 1999, things have got better – as Denham says, "representation in the professions, in public life, in business" – but that doesn't mean we're anywhere near solving the scourge of racism, which remains firmly embedded in our society. A small number of people making it successfully up the ladder does not mean those left behind can be ignored. New Labour abolished the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission and shoved all the "isms" into one overbearing, bureaucratic and malfunctioning equalities commission. Now Denham wants to repeat the thinking, merging minorities into an overall "social class" group which will represent all the economically disadvantaged. Well, this just won't do, because Britain's racial minorities do not fit neatly into its traditional class structure. Most minorities in Britain are from poor backgrounds, with little or no longstanding family wealth. Even those who have not faced direct or indirect discrimination have had to overcome economic and social obstacles. But do those who have done so, and gained a decent education or a decent job, immediately break free from all-pervasive racism and therefore no longer require any legal or other support?
Not only that, but no one has yet come up with a decent, all-encompassing description of what "working class" really is. Does a man or woman automatically become middle class the moment they gain an A-level? Or a degree? In which case, class inequality will always be embedded, because the success stories are excluded from the figures – and it will always appear that the working class are worse-off than minority groups. Even if such distinctions were worked out, why would black and Asian people want to join with the white working classes, when some of them are signing up to the British National party and seem only too keen to blame non-whites for their own disadvantages? Racism, in any case, is about far more than economic disadvantage: it includes marginalisation, social and cultural exclusion, prejudice and discrimination. And all on the basis of one's visible and unchangeable appearance. One only has to see the daily vitriol poured on Muslims (nearly always equated with Asians) to see that bigotry and intolerance are still flourishing. Or the intolerance of immigration, or "migrant (ie non-white) communities". Denham says: "We're going to tackle disadvantage wherever we see it." I couldn't possibly disagree with him. But let's tackle class disadvantage in addition to, rather than by downgrading, racism.
There was barely a peep from the dog-whistle in John Denham's speech to launch the government's Tackling Race Inequalities document. It acknowledged that there is a complicated interaction between race and class that affects different groups of people in differing ways according to historical factors, such as slavery and colonialism, and structural determinants, for instance in housing allocation and the way in which we regard some occupations – not just in monetary, but in snob-value, terms – more highly than others. However, I wouldn't take too much credit for reducing racism, if I were him. The fact is that, for most families, racism has died out now that generations of people from different ethnic groups have grown up together. Many of us who once had bigoted relatives with a terror of miscegenation now have black and mixed-race family members; the minds of a majority have opened over time. Yet you can't say that the battle against racism is over when "Paki" (or "turbine-head", to recall the immortal terminology of a racist git I heard on a bus in Aberdare not long ago) is still a widely used term, and when a black businessman is periodically hauled over by police because he has a nice car. Research carried out by the geographer Danny Dorling to map Britain's inequalities shows that black council tenants are more likely to be assigned housing in high-rise blocks than to gain access to a house.
That's not to ignore the positive efforts of many. To give one example, the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, led by Sir Herman Ouseley, who has criticised elements of Denham's speech, has done brilliant work to encourage solidarity on the part of black and white players to put up a united front against racist fans and, where necessary, commentators. But that's football: working-class black boys grow up believing sport to be an area in which they'll be permitted to succeed, without suspicion or censure, if that's where they decide to channel their energies. A working-class black boy with a desire to become a flautist is less likely to assume the same. So would a working-class boy, or girl, who is white or Asian. First, you're not going to know any flautists. Second, you may not have music lessons at your school. Third, everyone in class is going to call you a freak. And fourth, depending on their own frustration or hard-bitten-ness, your teachers and parents may tell you that no one from this estate has ever become a flautist so it's best not to get your hopes up - well, either that or laugh at you.
The contiguous influences of race and class are no more in evidence than at the post-2000 universities, where black, white and Asian students from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds tussle with multiple identities and divided loyalties. To negotiate the expectations of family, friends from home and your own ambitions without becoming isolated or losing face requires a vast amount of faith in yourself and in the wider world. Michelle Obama, the daughter of a pump operator, unlike some prominent young(ish) Conservatives I could mention, didn't sail to her current position on a feathered bed of privilege and assumptions that the world was hers for the taking. Her experience, or those of the financier Damien Buffini or the novelist Zadie Smith, both of mixed race and from working-class backgrounds, shows that nothing is impossible. But sometimes, depending on where you're standing in the matrix of race, class, wealth and geography, it feels that way, in which case, for all the appearance of progress, it may as well be.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.