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Race Wednesday, 22 May, 2002, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
Ask Gurbux Singh
Ask Gurbux Singh

Gurbux Singh, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, took your questions in a live interactive forum.

  Click here to watch the forum.  


The recent rise of the far-right in Europe is fuelling race debate not only in the EU countries, but also in the UK.

Some analysts fear that the advances made by the British National Party in winning three council seats at local elections indicates deeper problems coming to the surface.

And the recently announced plans of the government to build 15 more centres for assylum seekers have been dubbed "a recipe for racial tension".

Is there a threat to racial equality in the UK?

Gurbux Singh, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, took your questions in a live interactive forum.



Newshost:

Welcome to our BBC interactive forum. I'm Rita Chakrabarti. Issues to do with race are very rarely out of the news, whether it's to do with asylum, or equal opportunities, education or even political correctness. And a major survey done by BBC News Online has shown that over half of all Britons think that we live in a racist society.

Now there are many questions to be put to our guest today, and he is Gurbux Singh, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. A great many people have written in with e-mails wanting to put questions to you, so welcome, thank you for being with us. And we'll move straight onto the questions.

The first one is from John Scott who lives in the UK and he says that increasing numbers of whites are feeling under siege from political correctness. Is this the reason for increased racial tension? Now his theory is maybe not one that you agree with. What do you think?


Gurbux Singh:

I think that there are some real problems within society at the moment. There are deep divisions particularly in some of our northern towns and cities. Those deep divisions I don't think are due to political correctness, they are due to material poverty, the material inequality that people face, poor housing, poor education, lack of job opportunities. And it's different communities competing for inadequate resources which I think is partly at the heart of some of the difficulties that we've recently experienced.

It's also true that people are concerned about the extent to which communities are segregated. People resent that, people really don't like it and people want to see some real, quite significant changes to take place. So I think that the reasons for why we have those tensions are pretty profound, they're quite fundamental, they need to be tackled.

Political correctness, I'm often somebody who is accused of being over-zealous about PC. Frankly the reality is totally different from that. There was a recent debate about the use of language. My view about language is, look, let's be relaxed about language, but don't let's use words which may offend. That is all. So I'm not one of these over-zealous PC people but I do think that we need to be careful.


Newshost:

Do you think this word political correctness is used too loosely really?


Gurbux Singh:

Well I think it is because, if only I ask myself what does it actually mean? I struggle to define what it means. But I do know one thing, that I am not somebody who is obsessed with PC. I just simply don't think it's necessary. I think we've simply got to be careful about the use of language.

We saw the recent I think quite absurd example of nitty gritty. The fact is I have to admit publicly and very openly that I've used the word nitty gritty and I still do not know why the use of those two words is deemed to be offensive. So that I think we need to be careful about language, but let's not take it too far.


Newshost:

Do you think people are a bit confused about it because obviously banning a term like nitty gritty was done in good faith?


Gurbux Singh:

Well presumably, I don't know who advised the Met. This was an issue that was raised at the Police Federation Conference last week sometime. I don't know who advised the Met but I have to say it does not to me appear to be terribly sensible advice. I do not know the origins of nitty gritty, but I don't find it offensive and something which I, myself, use.


Newshost:

Let's move on to the second question from Stuart Baker-Brown who also lives in the UK and he wonders what you think about the situation at Warwick University that was reported earlier in the week where students were told to take down the flag of St George which was raised in support of the England football team in case it might offend minorities who themselves were apparently able to raise their own flags of support.

Mr Baker-Brown goes on to say, I am not a racist but this makes me livid and can only fuel difficulties between the cultures of this country. So what do you think about Warwick?


Gurbux Singh:

I don't know the full ins and outs of what the full facts are at Warwick. So I need to be slightly careful. But I have to say that if the issue is at it appears to be on face value, that there were a number of people who, as part of the World Cup coming along, were wanting to put up the St George's flag. And others will do likewise for other nations who are at the World Cup.

I see nothing wrong with that, frankly. As long as it doesn't lead to, sadly, any tension or violence across students. As long as it's good humoured, as long as it's seen in a sensible context, that is fine. I don't believe that people should be banned from putting up their flags, if it's done in the right spirit. That surely must make sense.


Newshost:

And if it's linked to a football club tournament, that's the right spirit?


Gurbux Singh:

That's the right spirit. And the World Cup does actually provoke national emotions, there's nothing wrong with that. That's what after all the World Cup is really about. Everybody wants Britain to do well, everybody wants England to do well in this country. Sadly, Scotland is not there. And that all of us need to thoroughly support England.

There's nothing wrong with that, that's natural. In the same way as the Germans, who will be supporting the German team, the Italians, likewise. Argentina will presumably have a lot of people supporting Argentina. The Brazilians will be there, with their banners and their flags in full flow. So I think that on face value I find the decision by Warwick somewhat surprising. It may have been done for all the right reasons, all the right motives but I do think that it could well have been seen to be over-zealous.


Newshost:

Let's move on to an area that was dealt with by the BBC survey which is inter-racial marriages and mixed race families. We've got an e-mail from Liz who also lives in the UK. No, in fact she says she currently lives abroad, but says that she is alarmed by the growing support in Europe for the far right and shocked by some of the results of the survey that we've done.

As a woman in a mixed marriage, she says, she wonders what kind of life her mixed race children would have if they came back to Britain. What do you think the future holds for them? Will things get better or worse?


Gurbux Singh:

It's a question that I ask myself because I have three very small children who are also mixed race. They are two, four and six. And I ponder what sort of future we are creating for Britain. What sort of Britain do we want our children to inherit? What sort of Britain will we actually leave future generations?

I have to say that recently I have been looking back at the last 25 years because this year the CRE will have been in existence for 25 years. The Race Relations Act will have been in place, in effective operation for the last 25 years. If you look back I think that we've made some progress. We've seen some real changes in both public and private sector institutions. We still have, as of today, some real problems which exist in Britain, race discrimination still exists. There is major discrimination it the labour market, some major issues about education, some real fundamental issues about health. So we have real problems.

But I do think that the future is optimistic. I've looked at both the BBC survey, and also the MORI survey that we ourselves commissioned and published last week. There are some very positive messages. Particularly messages from the young people, that the most optimistic people who responded to both surveys were young people. They felt that there is a positive future for Britain, they felt that Britishness itself is not defined in wide terms but in moderation terms. That is hugely optimistic.

The fact that people are saying, well, perfectly relaxed, over half the respondents are happy to marry or have a relationship with somebody from a different race, very, very positive. There are some concerns. You know, there is concern there about immigration, about asylum, about crime. And those matters I think are serious and we need to talk about those, we need to do something about them. But generally, you know, young people are far more optimistic and enthusiastic. They are far more at peace and comfortable with multi-cultural Britain than perhaps people who are my age and a bit older. Which must be signs of optimism.


Newshost:

We've got another e-mail here from someone who declines to give her name, but is coming at it from another point of view, she says that she's white, her husband's Indian. Race was clearly a big issue for his friends and family when they married.

While she doesn't doubt that ethnic minorities still suffer the most as a result of racism, she's concerned that many people from minorities assume that anti-white racism is somehow acceptable, just as many women think that sexist comments against men are somehow OK. And do you think this is a problem as well?


Gurbux Singh:

I'm not sure that it's a problem but most certainly I'm absolutely clear


Newshost:

It's an attitude of mind that you condone?


Gurbux Singh:

Absolutely not. It cannot be acceptable that on the one hand we condemn whites who are racist but yet somehow tolerate or allow racism on the part of blacks or Asians. That simply cannot be accepted. Discrimination is discrimination irrespective of who's actually committing it.


Newshost:

If we can move on to the subject of integration. We've had two or three e-mails about this. One from John W, who gives his address as in the UK and New Zealand and he says, isn't it the duty of any immigrant to integrate into the host society and to respect and accept its culture and history? Surely it's wrong to expect that country to give up its identity and culture because they might alienate immigrants from many disparate and sometimes conflicting backgrounds.


Gurbux Singh:

I don't think society has developed like that. I think society has evolved, and our culture has evolved. And that's the best way to make that point, if you go back 30 or 40 years in Britain, the sort of cultural values and the cultural norms which existed 30, 40, 50 years ago have fundamentally changed. Let's look at music, let's look at food, let's look at literature. Now I think across all those three, there's been a considerable impact by immigrants, by people of different cultural or religious background who've contributed to changing the culture of modern Britain.

The culture of modern Britain today is different to what it was 30 or 40 years ago and that culture has changed, it's evolved as a result of minority communities being here. As the BBC survey says, that 44% of people feel that the presence of immigrants has damaged Britain. I don't share that view. I was actually concerned about that view but, at an earlier interview today, as one of your colleagues said to me, well actually, there are two ways of looking at that. Forty-four per cent said it had damaged, but actually 50% said it hadn't. So that there are two ways of looking at it, that the glass is either half full or half empty. So I am concerned about that, but it needs to be addressed.


Newshost:

We've got a question here about education from John Grove in the UK who says he is most certainly NOT a racist, in capital letters, but he thinks single faith schools are a really bad idea. We live in a multi-cultural world - why try to separate it by forming single faith education? And this is of course a major plank of the government's education policy. What do you think of this?


Gurbux Singh:

Well I happen to share the government's view on this. And that is that there is a certain reality about education in this country and that faith schools are well-established, principles, pillars of the educational system. Catholic schools, Church of England schools, Jewish schools. And that these are well-established pillars. And in fact, without faith-based schools our education would be in some difficulty.

So I think the principle of faith-based schools is generally accepted and therefore if the Sikhs want to have a school for Sikhs, if the Muslims want Muslim schools, I don't think that there's anything fundamentally wrong with that. But I would however say, two things. One, that the curriculum that's taught within those schools must recognise multi-faiths. But that that's built into the curriculum and that's built into the curriculum for all schools.

But secondly, for all faith-based schools people who are of other faiths, or of non-faith, should also be allowed access to those schools. Now I think that that is the sort of shift that I hope to see, that whilst they are faith schools, but people of different faiths can actually be part of those schools and can indeed go to those schools like anybody else.


Newshost:

A couple of more questions, I'll have to get you to answer briefly as we are running out of time. One here about the BNP, the British National Party, from Thomas James in England. What's your opinion on the British media giving a lot more exposure recently to the BNP, especially as they are trying to appear as a more respectable party caring about local issues in areas such as Oldham and Burnley?


Gurbux Singh:

I think we need to get the BNP into its proper perspective. The reality is there were 6,000 people elected at the local government elections, only three, in one place, were BNP successes.


Newshost:

Do you think they are given too much attention in the media?


Gurbux Singh:

Without actually serving a direct criticism, I haven't written or complained to anybody, but I do think that perhaps there was too much oxygen given to them. Too much importance has actually been attached to what really is a fringe political group that's got a small toe-hold and should be seen very much like that.


Newshost:

Interesting question to end with from Kunle, who lives in the UK. Someone once asked me if there would ever be a black or Asian prime minister. I said yes, in about a hundred years, and they would most likely be light skinned. Do you agree?


Gurbux Singh:

I would hope that within 25 years there will be some fundamental changes in this country. I'm not sure about prime minister, but most certainly I would hope to see three, or four or five members of the cabinet who were black or Asian, or whose origins were from the Asian subcontinent, or from the Caribbean. I would hope to see chief constables who were from an ethnic background.

I would want to see society change quite dramatically from the way in which it currently is. Now, I would want to see the House of Commons with over 160 MPs in it because that would reflect modern Britain. Fundamental changes. I think that those changes can actually happen. I think that we need to view the future optimistically, but we need commitment of leadership to begin to deliver some of those changes.


Newshost:

Lots to chew on there. Thank you very much for joining us, I'm afraid that's all we have time for. Thank you very much Gurbux Singh. And thank you all for your e-mails today. I'm Rita Chakrabarti and thank you for joining the BBC interactive forum.

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05 Apr 02 | UK Politics
15 Jan 02 | UK Politics
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