Trevor Phillips hosted the controversial documentary
Channel 4 are always putting out controversial documentaries and last night’s Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True was certainly no exception.
Hosted by Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the documentary wasted no time in immersing itself in the highly controversial by launching straight into racial and ethnic stereotypes and determining whether there is in fact some legitimate basis to them.
First up were the British Jewish community. The words “Jews are rich & powerful” appeared on screen before Phillips asked: “Is it true?” Tracing a history of Jewish wealth and power in the UK, from the Rothschilds to the present day – using measures including the percentage of British billionaires that are Jewish and the number of Jewish MPs in the House of Commons – it was argued that any discussion of Jewish superiority today is suppressed because of the atrocities carried out against Jews in WWII. The brief case study of British Jews relative success ended with Phillips saying: “The real point is this. We shouldn’t envy other more successful groups, we shouldn’t fear them […] what we should actually be doing is learning from them.”
Later in the show Phillips gives his first example of the racial stereotyping of black Britons. Phillips is shown driving along as he makes reference to the “unofficial motoring offence called ‘driving while black,’” alluding to the reality that black people driving nice vehicles too often are forced to prove that their vehicle is their own and not stolen because of the general stereotype that black people are not wealthy.
Tarique Ghaffur, the former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, points out how ill-informed racial and ethnic stereotyping can disguise the truth and the real perpetrators of crimes. The example of drug crime in the south London borough of Lambeth is given as viewers are told: “The widely held view a decade ago was that the African-Caribbean drug gangs dominated crime in Lambeth. In fact, the serious crime in the area was run by Colombians.”
Phillips then proceeded to talk about racial and ethnic stereotypes more generally, admitting that he believed much of his previous work as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (under New Labour) was a failed exercise since “many [stereotypes] are largely true.”
The programme reached a new level of controversy as the words “Different groups commit different crimes” appeared on screen which Phillips stated was “true.”
When Simon Woolley, the former Equality Commissioner and previous close colleague of Phillips, appeared on screen there was a clear tension between the two men, Woolley clearly still standing by the view that applying racial labels to things is generally unnecessary and creates stereotypes with often simply are untrue or based upon the misrepresentation of a particular group. Woolley put forward the strong point: “Why would you say you have a black gang in London and a white gang in Glasgow? You wouldn’t, they’d be gangs […] There’s no need to racially code a gang.”
Woolley also brought up the very interesting – and rarely spoken about – fact that the media has a significant role in determining common perceptions towards particular ethnic and racial groups and that they too often are irresponsible in the way that they create and propel negative stereotypes (e.g. of blacks as criminals and Muslims as terrorists). Phillips dismisses what could have been a really interesting discussion on the media’s role in creating and sustaining racial stereotypes and racial tensions by simply saying: “we can’t control the newspapers.”
The programme, in fact, was somewhat ruined by the fact that Phillips raised lots of interesting points but then failed to really delve into the specifics and depths of the matter, just brushing over them. Another example of this is when the matters of poverty and class are raised. Race, ethnicity and class are often heavily intertwined but yet class and poverty tend to be overlooked when looking at crime committed by a particular racial group. For example, the earlier mention of pickpocketing crime being carried out noticeably by Romanians in the UK could have been contextualised and explored in terms of why perhaps that group in particular is involved in pickpocketing – are they doing it because they are overrepresented among the UK’s poorest residents and are struggling to survive?
The problem of a lack of contextualisation arose several times in the programme, not least when the audience were told that whilst white people in the UK have a nine in 1 million annual chance of being murdered compared to twenty-six in 1 million chance for black Britons and then told that “of those black victims, ¾ are killed by black perpetrators.” No mention whatsoever was made of how many white people are murdered by other white people (I suspect a figure not too dissimilar). Bizarrely Phillips then reached the conclusion that the figures are “an awkward fact for anyone that believes that the major cause of black disadvantage is discrimination by whites.” Here Phillips really exposed his naïve and oversimplified approach to the topic. More questions needed to be asked. Why are those black people killing? Is it because they feel marginalised in society? What has made them feel that way? Are factors such as major unemployment and poverty among black Britons, caused by a number of factors –including institutional racism operating in workplaces – a part of the reason? Are these people simply perpetrators or can they themselves be seen as victims of social injustice operating on a larger scale denying them the opportunities to amount to more than a criminal?
Sure not all of these issues and questions could be delved into and explored thoroughly in a single hour-long programme but their omission made for at times highly frustrating viewing and a sense that old stereotypes were just being regurgitated without telling us anything new.
The programme did raise some very interesting points, including (towards the end) the mention of how poor white Britons are becoming an increasingly disadvantaged group but overall failed to live up to its promise to “say some things about race that we normally never say on television.” On the contrary, throughout the programme I was left waiting for a nuanced approach to the matter of race and racial stereotypes in the UK which went beyond the obvious and commonly observed (e.g. that many Jewish people are rich) to understand the root of those stereotypes and what needs to be done to alter them where those stereotypes are negative and an obstacle to improved race relations (e.g. that Romanians are supposedly more likely to pickpocket).
It was actually Phillips closing comments that I agreed with most of anything he said during the entire documentary: “The most important lesson I think I’ve learned is that preventing anyone from saying what’s on their mind won’t ever remove it from their hearts, people need to feel free to say what they want to without the fear of being accused of racism or bigotry. It means that we’re all going to have to become more ready to offend each other.”
Open discussion about race and ethnicity is absolutely crucial if relations between different sub-groups in British society are going to be improved in the future. Therein, I believe, lies part of Nigel Farage’s significant appeal; for many it is refreshing to hear somebody in power openly sharing their views on race/ethnicity even though they are not ‘politically correct’ or popular. But the discussion needs to go much further and be far more comprehensive – involving leading members from different communities, organisations and disciplines (academics, religious leaders, students, youth workers, political activists, immigrants etc.) if any useful understanding is to be reached.
In short, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True was highly ambitious on the part of Channel 4 and had the potential to really be great and ignite worthwhile debate but did not live up to expectation, mainly because – ironically – it, far too often, was just telling us things that we have heard before repeatedly.