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Race, Faith, and UK Policy: a brief history

by June Bam-Hutchison, IPUP Research Associate

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June Bam-Hutchison

A brief historical interpretation of the background to diversity and equality policy created in the UK

Discrimination against the perceived or created 'other' has an established history in the British Isles. The ongoing conflict between England and Ireland generated a long-standing tradition of colonial propaganda that presented the Irish as primitive and almost animal, which stretched from medieval commentators in the twelfth century and continued through the massacre of the Irish in Ulster in the sixteenth century. Even before their formal expulsion from England in 1290, Jewish people were subject to periods of severe persecution and discrimination, and were required by church law to wear a patch of white cloth to distinguish them from Christians (1).

Parallel to these traditions ran an intolerance of black people, which can be seen as early as 1596 in the deportation of Blackmoors by Queen Elizabeth I, and later in the attitudes that first allowed the perpetration and continuation of the transatlantic slave trade, then gave compensation to slave owners rather than slaves in the 1830s with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

The anti-other legislation of the twentieth century, then, has its roots firmly in traditions stretching back into the preceding centuries. This is not even the first time in our history that we have been reminded of the need to conform to artificially created 'Britishness': the Aliens Act of 1905, for instance, was to keep Britain 'British' from 'asylum seeking' Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Poland. Racist riots against blacks can be traced to 1919 in Liverpool. The British National Party, similarly, has a long history.

From the 1960s onwards, though, UK Diversity and Equality Policy is integrally linked historically to the arrival of black people, rather than immigration per se. Its roots are associated with the blatant and commonplace racist responses to the arrival of Commonwealth black (as including Asian) immigrants who landed in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although there were long-standing anti-Irish anti-Semitic attitudes that were seemingly linked to immigration, the response in the form of equality and diversity policies in the UK in the mid-twentieth century was a response to include and tolerate 'blackness' versus 'whiteness' as the norm. The turning point towards a framework of 'blackness' in legislation in Britain was the 1948 Empire Windrush, the start of the black immigration waves of the 1950s and 1960s into the UK, and the consequent race riots of 1958. The irony is often observed by commentators that these were Commonwealth citizens invited to come and help the 'mother country' after the end of the World War II, but who were faced with signs of 'No Blacks' as they searched for places to stay in Britain, and were refused entry to public places like restaurants and pubs.

It should be noted that African Caribbean people were powerful agencies in fighting racism, drawing on the long, proud tradition of resistance to the transatlantic slave trade. The Notting Hill Carnival was a creative and powerful, organic anti-racist response to affirm a proud identity and heritage, an idea that began in 1959 by rights activist Claudia Jones as a cultural affirmation for celebrating diversity and 'blackness', and became a regular event from the mid 1960s. In light of the political power and increasing pressure from black British people, the horrors of Human Rights atrocities such as the Holocaust, and the defining United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the British government was forced to take a stand against racism.

Whilst the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act controlled immigrants coming into the UK as 'a response to problems in housing, jobs and crime', the first Race Relations Act 1965 three years later under Labour outlawed racism in public places, and made it unlawful to refuse access to anyone on racial grounds to public places such as hotels, restaurants, pubs, cinemas or public transport. Refusing to rent accommodation to people because of their race was also no longer allowed and stirring up racial hatred -'incitement' - became a criminal offence. Interestingly this was limited to hotels and restaurants, and failed to outlaw racism in the workplace or in housing. This first law also made racial discrimination a civil rather than criminal offence. The 1965 Race Relations Act has been described as a limited piece of legislation pushed through by a Labour government in the face of fierce opposition from the Conservatives. This first race equality law was perhaps more about 'relations' rather than 'racism', but the Race Relations Act of 1965 with the first Race Relations Board marked the start of Equality and Diversity legislation in the UK under Labour.

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How has diversity and equality policy developed in the years since?

The first decade following the first Race Relations Act of 1965 saw a wave of 'anti-other' and 'anti-foreign' legislation under Labour specifically targeting black people. The 1968 'Rivers of Blood' anti-immigration speech by Enoch Powell of the Conservative Powellites, which perhaps, for many white British people, recalled familiar imagery of white people fighting black people at the 1838 battle of Blood River in South Africa, epitomises the conservative spirit of the time that arose as a direct response to the arrival of 1000 Kenyan Asians in Britain under Labour.

Three years later the 1971 Immigration Act followed, which aimed to slow down immigration by restricting the 'Right of Abode' to those who had a parent or grandparent based in the UK. One immediate effect of this was that the thousands of Asians who came to settle in the UK after being expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972 certainly had no 'Right to Abode'.

After the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, the next major turning points were the Race Relations Act of 1976, which brought into establishment the Commission for Racial Equality and the Race Equality Duties which also made allowance for employment tribunals and the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000 which made institutional racism unlawful.

A direct result of the MacPherson Inquiry of 1998 into the way the police handled the murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993, and its report released the following year, the 2000 Amendment legally recognised the challenge of Institutional Racism, the systemic and structural aspects of racism which are often very hard to tackle, and which came to be described as 'the collective failure of organisations to provide an appropriate professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin'. The 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act was introduced to extend further the application of the Race Relations Act of 1976 to the police and other public authorities and to specifically include discrimination by the police.

Britain is therefore clearly strong on anti-discrimination laws, but nonetheless it can be argued that it remains a deeply divided and racist society, caught up in the paradox of human rights laws and counter human rights laws that is generated between its foreign policy and anti terrorism laws.

Much of these contradictions in equality and diversity in Britain can be explained in terms of the aggressive policy that was established by New Labour under Tony Blair. The New Labour New Life for Britain Manifesto of 'New Labour', as it was dubbed by Blair, included promises to introduce the Freedom of Information Act and the UK Human Rights Act, the latter to give a distinctive interpretation to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Human Rights Act was implemented in 2000. The UK, however, has no constitution in a conventional sense, only statutes, which are acts of parliament. These can be ever changing. The rights contained in the Human Rights Act are therefore not absolute for the people, meaning government can change them in time of 'serious need' and 'emergency', for example during the controversial 'War on Terror'.

The Equality and Diversity legislation operates within this type of paradoxical constitutional framework; the very people who are protected from discrimination can also randomly and by default become the targeted. It is essentially pathological, a dead end. The Single Equality Bill that was published in 2007, and which came into effect in the Single Equality Duty of 2008, even seems a shift away from the big victories gained in 1976 and 2000 respectively, especially as it is throttled by the recent anti- and counter-Terrorism laws, and their connected Asylum and Immigration laws of the last two years. The latter are explicitly aimed at Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

New anti-discrimination laws in Britain such as the 2006 Act, which is a statutory instrument for Equal Opportunities and Human Rights, therefore cover religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. Yet very restrictive legislation is simultaneously in place for the very marginalised groups such as in BAME communities. For instance the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Acts of 2002 and 2006 have introduced stricter immigration control, leaving immigrants inundated with restriction details regarding leave to enter, to remain, deportation, and with restricted rights to appeal and heavy penalties. The Act allowed the Labour government to withdraw support from unsuccessful asylum seeking families with dependent children. These control measures against refugees and asylum seekers are further reinforced through the UK Borders Act 2007.

The Terrorism Act 2006 specifically aims to 'make it more difficult for extremists to abuse the freedoms we cherish, in order to encourage others to commit terrorist acts.' In the post-Iraq and 7/7 climate, most ordinary citizens in the UK are more than inclined to associate 'extremists' with Islam and the 'Arab world', essentially with a particular imagined 'ethnic group'. Tales of terrorists (such as Moshin Hamid's 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist') are also the new titles of the month in free tube newspapers, such as the Metro with descriptions to readers, 'There is a fascinating array of fiction exploring the terrorist mindset to choose from...'

Against the backdrop of increasing racist incidents, Islamophobia and the proliferation of Faith Schools, the Single Equality Bill came into effect on 28 June 2008 - effectively putting race on the back burner and bringing disability discrimination to the forefront as a common national and inclusive identity that supposedly knows no colour, religion / faith or class.

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The establishment of the EHRC and other non-departmental public bodies

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was established in October 2007 by the Equality Act of 2006 to fulfil its goals of mutual respect between communities, valuing diversity, and shared respect for equality and human rights. The current chair is Trevor Phillips, previously chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which in turn was established as a result of the Race Relations Act of 1976. The CRE was essentially about promoting good race relations and integration, and using its legal powers to eradicate racial discrimination and harassment.

The EHRC incorporates the other previous non-departmental funded bodies that monitored discrimination in terms of equality and diversity legislation. It acts as a merger of the CRE, the Equal Opportunities Commission set up under the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, and the Disability Rights Commission set up in 2000 as a response to the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. The EHRC is expected to deliver on the unfinished work and mandate of the CRE and these other bodies, and also on the non-statutory aspects regarding sexual orientation, religion or belief and Human Rights. (See the government's 'Fairness for All: A new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.)

In context of the work of the EHRC, all public bodies have to fulfil the statutory requirements of the Race Equality Duty, the Disability Equality Duty and the Gender Equality Duty in the form of published equality policies and schemes, and monitoring and respective assessment measurements, although they may opt to publish and implement one single Equality Scheme that covers all duties.

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Equality and diversity - changes in attitudes

Trevor Philips described the market-driven influences for change in equality legislation: 'in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, employers felt race relations legislation were an obligation which politically correct forces were forcing down their throats. These days leading businesses are talking about the value of diversity. They are saying that in an ethnically diverse market place they need an ethnically diverse workforce.' This has also become a marketing factor behind the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, to welcome the people of the world in their diversity to Britain.

Since 2001, however, awareness around human rights, asylum seekers' rights, refugees' rights, and immigration rights escalated as it became clear that Britain was essentially a deeply racist and divided country, despite being one of the most diverse in the world. Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, made his citizenship speech in December 2001, referring to communities that were 'fractured' and 'polarised' and that the British people needed 'shared values' and 'civic identity'. Race riots occurred across Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, as asylum applications increased. The BNP gains political ground and credibility in 2002.

Bush came to power in 2001 in the US and Labour leader, Tony Blair, became his ally in his claims regarding weapons of mass destruction. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Bush declared the 'War on Terrorism'. The invasion of Iraq which followed in 2003 had a significant impact on British attitudes to Asian ethnic minorities.

Race relations predictably worsened in post Iraq period, and especially at the time of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 in London. By September 2005, things had escalated to such an extent, that Trevor Philips, head of the CRE warned that the UK was 'sleep walking' to segregation. Things seem to have swung firmly back to the right, against the 'other'. David Blunkett's Citizenship tests were launched in 2005; the 'Life in the UK' test emphasised 'a more meaningful way of becoming a citizen', and included questions about the Church of England. It had been established by then that the majority of immigrants to the UK were from Africa and Asia.

By 2006 Islamophobia had taken firm grip of the public imagination in Europe; the notorious 'anti-Islam' Danish cartoon sparked a protest by thousands of Muslims at the Danish Embassy in London; there were huge public debates about Jack Straw's comments concerning Muslim women's veils and 'positive relations' in Britain; conservative, anti-veil attitudes emerge even in pages of the liberal press such as the Independent, calling for Muslim women to stand up against Islamic oppression. The new villain in the long tradition of 'anti-otherness' seemed to have become clearly defined and identified on a global scale as a constructed enemy, the natural consequence being a strengthening of racism and division. A case in point is the BNP doubling its council seats and showing big gains in Barking and Dagenham in 2006. Race rows have even become public theatre, such as in the Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty Big Brother case.

A black man reflects on some of the progress, but also its contradictions:

I can now go to a football match and not worry about being black. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Chelsea had one of the most racist football contingents in the country. Now they welcome black supporters, employ black stewards and have the most diverse team in the Premiership. If you had told me that was going to happen when I played at Stamford Bridge in 1987, I'd have called you a liar to your face. But if you had said to me that a boy [Stephen Lawrence] would die in a racist attack and the law enforcement agencies we trust so implicitly could fail to bring people to justice I could never have believed it either.(2)

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The move away from multiculturalism

By 2001 New Labour had moved from multiculturalism to a policy of assimilation of BAME communities into white British mainstream culture. In the aftermath of 9/11 there was widespread media outcry that Britain was being 'flooded', such as the heyday of Enoch Powell's 1968 speech. This new sense of 'community cohesion', foregrounded British mainstream culture. David Cameron's Tory Party supported 'community cohesion' as opposed to the threat of 'flooding' that comes with multiculturalism. Some saw this as a reactionary and backward move towards 'monoculturalism' and 'nativism'.

In 2004 Trevor Phillips, in his capacity as chairman of the CRE, called for a move away from 'multiculturalism' as perceived and practised in Britain. This was widely interpreted as a move towards conservatism as he espoused new notions of 'Britishness' as a more appropriate means than 'multiculturalism' for the inclusion of Britain's ethnic minorities, who must be obliged to adopt British 'values', called the 'core of Britishness'. He was critiqued by some as reflecting the conservatism and anti-immigration sentiments of Powell's speech of 1968. Philips showed that there was indeed diversity about national identity and immigration, even within so-called BAME communities; a real shift from the race riot days of the 1960s through to 1980s. There were clearly tensions within perceived identities predetermined by race, at least, and things in Britain were much more complex than meets the eye. Philips won even the support of a former member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, Lord Tebbit for his views on 'British identity'. This was a shift away from the CRE position on 'race relations', popularly understood in Britain as 'multiculturalism'. According to Philips, 'multiculturalism' suggested 'separateness'.

Others criticised multiculturalism as it divided the poor (on issues of housing, low pay and unemployment) as they were encouraged to apply and compete for funds through local councils of 'ethnic identities' in mosques, churches and temples - essentially for 'ethnic' funds. To Philips, this was now no longer useful, as we were all now in a 'different world' (not elaborated). For those who critiqued Philips' 'new nationalism', this 'different world' was the new 'right wing and warmongering' Labour government with its regime to 'systematically persecute Muslims' through the Anti Terrorism and Asylum and Immigration Laws. In the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, conservative newspapers had a heyday on the 'dangers of multi-culturalism', the latter viewed as equal to 'terrorism'. For Philips it meant moving away from 'ghettoising' Britain. Hence his speech in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, that Britain, like the United States, was 'sleepwalking towards segregation'.

Black activists, such as Operation Black Vote, felt that the EHRC was a new lame duck, which would not be effective in tacking institutional racism, the landmark legislation that came into effect through the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000. Muslim leaders felt that the Commission was not showing any independence from government in the aftermath of 7/7, which was equally disconcerting. The debate on 'multiculturalism' and 'ghettoes' was therefore perhaps irrelevant in light of increased racism, income gaps between blacks and whites, mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and those suspected of terrorism over the last few years. These were essentially all black people under increasing attack. Similar critique also came from former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Lee Jasper, race equality and policing advisor to Ken Livingstone argued that: 'Culturally distinct communities can be hugely positive and beneficial...But opponents of multiculturalism have used the post-9/11, post-London bombings climate to push their agenda. Multiculturalism, it is argued, elevates difference and therefore enhances segregation. The Trojan horse for this argument is the debate about Britain's Muslim communities, much of which is simply Islamophobic'. Meanwhile, conservative newspapers published reports that argued 'Rather than caving in to those Muslim leaders who have been clamouring for an inquiry into the bombings in order to air their grievances over British foreign policy, the Government might take a simpler, bolder step, and ensure that the values of the British domestic state (the rule of law, the sovereignty of Parliament, the secular polity, national loyalty) are actively taught in our schools'.

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What next?

Where is this policy headed?

There are damning reports on underachievement and under-representation of ethnic communities in civil service, in Parliament, in leadership positions, and in schools. The list is endless.

Black, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi men are three times more likely to be unemployed than whites. They are significantly poorer, live in worse housing, and suffer higher infant mortality rates. The ethnic minorities are under-represented at senior levels of business, the civil service and the judiciary and they still only fill 15 of the 646 seats in the House of Commons. Even where some ethnic groups are successful, there may be invisible barriers to their progress.

Black groups are up to 44% more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act compared to the average. Up to 8% of such inpatients have experienced one or more incidents of control and restraint. That rate is 29% higher than average for Black Caribbean men. Black residents are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites. Asians are almost three times as likely to be stopped and searched than whites.

The Cantle Report (2001), commissioned by home secretary, David Blunkett, after the riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley highlighted the 'depth of polarisation', segregation, and the 'parallel lives' of these communities. Amongst others, the report proposed an oath of national allegiance from immigrants that might help future race relations and that politicians and community leaders and the media should promote a meaningful concept of 'citizenship'. The Report also argued for 25% of places in faith schools to be given to children of different faith backgrounds. This latter proposal met with resistance in the House of Lords, and could not be passed. The cause of trouble was further described as 'mutual ignorance of inward-looking communities'. The writer of the report, is former chief executive of Nottingham City Council, and now key advisor of the government's community cohesion review team.

The National Statistics Report of 2006 found that people from different ethno-religious groups, i.e. people with the same ethnicity and the same religion, tended to live in different areas from other groups. Indian Muslims were more likely to live in the North West region than Indian Hindus and Indian Sikhs. Generally, Black Minority Ethnic groups lived in the country's most deprived neighbourhoods, with only 14% of the white group living in those same areas. The north-east and south-west of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, remain virtually all-white. Only the city of London, and in cities such as Birmingham, Leicester, Bradford and Manchester are there said to have been a change in demographics away from the predominant white characteristics. Home ownership fell amongst these groups, and only increased amongst white households from 66% to 69%.

High unemployment rates among UK born ethnic minorities are cited, with unemployment rates amongst UK born men and women from black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups twice as high as white British men and women. Unemployment rates were highest for Black African Muslims. Black African Muslim men and women also had some of the highest unemployment rates in 2001, 28% and 31% respectively. Unemployment rates amongst Indian Muslims were lower at 11% for men and 12% for women. The report also observes religious diversity amongst ethnic groups, such as the Indian group. Muslims were amongst the most ethnically diverse religious group, though mostly Pakistani (43%). Christians and Sikhs are said to be the least ethnically diverse religions, with more than 90% from these religions belonging to the same ethnic group.

Some statistics

In spite of all the diversity and equality legislation, and the Human Rights Act of 1998, what has improved in the last decade? If one takes at face value the statistics reported on equality, then there is not much to write home about:

According to the Guardian Report, Statistics on race in the UK, 21 February 2000:

The figures remain shocking and deplorable.

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Race vs. faith: What is missing?

Faith schools

While poverty and discrimination seems to be getting further entrenched along ethnic and seemingly religious lines, the government is supporting further segregation along 'faith' in the form of 'Faith Schools'. Even though the House of Commons warned New Labour in 2001 against faith schools and its implications for diversity, the government went ahead to introduce the Education and Inspections Act of 2006.

The Metro of 22 September 2008 reported on the first BNP teacher to be struck off the General Teaching Council's register because of 'religious intolerance' - Adam Walker used racist internet chat rooms during lessons, posting comments critical of asylum seekers, Muslims and immigrants at a school in Tyne and Wear. It seems that Faith Schools would further entrench racism in light of these developments. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's latest report, tackling deprivation was more vital (4).

Yet government remains on the path of ethnicity and race, with its increasingly covert and stringent measures on movements of 'ethnic' and 'religious' communities into Britain. The Commons Report of 16 July 2008 warned that 'rapid immigration is harming communities'.

The Department for Communities has launched a guide on monitoring local tensions, and says more work needs to be done to 'prevent local disturbances', as part of the 'community cohesion' agenda. According to the BBC News report 11 May 2008, councils have been called to set up early warning systems to prevent race riot repeats. The Department for Communities and Local Government, is responsible for integration, and has the responsibility to help councils to act in a 'preventative' way. It calls on local officials to plan against tensions by:

The measures are also taken in consideration of the 'Eastern European immigration boom'.

The recent Runnymede Report on communities and social cohesion echoes the findings of the Rowntree Foundation, pointing out that though people value the UK for being diverse, this is being undermined by "poverty and lack of opportunities undermine social cohesion" because, it suggests, "cohesion is about negotiating the right balance between difference and unity". The report concluded that Britishness was not helpful.

To quote a respondent, Professor Conway: "The government thinks everyone has to become best friends, all lovey-dovey, but that's not realistic; by and large people of different ethnic groups do get along all right, but simply don't have much contact and that teaching in schools was having a "subversive effect" on British identity and cohesion. For example, teachers suggest Britain has always been a very fragmented, divided nation, but it hasn't. There are things that we could teach to show our shared history. For example, during the World War II tens of thousands of people from South Asia and the Indian subcontinent fought on Britain's side. We never remember that.' On the other hand, history teaching is one of the big things the Conservatives are concerned about. As we know, grand narratives in school history do not help in-depth historical understanding or a critical approach to government policies and legislation within the appropriate political and economic context; nor does it help with interrogating notions of 'race', 'faith', 'terror' and the elusive undefined 'community cohesion'. So history teaching in schools will essentially and should essentially remain contentious for it to be good.

The equality duties

The equality duties that are required to be met through equality schemes in public bodies, are not specific and comprehensive; each organisation must simply have an equality scheme that broadly covers discrimination against BAME groups, that shows how they will implement and monitor it, and that is published. It is most likely that organisations and public bodies do the absolute minimum, and do not necessarily draw in on the actual and specific requirements for certain religious groups. A Muslim woman comments, "We were talking about prayer rooms at work recently and how some employers are still quoting the 2001 Amendment Act to say there's no legal requirement for us to have a prayer room at work' but this is a basic requirement for Muslims.' It is still essentially about accommodating the other, as different and unequal rather than bringing all people to the heart of legislation as equals. As the Muslim woman interviewed, elaborated further: "The act did address some issues to a smaller extent but still there needs to be more protection. Muslims do still feel vulnerable especially after the terrorist attacks and the polarisation of some communities".

The following extracts from the BBC website further demonstrate the un-informed-ness of current legislation and policy in the light of developments to a Single Equality duty:

Denis Fernando of the National Assembly Against Racism says race issues need specialised attention: "Dedicated resources are critical at a time which has seen a rise in racist attacks, increased votes for the openly racist BNP, and the brutal murder of young black people like Anthony Walker. Now more than ever, the public debate has to be about prioritising racism."

Simon Woolley, of Operation Black Vote, said "Paki-bashing" by skinheads was routine in the 1960s and 1970s in Leicester where he grew up. "The fact that people don't live in segregated areas, as they do in Paris or the United States, is testament to how we have moved forward. But there is still much to do - two-thirds of black and ethnic minority people live in the poorest areas of the country.'

Munira Mirza now Culture Advisor to new Conservative London Mayor, Boris Johnson, said in 2004: 'The only thing that politicians seem confident in asserting about our society is its tolerance', as though British folk had a monopoly on this social attitude. There is a crisis of identity in British society, she argues. The problem for Mirza is that: 'We need to acknowledge that the crisis of identity is not caused by the strength of Islam, but the weakness of our own society. If we do this, we can begin to realise that the solution starts here, too. If we really want to create a common culture, we need to ask the awkward questions of what our society believes in and be prepared to fight for hearts and minds'. Again, Islam is presented as the' other', to be fought from a position of national strength and common identity.

A refreshing perspective comes from Johann Hari who writes that the policies have been formed with good intention, but there is still the old racism that Muslim women are not as deserving of the same rights as other women. He recommends that, when people talk about defending Muslim culture, ask them - which culture? The culture of Irum and Nasireen, or the culture of their abusive husbands? Multiculturalism patronisingly treats immigrants as homogenous blocks - when in fact they are as diffuse and dissenting as the rest of us. Would anybody lump me in with Richard Littlejohn and Nick Griffin as part of a "white community"?

National identity and obstacles to equality

What is the national culture and identity and to whom does it belong? Who is being assimilated? Who is being main-streamed? Who is being discussed as other? Who is being stared at? Who is being 'unveiled'? Who is doing the 'undressing'? Who is looking in the mirror? Who is not?

It would be plain common sense to suggest that the marginalised BAME communities have multiple identities and are diverse within groups themselves. Even notions of 'religion' and 'faith' within groups are diverse. BAME communities are also not by definition 'faith' groups, in as much as white British people are not by definition Protestant, or homogeneous in terms of class. There are multiple economic, social, racial, ethnic, and faith identities, as there are multiple experiences of life itself. In defining policy, we should think of people as multiple whole beings within themselves and reinforce equal economic, civic and human rights rather than ethnic marginalised identities to be accommodated in the 'core'. A case in point is the Muslim woman in our discourse on veils, marriage, and prayer rooms at work. Why are Muslim women left to beg for dignity and understanding in how they choose to dress and what they need at work? Why are we so easily seduced into intellectual discourses of 'the Muslim woman'? And why has this all really emerged as public discourse since 2001?

The dilemma of the preoccupation with the problematic phenomenon of the 'Muslim woman' aside, which is a red herring that draws us away from the bigger debates and issues, is what the common perennial obstacles are to genuine equality in the UK. For instance, according to the Equality Duty policy debate at Westminster in November 2007, the biggest obstacle to ensure equality in employment is lack of applications (67%), due to lack of confidence and 'mis-perceptions' amongst ethnic minorities about careers and competencies. Most institutions have formal diversity and equality policies in place (50%); about one third provides positive action training and embed this in recruitment, and about 25% have action plans and monitoring procedures in place.

Religion and belief is not yet a public duty. Though a Disability Equality Committee exists, this is not yet the case under the new EHRC for race, religion, age, gender and sexual orientation. A lot of focus has shifted towards Disability Discrimination in terms of public duty and policy and awareness, yet a lot has been implemented in terms of law with regard to Faith (Faith Schools) and Terrorism. Race has shifted to the 'back burner', whilst there has been a lot of publicity on lawsuits regarding gender and sexual orientation.

Some concluding thoughts - the way forward?

There has clearly been a lack of real dialogue with communities on legislation and on meeting the needs of real people in economic terms alone, regardless of race or ethnicity, as the focus has really principally been towards the US Foreign Policy on Iraq, Muslims and the 'new evil'. My sense is that the Equality and Diversity policies are mere conscience documents, rather than serious legislation. Are they perhaps just nice to have, part of a liberal image? Yet there are success models such as the Brent Council and its successful strategies evidenced by good results. What are they doing right? What can we learn? Have they spoken to communities and are they still speaking to them?

My sense is we really do not know our people, and we do not care enough. We need to listen and learn new things, however surprising, about what happens on local council level, at job interviews and appointment panels while they 'follow' legislation. How diverse are the people who serve on powerful panels, who manage budgets and who manage diversity professionals in institutions? What are the competency levels in terms of diversity and equality in society? What are the stories about encounters with local councils and banks with relation to home ownership? What are the stories about employments and interviews, even when ethnic candidates are really the best, but institutional racism puts in tight procedures that cover any covert discrimination? Why are interview panels allowed to be all white? Why does positive action continue to humiliate people into chasing their tails as lifelong apprentices, rather than giving people a real job with a real wage for bread on the table? What happens in marriages and civil partnerships involving ethnic minority women and how do they impact on citizenship issues regarding employment, home ownership? What provisions are made for the different layers of inequalities created in domestic homes and through domestic violence? Is this being researched?

But we must really talk to the people in the street first. Yes, I mean, also the homeless people. We should be asking: Do you know about the EHRC and its work? Did you know it is about you? This is the priority issue. Where are the networks for equality, and are they effective? Do people know about them? Can people use them?

Equality Schemes are not enough. They are just paper work, and show pieces, and senior executives are not really held accountable to them. Further, it is quite arbitrary, and no one is really ashamed if their figures in diversity are low because it is 'complex'. If equality and diversity are linked to inclusion, and inclusion means excellence, then failure to take diversity seriously means incompetence and adversity. In other words, the more the UK fails to take Human Rights and Equality seriously, the more it is at risk of slipping towards adversity of all sorts --- and fast.

Tackling institutional racism and all its related covert forms must remain a high priority, as borne out by the immense amount of evidence in the UK-wide dialogues around the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. Perhaps we should start with the school curriculum, which should enforce historical understanding of policies and legislation even as far back as the 12th century. Schools should have equality schemes that are also workshopped with parents and children themselves. Such equality schemes should include in-depth understandings of identity as plural, and must be supported by current affairs discussions and dialogues on faith and race issues. Policy development will take a long time, but will hopefully produce more sustainable, meaningful and relevant legislation.

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  1. Luke Gibbons, ''Into the Cyclops Eye': James Barry, historical portraiture, and colonial Ireland', in A Shared Legacy: Essays on Irish and Scottish Art and Visual Cultureed. Fintan Cullen, John Morrison (Ashgate, 2005) 31-60, p.41; Canon 68 of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215, Norman Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, (London, Washington. D.C, 1990), available online at Back to (1).
  2. Back to (2).
  3. Back to (3).
  4., 21 July 2008. Back to (4).

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