Dr Roger Hewitt of the University of London said it was easier and more rewarding to tackle racism by providing extra services for ethnic minorities - such as leisure and sports facilities - than to deal directly with the white youths that were the core of the problem.
Arguing that traditional methods of addressing racism had only fuelled a new wave of racial attacks, he said that perhaps white racist youths needed to be listened to - and that their racism was a crude attempt to find a voice.
Dr Hewitt has worked extensively in the south London neighbourhood where black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He identifies white 15 to 20-year-olds as the main perpetrators of racist attacks and harassment.
But preaching to those young whites only led to a hardening of attitudes. And celebrating cultural diversity and addressing positively problems faced by white communities also alienated them.
"White pupils, to some extent, seem like cultural ghosts, haunting as mere absences the richly decorated corridors of multi-cultural society," he said.
They came from the same backgrounds as black youths - neighbourhoods of high unemployment, high crime, poor housing.
Much racist talk was "the talk of the weak, not the powerful". It expressed grievances, however unjustified. Racist youths needed to be listened to because they were "making a somewhat buried appeal to be taken seriously ... to be allowed a voice".
If youth workers failed to do that, those youths would be lost, and the causes of racial harassment would not be addressed.