27 JULY 2002, Page 20


Ross Clark exposes the government's obsession with ethnic categories, and urges us all to revolt

AMONG the thousands of questions my seven-year-old son has fired across café tables and crowded railway carriages, one has been conspicuous by its absence: 'Daddy, why is that man black?' Admittedly, our neighbourhood is not the most renowned cultural melting pot, yet I do not remember a single occasion when race has ever been an issue for him. Whether it can be put down to the educational value of the obligatory black figures which now feature in every children's book, or is demonstrative of the natural acceptance shown by children when adults around them don't make an issue of race, I like to feel that we have made progress since my own childhood in the 1970s, when the young still had a tendency to stare at black people as if they had descended from outer space.

What, then, do you say to your children when they bring home in their satchels a questionnaire demanding to know whether they are white, black, Chinese or Gypsy? Over the past few weeks thousands of schoolchildren have received a similar form, asking them to assess their own 'ethnic identity'. Any child above 11, say the guidance notes for parents, should make the judgment themselves. Children who until now have had no reason to think of themselves as anything other than a human being are being obliged to classify themselves, like a worm in a biology lesson, as belonging to one of 15 species and 65 sub-species, each given a four-letter code. You can, for example, be 'White British' (WBRI), a 'Traveller of Irish Heritage' (WIRT), a Gypsy Roma (WROM); you can be 'Black Caribbean' (BCRB), 'Chinese' (CHNE) or — which, until I came across the government's ethnic classification system. I thought applied only to zebras — a 'White and Black African' (MWBA). You cannot — lest anyone should be fooled into thinking that bureaucrats who work in ethnic awareness had succeeded in purging their minds of all prejudice — be a British Chinese or a British Gypsy.

It would be cheap to equate the Department for Education's ethnic-awareness census with anything dreamed up in Nazi Germany, though the absence of the word 'Jew' anywhere on the form does indicate a certain awareness of, and sensitivity towards, historical parallel. The government's intentions are presumably benign, even though Cambridgeshire County Council and the Department for Educa tion both failed to answer my question as to what they intended to do with the data. Yet I do not believe I am alone in feeling unease at the way government departments are suddenly developing an obsession with race.

If your child's state school doesn't appear to have much time for teaching any more, it may well be because the staff are bogged down in producing a written policy promoting race equality and in publishing annually the results of their 'ethnic monitoring' survey, as they have been ordered to do by the government. The Commission for Racial Equality has sent out to every school a 38-page booklet on their duties, helpfully suggesting how they ought to go about formulating their policy: they should set up a group including the head teacher, a governor, several teachers and 'a representative from the pupils' council'. When they have finished their first draft, it should be sent to unions and local community groups for comment, and everyone invited to a series of meetings to discuss it. When it is finalised, the policy should be promoted via a poster campaign 'in all main languages used in the community'. All, presumably, to come up with some mealy-mouthed variation on the words 'this school does not discriminate against pupils on the grounds of their race'.

No doubt the egos of a few local busybodies will have been boosted, but no school will ever succeed in pleasing the shifting demands of the race-relations industry. Bosham primary school near Chichester has gone to great lengths to teach pupils about other cultures, with lessons on Hinduism and Islam; but when it was inspected by Ofsted last October it was criticised for failing to 'prepare pupils for life in today's multi-ethnic Britain'. 'Although the school has good links with the local community there are few examples of prominent people from a variety of culturally diverse backgrounds being used to celebrate personal achievement.' Since it lies in a rural area where few ethnic groups have settled, this presents Bosham primary school with an insurmountable problem. What it boils down to is that the school isn't scouring the local Yellow Pages and inviting enough proprietors of Indian takeaways to talk in assembly.

It is not just schools. As a result of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, all public bodies are obliged to monitor the ethnic identity of their users and, should the profile of their usage indicate the merest statistical bias against any ethnic group, is expected to devise policies in order to correct it. The Department of Health, for example, has discovered that black Caribbeans suffer more strokes (and fewer heart attacks) than the white population. Under the rules, health authorities are therefore obliged to devise policies to reduce the rate of strokes among black Caribbeans — although, since the Race Relations Act merely talks about reducing 'inequalities', they might equally well fulfil their legal obligations by persuading whites to suffer more strokes by eating more salt.

In order to partake in this massive statistical parlour game, it is, of course, necessary for hospitals to classify all their patients according to their ethnic origins. Hence, anyone being wheeled through accident and emergency must now be asked not just for their name hut for their ethnic identity. If you are wondering why desperately ill people are still being forced to wait on trolleys in spite of the millions Gordon Brown is pouring into the NHS, the bureaucracy involved with admitting patients certainly doesn't help. A bizarre, 34-page document distributed to NHS employees lays down the correct procedure for extracting from bewildered patients whether they are Mirpuri Pakistani or Sri Lankan Tamil. One helpful tip reads, The temporarily confused or traumatised (including the unconscious): There will be instances when it is more appropriate to collect some data later in the admission.'

From now on, even historic houses must ensure that they are getting a sufficient number of Polynesians through the door. The Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has just put out a hefty report, People and Places.. Social Inclusion for the Built and Historic Environment, which hectors custodians of museums on their new obligations to encourage access to ethnic minorities. 'The diversity of society as a whole needs to be considered when promoting heritage sites: spouts Jowell, without explaining how you advertise Dover Castle specifically to Turkish Cypriots. If anyone is in any doubt about her department's intention to stamp out institutional racism in the nation's folk museums, she adds, 'Staff attitudes and routine practices and procedures can be a major barrier to change, and may be excluding or marginalising groups unintentionally.'

Anyone applying for a lottery grant in recent months will already have smelt the whiff of change. Two years ago Andy Lowings successfully applied for a grant of £4,750 towards the Northhorough Harp Festival, held near Peterborough. This year he applied again and was rejected, seemingly because he was unable to satisfy 'Awards for All', one of the distributors of lottery funds, with his answers to their 'Cultural Diversity Monitoring Form'. The form appeared to assume that he spent last year's festival counting black faces among his 1,000-strong audience; it asked him which ethnic groups attended his festival, listing 'Asian or British Asian', 'Black or British Black', 'Chinese', 'Irish' or 'Other'. There was nowhere for him to mention, however, the Paraguayan harpists who he flew over for the last festival: South Americans don't appear to exist, according to the government's ethnic classification system.

While cultural events in country towns are given the cold shoulder for being too white, different standards inevitably end up being applied to organisations whose membership is limited to particular ethnic minorities. Few would begrudge the £1,859 recently awarded to the Organisation of Blind African Caribbeans, who perform folk songs and dance in south London, though it ought to be pointed out that the blatant ethnic exclusivity of its name ought, under Ms Jowell's edicts, to make it ineligible for lottery money. One cannot help thinking that lottery distributors are becoming so obsessed with doing the right thing with regard to ethnic policy that they are on occasions becoming blind to more fundamental questions such as 'Are the intentions of this project good or bad?'

The Film Council succeeded in fulfilling its obligations towards ethnic Irish by giving £300,000 towards the making of that unashamed work of political propaganda, Bloody Sunday. Emmanuel de Silva had no trouble securing a £5,000 lottery grant for his charity Buyaka, which claimed to offer 'spiritual guidance' to black youths. Last month he was convicted for a string of armed robberies committed with the aid of youths he had recruited through the project.

One accepts that the government has an interest in encouraging multiculturalism, but why the coercion when those who work in the arts have long been striving to satisfy the public's eclectic tastes? 'We recently had an evening of Zimbabwean music and could have filled 400 seats,' says Martin Vander Weyer, who runs a lottery-supported theatre in Helmsley, North Yorkshire — as traditionalist a spot as you can find in the country. 'There is a spontaneous demand for world music, without any bureaucratic input from the state.'

Ethnic monitoring will turn every lottery-funded project into a miniature Millennium Dome, constantly trying to justify itself through its inclusivity but in the end meaning nothing to anybody. Worse, it is at odds with the spirit of assimilation. What message does it give to 11-year-old schoolchildren, particularly those of mixed parentage, when forced to put themselves into a racial pigeonhole? At the very least, we can expect some of these ethnic acronyms — COCH, for 'other Chinese', is an obvious candidate — to develop into disparaging terms which, like wogs (possibly derived from Workers On Government Service), the race-relations industry will then spend the next 20 years trying to banish from the language.

Like Basil Fawlty ordering his staff not to mention the war in front of his German guests, the government is becoming so hung up about trying to be anti-racist that it risks achieving the exact opposite of what was intended. It reminds me of a rather sad BBC documentary made a few years ago about a dozen hopefuls who had applied for a job as a dustman. The local authority, needless to say, had an equal opportunities policy, which I am sure it applied with sincerity. It was just a shame that it ended up eliminating the sole black applicant on the grounds that he had omitted to fill in his questionnaire on 'ethnic awareness'. Such is the climate of fear created whenever it brandishes the charge of racism against ordinary people doing their jobs that the race-relations industry has been able to grow unchecked.

The hest one can hope for is that the 'ethnic' questionnaires arriving home in kiddies' satchels will spark such revulsion that parents will refuse to fill them in. Better still, in its desire for political correctness, the government has left the way open for subversion. Whenever a public servant asks you for your ethnic origin, you don't have to provide any evidence. Your ethnicity, explains the bumf sent out to NHS staff. is whatever you 'feel' it to he. If enough parents at the likes of Bosham primary school put their children down as Polynesians and Roma Gypsies, the system will rapidly prove unworkable.