The problem is racism, the rest is waffle

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
I suppose I am about as English as it is possible to be: an Anglo-Saxon name (meaning "Will's place"), born and bred in the east Midlands, raised by parents who never set foot outside Britain (or England, in my father's case).

If I have a relative with any non-English blood, I have never met him or her. I enjoy cricket, beer and country walks. I am hopeless at foreign languages.

Someone suggested to me recently that I am probably so secure in my ethnic and cultural identity that I don't need to think about it and that is why I am uninterested in attempts to define "Britishness". But on the contrary I do worry. I feel I suffer from a kind of cultural deficit.

I long for something more exotic in my background - a Polynesian great-grandparent, say, or a childhood in Venezuela. Even a Glasgow slum would do. I have compensated as best I can by hiring a deputy who is an unnerving mixture of Italian, American, English and Swede.

Multiculturalism has become a middle-class fashion trend. Like Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, I am deeply suspicious of it. What concerns most ethnic-minority people is not whether their daughters can wear the hijab at school, or the council sponsors Diwali celebrations, or lessons include references to Arab scientists. They want jobs and good wages.

Unemployment among men of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean origin is 10 to 15 per cent higher than it is among white men. Even among Bangladeshis who work, more than half have jobs in restaurants while one in eight Pakistanis works as a taxi driver or chauffeur. Perhaps we are supposed to "celebrate" their washing-up and driving skills as part of our rich cultural diversity.

Do they do these menial jobs because they are recent migrants? No. The average weekly wage gap between PakistaniBangladeshi men and white men is pound;150. Only pound;21 of this can be explained by length of residence, age, education, and family and economic background. These factors also explain only pound;10 of the pound;116 wage gap between black Caribbean men and white men.

Are ethnic minorities disadvantaged by social isolation? If so, it is difficult to see why black Caribbeans, the most integrated minority, are so unsuccessful, and why the Chinese, the least integrated, are so successful.

It is hard to avoid the obvious explanation: racism. As the CRE found in 1996, from two identical CVs for a job vacancy, a white applicant is five times more likely than a black to get an interview.

I do not see how multiculturalism can improve this situation. I doubt that young Asians are turned down for jobs because they might take a few minutes off for prayer. But nor do I see how Mr Phillips's appeal for "core British values" will help.

I have not heard of employers testing job applicants on their knowledge of Shakespeare, Dickens or the British constitution.

If terrorist activity grows, and if young British Muslims are blamed for some of it, we shall hear more of this identity politics. Most of the issues behind terrorism - Palestine, Western interventions in the Arab world, mass migration and racism - are large and intractable.

When they don't know what else to do, politicians start nagging teachers.

Schools will be pressed from some quarters to teach more multiculturalism, from others to teach more Britishness, and from some to do both. But nearly all of it is waffle. A school's task is to allow children to develop their own identities. The Government's task is to eradicate racial discrimination among employers.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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