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Paul Vallely: Wanting to tackle racism is not enough  

14 June 2024

Stereotypes and entrenched ways of thinking must be set aside first, says Paul Vallely


Demonstrators take part in a protest in London against the Government’s asylum and immigration policies, in March

Demonstrators take part in a protest in London against the Government’s asylum and immigration policies, in March

“BUT, Father, we’ve always done it this way,” is a common response to change. So the 40th anniversary celebration of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice was told recently by Fr Phil Sumner, who draws on decades of experience as a parish priest, first with the black community in Moss Side, and now among Muslims in Oldham. The years have made him one of our most reflective thinkers on race, Church, and society.

Immigration, an issue for all sides in the current election campaign, is, for many, a dog whistle for a thinly disguised racism. We were reminded of this when Nigel Farage this week said of Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister, after his D-Day débâcle: “He doesn’t care about our history, our culture.”

Multiculturalism has nowadays been replaced by the idea of “integrationism”. Newcomers to the UK are now expected to accept “British values”. Lord Macpherson’s 1999 notion of institutional racism was today dismissed, Fr Sumner observed. The Sewell report declared in 2021: “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities” (News, 9 April 2021). Politicians such as Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman reject the idea of multiculturalism as “woke” rather than see a virtue in being awake to the issues that bedevil other people.

Yet, three of Lord Macpherson’s criticisms are not being addressed by these revisionists. These concern the insidious nature of stereotypes, the specious fallacy of insisting “I’m colour-blind and treat everyone the same,” and the part played by established groups in the exercise of power.

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis suggests that “there is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted, belonging to no one.” To help others to belong requires reciprocation. It is not merely for newcomers to change to fit in with us: we should allow newcomers to change us, and our communities, too.

That means challenging old stereotypes and established groups. When Mr Sumner arrived at his church in Oldham, the congregation was mainly Irish. Now, it has 55 different nationalities, with African, Filipino, and Indian choirs, Polish stained-glass windows, and displays in the church school featuring Muslim philosophers and scientists — Maimonides, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al Ghazali, and Ibn Rushd — alongside Christian thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas. Everyone is encouraged to ask “who is not at the table” when it comes to readers, eucharistic ministers, altar servers, leadership teams, teachers, governors, and those who make decisions about liturgy, music, art, food, and the curriculum.

Notions of being “colour-blind” are shown as inadequate if we do not ask why the principal earner in a white British family is nine times more likely to be in the richest 20 per cent than the principal earner from a black British family — and 18 times more than in a Bangladeshi family. Inequality needs also to be challenged in education, health, policing, and criminal justice. Racism exists among individuals, but also structurally and institutionally.

A desire to tackle racial injustice is not enough. We need to build specific strategies to consult those most affected, analyse the problems that they face, explore solutions, and set measurable goals and ways of monitoring progress. But, before that, we must set aside negative stereotypes, self-deceiving notions of colour-blindness, and the entrenched thinking that persists in protesting: “But, Father, we’ve always done it this way.”

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