The Black Man and the Seven ‘isms’

August 7, 2009…1:37 pm

Trevor Phillips and the Seven ‘isms’ The row over Trevor Phillips has distracted from the more important question of how to tackle racism, says Ade Sawyerr

Trevor Phillips, who chairs the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, has been reappointed to his position and the other commissioners representing the other equalities are resigning. And Black people in this country have been caught in an issue not of their making. They are being asked to support another black man who has risen to the top, and who suddenly needs their support to hang on to his job. The problem is that instead of a debate on the relevance and the effectiveness of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to deal with the problems of racism, the focus is now on the competence and suitability of a black person to chair that super institution.

It was never supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be different.

Firstly, the haste with which the EHRC was set up astonished some of us. It was set up with an overarching theme of human rights but with the seven strands of equalities – gender, disability, sexual orientation, sexual transformation, age, religion and race – still recognised as important. It was as if Labour wanted to outperform the classless society that John Major wanted to achieve by ushering in a ‘raceless’ society in this country. The fact that John Major failed should have alerted New Labour that race will continue to detract from their performance if they do not adopt a sharper focus to the pernicious effects of this type of discrimination.

Secondly, this ‘one size fits all institution’ was set up despite the protests from leading lights in the ‘race relations industry’, and in so doing subsumed issues of race under issues of human rights. But race issues do not just evaporate away, they will continue to turn up like a bad penny, as has happened in America recently with the arrest of a renowned black professor Henry ‘Skip’ Gates at his own home and despite the fact that he had offered proof of his residence.

Thirdly, the risk assessment of how the race agenda would fit into the new organisation must have been faulty; people react differently when they are accused of racism than when they are accused of discriminating on other grounds. Furthermore, the lobbies of gender, disability, sexual orientation and religion are stronger and have more gravitas in this imperfect United Kingdom. Pitting race against these lobbies was always going to result in a state of competitive disadvantage.

Finally, this institution was set up ahead of the law that would provide it with the basis for its existence and for carrying out its work. Its work to date has been experimental, which in itself has been a problem for the past three years.

Though the Trevor Phillips saga has brought the organisation under a lot of scrutiny, there is still a refusal to discuss the relevance of the institution but rather a desire by most of the journalists to rake over the past alliances of Trevor Phillips. It has brought old issues of who is left and liberal, who is Blairite and who is not, seems more important than the need for an institution that is set up to fight discrimination in this country. Surely the whole point of the EHRC, in this day and age of an African American president, should be having the most competent and qualified person to lead the institution. It must not be about colour and shades of politics, and it certainly must not be about connections in the Labour Party.

It is sad that the head of this institution should become the news and his appointment or disappointment should be the issue. The continued discussion of the appointment can result in people who need it most losing confidence in its ability to assist them when they have a problem with racism especially if, as reported, Phillips is being briefed against and that he was offered the reappointment on condition that he would turn it down and be rewarded with another job elsewhere. If indeed, as head of this institution, he did feel that the minority of commissioners who are resigning would rather prefer a white woman for the position, then what hope do we ordinary people have if we have that when facing issues of racism we can turn to this same institution that may be discriminating against Phillips?

This leaves me wondering how many race discrimination cases are left untested because of embarrassment of both the victims and the perpetrators. For the question of relevance one must ask whether the institution still has the bite to take racist institutions on, since the chair has repudiated institutional racism and is not an advocate of multiculturalism believing instead that a uni-cultural Britain is more convenient to provide a better framework for the job of the watchdog. But the issue of racism is not about convenience, it is real and government needs to pay much fuller attention to race than use a diluted authority that is fighting its own internecine battles.

When this body was formed, The Economist dubbed it ‘Snow White and the seven isms’ and as much as suggested that it would be a difficult body to run because there were several in the black community who believed that it was an attempt to dilute the issues of race. This was Phillips’s brilliant response then – “We cannot start from creating a hierarchy of hurts”.

Well, whether he likes it or not the cultural clashes will continue and the organisation may implode without answering this question: Who fights for the black man who heads an institution that is intended to fight discrimination but is himself discriminated against by the institution? Is it really only a Snow White who is capable of adopting a cooperative approach to resolving institutional racism?

Who fights for black people in London in the face of the Mayor Boris Johnson taking race off the agenda and cancelling the main race festival and dismantling the Black Londoners Forum that represented black people?

In a perverse way I do not feel that Phillips is the best person to champion the cause of race. He came to the race debate fairly late, he seems to thrive better in a multiagency environment, and if the other strands of the institution are deserting him now, it can only mean that his relevance to the organisation is sadly at an end and with that the relevance of the organisation to Black people. Perhaps it is time to start seriously looking for the American model of an activist think tank such as the NAACP that has continued for the past 100 years to deal with issues of race and has made the business case for the different aspects of positive action initiatives that have been adopted across in America.

What we need to do now is to think critically at determining what institutions will help us, what networks we will thrive in, what things we must do proactively so that when another Phillips rises to a position where the press and equality lobbies are baying for their blood, we are able to successfully defend and come to the support of that brother or sister. Eradicating or minimising the effects of racism cannot be left only to governments, as it is not in our interests, and none of the political parties have the will now to present our case for us.

This issue will not go away. We must work to increase our own representation in politics, as Kwame Nkrumah said when confronted with the battles of independence: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things will be added to it.”

Ade Sawyerr is in partner Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy that provides consultancy, training and research that focuses on formulating strategies for black and ethnic minority, disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. Email or

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