A law to make the professionals act

4th February 2000 at 00:00
A NEW gag is doing the rounds among black folk. An aircraft is in trouble and the pilot, having ditched all the luggage and cargo, has to start dumping passengers. He knows that he can't just follow the old practice of throwing the blacks out first. So he announces that, regretfully, he'll be asking passengers to leave the plane in alphabetical order.

"To start with, ladies and gentlemen, are there any Africans on board? No? Then would any Asians please identify themselves, followed by blacks, and Caribbeans..." A little black boy at the back says to his dad, who is keeping resolutely still, "What are we if we aren't African, black or Caribbean?" "We're Zulus, son."

The Government last week announced that its new race relations legislation would address indirect discrimination in the public services. Broadly speaking, this means any practice that results in a racially biased outcome would for the first time open the Crown or its servants to court action.

It is a far-reaching step, risky and likely to keep lawyers in business for years. None the less, I was among those who lobbied the Home Secretary Jack Straw to make the change.

Last week, we heard of what seems like an appalling double lynching in the unlikely setting of Telford. But such acts are still rare. Every person of colour knows that racial bias seldom shows its face openly, in the shape of violence or insults. Indeed, one way of guaranteeing an exhibition of rage and fury from most white people is to suggest that they may have shown racial bias.

Most people, particularly the young, despise racism and would consciously never discriminate as individuals. But it is no longer enough to say that overt racism is a minority practice.

As the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence suggested, there are still myriad ways in which black or Asian Britons may find themselves systematically disadvantaged for reasons which apparently have nothing to do with their colour.

Most people in ethnically distinct communities know that queasy feeling that, while no one has actively conspired to do you down, there is still something which puts you, and people like you, at a disadvantage.

When I first started in journalism, one of my colleagues, a diminutive Asian was told to find out why it was that Asian Londoners did not join the police. He discovered that they were consistently rejected because they belonged to communities which, on average, were shorter than the height requirement for male officers. The requirement, in the age of sophisticated martial arts and self-defence techniques, seemed archaic, not least because women were being brought into the police service with a far lower height requirement.

One of the features of indirect discrimination is that often neither the discriminator nor the discriminated-against has any clue what the effect of their encounter is, because the bias is operating against a class of people rather than an individual.

The most important effect of the new legislation probably won't be to plunge public bodies into a spate of legal disputes. Before that happens, there is likely to be a renewed effort to monitor the treatment of minorities by public services.

Evidence of systematic disadvantage is almost certain to force changes in general practice. For example, the admissions of voluntary-aided church schools, which have again and again been accused of racial bias, will come under closer scrutiny than in the past.

Each individual admission may be justifiable as such; but a regime which leaves an academically successful church school in a multi-racial area largely white must raise serious questions about its fairness. The same must be said of the catchment areas for schools under the aegis of local authorities.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion - and hope - that the pressure from the new law will bear most heavily on the area of exclusions. The racial bias here is well-documented, black boys being up to five times as prone to be excluded in some areas.

This does not mean that all the teachers who do the excluding are awful racists - they aren't. More often, they are either harassed or fearful, desperate to protect the majority of their students - many of them black - against the disruption of a few.

But something wrong is taking place, and we have yet to find what it is and what to do about it. Not for the first time, the law will force the professionals to find an answer.

Trevor Phillips is a writer and broadcaster

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