Society

Trevor Phillips recommends the best books on

Equality

The chairman of the Equalities & Human Rights Commission says discrimination and social injustice won’t be changed by what happens in courtrooms or parliament but by how we all behave

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    1

    Bleak House
    by Charles Dickens

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    2

    The Wind in the Willows
    by Kenneth Grahame

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    3

    The Black Jacobins
    by C L R James

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    4

    Bowling Alone
    by Robert D Putnam

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    5

    Identity Economics
    by George A Akerlof and Rachel E Kranton

Trevor Phillips

Trevor Phillips is a politician and broadcaster, who has spent the last seven years at the head of quangos responsible for combating discrimination. After growing up in London and Guyana, he was the first black president of the National Union of Students and the first leader of London’s elected assembly, where he clashed with Mayor Ken Livingstone for arguing that multiculturalism could mean more segregation in British society. He is current chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and has also advised the French government on social cohesion.

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Trevor Phillips

Trevor Phillips is a politician and broadcaster, who has spent the last seven years at the head of quangos responsible for combating discrimination. After growing up in London and Guyana, he was the first black president of the National Union of Students and the first leader of London’s elected assembly, where he clashed with Mayor Ken Livingstone for arguing that multiculturalism could mean more segregation in British society. He is current chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and has also advised the French government on social cohesion.

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What has Bleak House, your first choice, done to shape your political views?

This is probably Dickens’s best evocation of a society in which your origins more or less determine your destiny. My job is essentially about trying as best you can to detach people’s life chances and their destiny from their origins, so that where you are born doesn’t determine where you die. Of course the whole point about Bleak House is that both its heroes and its transgressors are involved in that struggle against their origins. Esther Summerson, the slightly weedy central character, is born into these rather rocky circumstances, nobody quite knows where she comes from and therefore it’s unclear where she’ll end up. Lady Dedlock, the most interesting character, is transgressing because she has risen to a place where she should never have been. She gets her comeuppance: that’s the Victorian idea that you have to be careful and you can’t overdo your rising up the scale.

At the other end of the scale you’ve got poor Joe the crossing sweeper, whose fate is marked in his genes. He’s never going to be anything other than the dreadful, tragic figure that he is in the book. What Dickens is trying to do is to undermine, by satirising it, the idea that people get stuck in their fixed social positions.

The other point of the book, in terms of what I do at the commission, is about the role of the law. Bleak House tells us not to rely on the courts for justice. In the end, a just society can’t be delivered by people in a courtroom. We do quite a lot of that, but it’s fundamental to the way I approach anti-discrimination and social justice, to believe that in the end what will change things is how people behave rather than judicial remedy.

In Bleak House the extreme stratification of society is not changed by the ridiculous court cases, but in our world…?

We have a vast range of judicial remedies, but the idea that you can tackle racial or sex discrimination, or indeed, much more significantly, class discrimination, as a feature of our society either by legal action or by the laws that are passed in parliament really seems to me rather limited – it’s a mistaken strategy.

The Wind in the Willows – I’m intrigued.

This is a very personal choice. I come from a standard immigrant, urban background and reading Wind in the Willows opened my eyes to the way the English upper middle classes lived and the things they thought were important. Countryside. Woods – what the hell were woods? Picnics. So before I had even discovered Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, all these details – sandwiches, lemonade – were just jaw-dropping to me.

Essentially there is a bad reading and good reading. The bad reading is that it is a parable about class, where the stoats and the weasels are working-class oiks who invade an Edwardian perpetual summer in which we go boating and chasing lambs in the fields and whatnot. They take over Toad Hall and it’s all very unjust and revolutionary. Later in life I had a flirtation with Maoism – maybe it was because I had sympathy with the revolutionary stoats and weasels, they were on the right side against someone as repulsive as Toad.

“If there is no longer very much that resembles a community, how do you even begin to try to adapt that community to take in new arrivals?”

But the good reading is what underlies all this: Badger as a sort of maven, a symbol of the values of decency and fair play. He’s a bit stodgy and dull but in the end he is somebody who will take people for what they are and treat them decently. He believes in protecting, in this case the property rights of the aristocracy, but more broadly the rule of law.

Wind in the Willows is tied up with an age of Englishness which I think had a great many things to recommend it. People were a lot less embarrassed than they are now to talk about values – even if those values might not be ones you would share today. I think it’s good for young people, these ideas that you should be fair to people, and that there are certain ways of behaving that are reasonable in a good society. If you want to translate it into political terms, Badger would be a one-nation Tory. I have got a lot of time for his horror at Toad’s selfishness.

So is Toad a nouveau riche or an aristocrat who doesn’t understand his responsibilities?

Well, Toad has inherited his wealth from his father, who was Badger’s friend: these are country types who have a great sense of responsibility for keeping the community together, giving a shilling or to the poor, the sort of things today we gulp at. But underlying it all is a fundamental idea of fair play. Toad is a conspicuous consumer, a materialist, a faddist. And bear in mind one of the most interesting moments is when Toad has to pretend to be a washerwoman, which means he has to put his hands into washing water and they become wrinkled and he sees it as terribly ghastly – and actually this was what the upper classes used to be like.

As long as they exist, the upper classes have to be drawn into recognising that they have some relationship with the rest of society and something in common with society – that’s what the humbling of Toad is about.

Let’s move on to The Black Jacobins, about the Haitian revolution.

This is a very important book for me, about the first and only successful slave revolt in the Americas, which happened in Haiti. C L R James’s book is very complex because it does not make the rebellion’s leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, into the sort of plaster saint that people now might make of Martin Luther King or, dare one say, Nelson Mandela. This is the guy who led a revolt against an absolutely brutal, manipulative slave-owning class and in some respects he had to be just as ghastly. Indeed some of his lieutenants were even worse – to some extent you can see the seeds of what has become modern day Haiti in the nature of the revolt. But nonetheless, we have this incredibly heroic figure battling two things. First, the Napoleonic empire, this vast, colossal military and colonial power. And this bloke says, ‘OK we’ve had enough of this.’ Toussaint was a natural compromiser – there is an academic interest now in Barack Obama as a natural compromiser and a leader. Well, Toussaint tried again and again during this rather short revolt to make a deal with the French. But time and again either they reneged or they tried to double-cross or they couldn’t hold their side of the bargain.

But the second part of the book is really more significant for what I do, namely the problem of how you overcome a systemic discrimination. In order to make the plantations work you had to separate the slave labour from the rest of humanity, categorise it and control it to make it work. One of the most telling things in the book is that James describes the way in which the plantation owners would categorise the slaves according to how much European blood they had: there were 128 different classifications. It was an example of how the society in Haiti was so rigidly constructed to maintain slavery. And the Haitian revolutionaries had, somehow, to deal with overcoming and dismantling this incredibly rooted system. This is what people today might describe as institutionalised racism.

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What interests me is the difficulty of tackling a way of thinking and doing things that is built into society. It is actually much more obvious and evident today in relation to gender. The way we do things automatically stacks the cards against anybody who doesn’t work five days a week, nine to five, for 40 years continuously, and overcoming that is probably the single biggest barrier to equality we have to tackle.

What is the significance of Bowling Alone, which is about disintegrating American community life, for your agenda?

Bowling Alone is really important. What Putnam gave us with this book was the idea of social capital. When I was head of the Commission for Racial Equality [now merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission] I always put it that the two great challenges that face humankind are how we live with the planet and how we live together. Those two collide because climate change is moving vast populations across continents. It means that this year, if you are in Pakistan or some parts of India or various African countries, several hundred thousand people might show up on your doorstep. You don’t just have to find them food and water, you have to find a way of allowing them to exist without being constantly at odds with the people who have been there for centuries. If we think we have problems with immigration in Europe, try being Sudan, Uganda or Kenya. We’ve now got about 200 million people who live outside the country of their birth and that is about double what it was 30 years ago. That number will continue to multiply. So the great challenge is probably not climate change, it is what to do about the fact that more people can move further and faster across the globe than ever before in human history. And people don’t just show up and everybody loves them, it doesn’t work like that.

In the half a million interviews compiled for the study in Bowling Alone, they found that people in American society are less connected, they do fewer things together, they don’t sign petitions. Where they used to go bowling in leagues they now go bowling alone or with their immediate family. These large movements of people I’m talking about are happening in a context where this fragmentation of society Putnam describes is becoming even more severe because of technology making people more alienated from each other. So it becomes even more difficult to deal with the unsettling effects of people on the move: if there is no longer very much that resembles a community, how do you even begin to try to adapt that community to take in new arrivals?

Why do the BNP, for example, think Barking is going to be a big breakthrough opportunity for them in the coming General Election? Well, it is a Bob Putnam answer: there has been a rapid movement of people into the area, not just black immigrants but also people from the East End. There have been job losses in nearby Dagenham [in the car industry]. So the area is already unsettled. The marginal impact of a relatively small number of African immigrants has then been dramatised, but this is a community that is already disintegrating.

Bob Putnam has done another book more recently called Better Together, in which he explores the relationship between lost social capital, trust and ethnicity, and he explores how to rebuild community life. He takes the view that there are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging capital. Put simply, bonding capital is all the things that tie you to people who are like you in religion, or race or social group. That can be very strong but the stronger that is, the weaker the bridging capital that links you or ties you to the people who are not like you. In European and North American societies, this is a great danger – look at the Balkans, where the more Serbian you became, the more you were alienated from your Muslim neighbours.

What would be an example of the bridging capital we need to hang on to in order to maintain social cohesion?

There is an argument that a great big institution that we all pay into and share, like the NHS, is an example of bridging capital, but in fact it is more about local institutions, like schools. Which is why the issue of who goes to what schools is so important. If parents are tending to put an ethnic or racial or faith factor into the choice of school, then that potentially means a diminution of bridging capital. But you can rebuild it – for example we encourage twinning of schools, which turns out to have been very successful, and we are trying summer schools for teenagers as well.

Identity Economics: this is very recently published.

Yes, this is just out and to be frank I am only halfway through it. But it is a completely new idea, which, in essence, says that one effect of being in an increasingly liberal and affluent society is that aspects of identity that previously didn’t seem to matter that much to economists are consciously influencing our behaviour. This is most significant when it comes to gender: that is to say that women are increasingly conscious of making choices about what they do and how because they are women. For example, working part time. So gender identity is influencing economic choices in a way they haven’t in previous generations in quite this way.

In the past economists didn’t really take these motivations into account. The authors point out that immigrants increasingly make a choice about where they live and work to be close to other people like them. In the past it happened to a certain extent because there were no other options, but now it is more conscious. If you look among quite well-off communities like East African Asians, you would think that as they became more affluent they would start to disperse throughout the population, but in fact the reverse is happening. If you look at Northwood or Pinner in North London, some parts of these areas have become concentrated groups of very affluent Asian families – the temple is close by, they will send their children to the same private schools. These families have a choice and they are choosing to cluster with people like themselves.

“My job is essentially about trying as best you can to detach people’s life chances and their destiny from their origins, so that where you are born doesn’t determine where you die.”

I think this has a very clear implication for what happens at the other end of the social scale. In the work I do, but also in the way government is trying to tackle educational failure, we have got to take this on board as we think about how to pick certain groups up off the floor.

We thought for a very long time that you could interpret the failure of Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani children in education as racial in origin. Then we realised that some white children were failing just as badly. Now, famously, we know that white boys on free school meals are probably, next to gypsies and travellers, the worst performing group. What’s that all about? Well, it probably means that something we have been interpreting as governed by racial factors is probably economic in origin instead. These three groups are marked by a failed relationship with work. Most families have increased their wealth for the last 20 to 25 years by the fact that both parents work. In Afro-Caribbean families, typically only one parent works; in Pakistani families, typically the father works but the mother may not even speak English and therefore can’t work. And the white families we are most worried about are marked either by the fact that only one parent is working, or none, or even that no one in the family has worked for years and years.

So something that we have been interpreting racially is actually an economic phenomenon. But my guess is the way you tackle it may have to be governed by racial factors. It is an interesting, complicated and difficult relationship between economics and culture and identity – but that’s why I find it so fascinating.

February 23, 2010

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