50 years since the Race Relations Act 1968: where are we now? Time for politicians to step up to defend its legacy

Today is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Race Relations Act 1968.  This was the first legislation to outlaw race discrimination in our workplaces and in other settings like in the letting of homes.

The passing of such a landmark leads many of us to reflect on the current state of race relations in our country and globally.  I think we’d all agree that current evidence shows progress is mixed.

Recent symbolic high-points like the wonderful royal wedding and its celebration of our diversity, have not been matched by the conduct of leading politicians around the world.

At home, the way that Boris Johnson recently, very deliberately, used his Telegraph Column to liken Niqab wearing Muslim women to letter-boxes and bank robbers, was a brazen exploitation of residual Islamophobia or Islamoscepticism in certain parts of our country.  Rhetoric that was not quite at the “rivers of blood” level of Enoch Powell, but worse because of Boris’s perceived position as a more mainstream politician and potential prime minister.

Then more recently we had Home Secretary, Sajid Javid tweeting about “sick Asian paedophiles” finally facing justice, and columnists Rod Liddle suggesting that it would be okay if suicide bombers blew themselves up in majority Muslim Tower Hamlets.

The Charity Tell Mama reported a spike in Muslim-directed hate crime in the aftermath of Mr Johnson’s comments. And their response to Mr Javid’s tweet, I think was telling of where we are on these issues:

“The current atmosphere in our country is polarised. The last thing we need is language that can be misread, abused or used to fan the flames of division. We agree with much that the Home Secretary does on tackling hate crimes, including anti-Muslim hate or Islamophobia, but on this matter, we disagree. We all need to ensure that communities feel accepted and respected at this time, whilst the victims of grooming should be first and foremost in our minds.”

We would all do well to try and walk in the shoes of British Muslims in the atmosphere that has prevailed since the start of the War on Terror and the increase in terrorism from those proclaiming to be Muslim.  And, to consider how the atmosphere has changed to all foreign and non-white people in the post Brexit vote era: best summed up in my experience by an emboldened gentleman born in Ireland, living in Loughborough telling me it was time for “them all to go home”.

This is all mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic, where Donald Trump failed to condemn the white supremacists at Charlottesville where one young civil rights protester lost her life.  Adding to a lifelong track-record of his peddling racist tropes and using inconsiderate language regarding those of colour, his endorsement of police brutality, and opposition to leading sportsmen taking a stand against institutional racism across the USA.

In all these cases above they are sad, firstly because the politicians concerned think it is okay to ignore their moral leadership position and court favour through thinly-veiled attacks on multicultural societies.  And secondly, because they feel that there is an audience in the country of such a size to make such comments politically advantageous.

The answer has to be for politicians who do take their moral leadership responsibilities seriously to stand up against such behaviour.  I have heard far too much that this is just Boris being Boris, or that the language may be unfortunate but X politician is at heart not racist.  The truth is that to acquiesce in such circumstances is to be complicit in behaviour that is undermining race relations in our country.

I am proud that at the next general election I will be standing for the Labour Party who were responsible for the Race Relations Act 1968, and other landmark equality legislation culminating in the Equality Act 2010.

That said, I would hope that politicians of all political colours would use today to reflect on the moral leadership that is required.  Not just for our country’s sake: in an era of discrimination around the world, be it against Rohingya in Myanmar or Uighur in China, also, so that we can also assume some moral leadership across the world.

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