Saturday, June 25

For Labor and Tories, racism is about reputation management | Nesrine Malik

IIt’s rare for the quiet part to be said out loud in British politics: what comes in a chilling tone that a politician has blurted out, or in leaked correspondence many years after its writers left power. If you’ve ever, for example, scoffed at the idea that the right-wing press has control over British politics, particularly the Labor Party, then an incident that took place 20 years ago may keep your eyes rolling. .

We learned last week that after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, Tony Blair’s Downing Street initially opposed an investigation into police relations with ethnic minority communities.

The arguments in favor of the government’s objection formed a checklist of the vacillations, prevarications, and cynical warnings that still haunt efforts to confront institutional racism today. In his opening note recommending an investigation, Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, wrote: “There is clear concern, particularly within the black community, about the issues raised by this case. I think the best way to address them, and get something positive out of this tragic case, would be to start a broader investigation into police relations with ethnic minority communities in general. “Then he protected himself, anticipating the uncomfortable proposition that was for Downing. Street. “I am concerned,” he said, “that this is not perceived as a weakening of the police, but as an opportunity to identify and promote good practice.”

But even that was not enough to reassure the nervous colleagues. In the margins, an official whose identity was Unknown turned to Blair’s policy advisor, Liz Lloyd, and asked, “Is this sensible?” “No,” Lloyd replied. Others intervened, saying that “an investigation would raise expectations” that would be difficult to achieve, and “even with a good presentation,” the investigation would “look like an attack on the police.”

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You’ll notice that all of these concerns were about the lens rather than the bottom line, and the priority was to protect the police and not the Lawrence family or the ethnic minorities whose concerns they represented. Still, perhaps there is nothing so surprising that a government tries to act carefully when it comes to something as deeply disturbing as an investigation into police bias towards ethnic minorities. There is perhaps nothing surprising in the failure of government officials to comply with cost-benefit analyzes; The ranks of advisers are hardly expected to consist of warriors of racial justice rather than steely stewards of reputation. And Sir William Macpherson’s investigation eventually moved on, such was the undeniable stench of it all and the pressure exerted by the Lawrence family.

But there is a catch in the story, and in it we see how self-preservation cynicism prevailed at the expense of doing something long-term and substantive about race relations. Shortly before Macpherson published his report, Straw proposed a follow-up, an ambitious strategy that would prioritize considerations of racial equality in policymaking in government agencies. However, assuming racial justice in such a direct way was too risky, too destabilizing for the government. “A regulatory nightmare,” said Blair. Angus Lapsley, an official in Blair’s private office, decided not to back a proposal that the racist cops be fired (the government was “cold” on this suggestion, he said), not because the policy was wrong, but because so right-wing the newspapers would react to him. This is where the decibel level increases. “This could easily become a ‘telegraph cause’ if taken too far,” Lapsley said. Blair agreed and said, “We don’t want to go OTT on this.” The proposal was assassinated.

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There is a kind of sickening relief to see those feelings, expressed behind closed doors, expressed so naturally; knowing for a fact that concerns about racial injustice are not taken seriously, not because they are not believed, but because they rock the boat. Indeed, the stifling of broad and progressive racial politics 20 years ago tells us a lot about where we are today, with a government proudly hostile to questioning the true state of race relations.

On ethnic minority issues, there is much more continuity between the Labor Party and the Conservatives that there are material differences. Both parties share the notion that racial issues are simply a government responsibility and not something for which the government should bear direct responsibility. Last year, that notion manifested itself in the form of the widely discredited report by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities chaired by Tony Sewell.

The denial and dishonesty in that document about the extent of the country’s institutional racism was just one step away from Blair’s shyness in front of the gallery on the right. Passively, he did not want to upset the Telegraph and its reactionary contingent; Today’s conservatives want to actively please you. But what Labor and Conservative leaders have shown is deference to a status quo that preserves racial hierarchies and refuses by default to acknowledge any criticism that might challenge Britain’s moral sense.

Such is the slippery slope of “moderation.” An unquestionable assumption has developed that the left can prosper in this country only if it gets rid of “radical” notions of social justice and redistribution that are unrealistic and extreme – that is, in Blair’s words, “OTT.” The best we can hope for is that the good guys will seek change incrementally and surreptitiously.

This is an abdication of responsibility, but ultimately it is worse than that. Missed opportunities to achieve racial equality not only throw ethnic minorities under the bus – they are also missed opportunities to shape the values ​​of the country.

Labor’s realpolitik on race may have saved some fights and stabilized careers in the short term, but in the medium term it has also tipped the game in favor of the right. And it has sent us all, marginalized minorities and resentful majorities, hurtling down that slope into an increasingly conflictive future.

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