Social inequalities and racial discrimination powerfully impact on the lives of Britain’s ethnic minorities. These are the two issues that have to be central to any political conversation about race in today’s society.
Described by The Times as “among the most important documentaries of the decade” Channel 4’s Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True fell far short of its claim to provide a new searching examination of race in contemporary Britain. Focusing on the usual suspects of crime, terrorism, segregation, and the rise of UKIP, the programme largely replicates the content of the mainstream media, so much so that when the Daily Mail summarized the show with a list of “Ten True Things You Can’t Say” it could have been used as an index for the newspaper’s own coverage of Black, Asian and Eastern European criminality. Repeating the mantra of “truth”, “facts”, “data”, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True appeared to almost wilfully ignore a decade of academic research showing how British society is experiencing deepening social integration as measured by the residential geography, educational attainment, citizenship practices and political engagement of its ethnic minority populations.
Two topics that were strikingly absent from the documentary were deprivation and discrimination, even though current research shows that these are the issues that matter most in the lives of the majority of Britain’s Black and Asian populations. Ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to be living in Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods, especially in the North and Midlands. This not only limits access to employment and social mobility but has significant implications across their lifecourse, especially for their health.
While Nigel Farage quickly reversed the position he took in Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True that Britain no longer needed racial discrimination legislation, little of the debate that followed with David Cameron and Sadiq Khan addresses the current challenges of ethnic penalties in employment or the disproportionate impact of the recession on specific ethnic groups. Discrimination is at the heart of why there has been such a profound disconnect between education and employment outcomes for ethnic minorities in Britain, for while levels of educational attainment have improved significantly over the past two decades, these have not translated into improved outcomes in the labour market.
Presenting racial stereotypes as undiscussed “inconvenient truths” ignores how often such stereotypes are used as “robust facts” by policy-makers and the state’s agencies. Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True is therefore most successful in capturing how the British media and government authorities already understand and operationalize race at the same time as seeking to avoid public debates over ethnic inequalities. When Nigel Farage calls for “an even break” for “unemployed youngsters in Britain both black and white”, its unclear how that can ever happen without first openly confronting the persisting challenges of economic segregation and racial discrimination.
The views presented here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).