Never mind BAME games: we need to talk about race
Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus is Horace’s original version of Much Ado About Nothing, or how the mountains gave birth to a ridiculous little mouse. Such sentiments will surely be the only reaction to the news that the grandly named “Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities” set up by Boris Johnson as the Black Lives Matter protests exploded last summer has come up with just one proposal. The Commission was meant to help reduce the simmering tensions over institutional and other forms of racism finally being accepted as a major problem in Britain.
Their proposal is to ban the acronym “BAME” (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) as a general describer for non-white people in Britain. They are right that it is clunky, not specific enough – where do Roma and travellers fit in? — and British Jews dispute whether they should be categorised as an ethnic minority or not.
But good luck with finding a replacement. The 2011 Census gave a choice of 18 ethnic groups we might belong to. The 2021 Census has even more.
Ever since Enoch Powell exploded into national public political consciousness with his racist “Rivers of blood” speech that made immigration into a political theme — one that continued from 1968 to the Brexit plebiscite 50 years later — we have not known what words to use.
The Conservative Party notoriously won what we would now call a “red wall” seat in 1964 in the Black Country (the industrial area north west of Birmingham), when their candidate used the N-word in his main campaign slogan to defeat the sitting Labour MP. The “N” word was a regular chant in football stadiums well into the 1970s, just as the Y-word for Jews was (and still is) in some London clubs.
I worked for the BBC as young journalist in the 1970s in Birmingham and the newsroom scratched its collective liberal head trying to work out what was permissible. “Black” was hard and American. It did not cover the growing Kashmiri, East African, Indian and Bangladeshi populations. It was normal for newspapers to insert “coloured”, but even then that smacked of Powellite racism.
As an NUJ official in 1975, I wrote to the editor of the Daily Telegraph in protest at a front page splash under the headline: “ASIAN FATHER OF 12 ON £5000 ANNUAL WELFARE PAYMENTS.” If you dug into the story, this man in Coventry was unemployed and very ill with cancer and other ailments. His wife was disabled. Some of his children also had medical conditions. And, yes, if you added all the miserable benefits they got, it came to a princely £100 a week.
I asked the Daily Telegraph’s Editor (then Bill Deedes, a distinguished journalist and also a Tory MP) why the man’s ethnicity – Asian — was in the front page headline. He wrote back to say the story was factually accurate, which it was, and went on: “If we had not mentioned the fact the man was an Asian most of our readers would have assumed he was Irish.” I assume he was serious.
In 1978 I wrote a pamphlet for the NUJ – “Black and White. Race Reporting in Britain.” It was based on an NUJ survey which showed there was no non-white reporter anywhere on the BBC or ITN or writing for national papers. The pamphlet put forward guidelines on reporting any story so as to avoid all references to a person’s colour or ethnicity, unless 100 per cent germane to the news story.
I was denounced by the eminent columnist Bernard Levin in The Times as someone trying to dictate to the sturdy British journalist what he or she could or couldn’t write. The terms “woke” or “politically correct” had not been coined then, but Levin was quite clear that all this concern about race was utter Left-wing nonsense and should be ignored.
Meanwhile the descriptive terms kept changing. For a while the American formulation “persons of colour” was used. Then “Afro-Caribbean”, lumping together people from two continents. “Pakistani heritage” became current in local government, but few journalists seemed to know that most British citizens in that category were Kashmiri.
Sri Lankans are very different from Bangladeshis, but in truth nearly everyone from any of these communities who might make it into the news today is as British as I am — and I don’t have a drop of English blood in me.
The Federation of Poles of Great Britain once published a list of 50 hate headlines about “Polish killer”, “Polish thug”, “Polish rapist”, “Polish thief” all written to present Europeans from Poland living and working here in the most negative possible light. The headlines all came from one paper, the Daily Mail, and were part of the press campaign to denigrate Europeans and stoke up xenophobic dislike of Europe among voters.
In recent years there seemed to be some agreement on using BAME, or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. According to “British Future”, the think tank run by Sunder Katwala, 47 per cent of minority ethnic Britons are confident about the “meaning of BAME as a term”, with 29 per cent saying they were not familiar with it at all.
Boris Johnson and the ageing ideologues from the former Revolutionary Communist Party, who have a strange influence over his thinking on social policy, may imagine that abolishing BAME as a describer will solve the problem of structural and institutional racism.
They will find, as many have in the last 50 years, that the problem is not about adjectives but something much more political. The truth is that the politics of racial or national identity are seen as vote-winners by those unscrupulous enough to capitalise on prejudice.
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