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Gary Younge
What was all that about?

The events of the last few weeks could not have been more different. For this latest spate of breast beating has taken place almost entirely without reference to the black communities. Splashed across tabloids and broadsheets alike, clogging up airwaves and dominating our television screens, politicians and pundits have delved into the subject with all the subtlety and zeal of teenagers discovering sex.

It is a sign of the parallel universe in which these discussions have taken place that they have in no way been informed or particularly enlightened by the riots in Bradford, the white pensioner who was beaten senseless by Asians in Oldham or the latest asylum figures. While the politicians trade insults and up antes over racism the talk in the barber shops, mosques and workplaces is of anything but. Look in the black and Asian press and you will see it relegated to the inside pages. We are in the midst of a "race row" that is apparently of little interest to those who are most likely to suffer racism.

While there is cause to be depressed by a great deal that has been said during this time, the process by which it has come into the public domain indicates a peculiar kind of progress. This is a legacy of Macpherson. The Stephen Lawrence report stemmed from an incident prompted by a group of white racist louts, bungled by an overwhelmingly white police force, which triggered an investigation presided over by a white lord. This very process transformed the race paradigm. Before it was a debate about how to contain the problems that black people cause by their very presence. Now white people are talking to other white people about the problems engendered by their racism.

What was once understood as a marginal issue that affected black people is now a mainstream issue that is defining the nation. As such race in Britain is becoming a touchstone for modernity. Just as supporting privatisation was once regarded as a signifier of economic maturity and defending the National Health Service denoted compassion in the most conservative of times, so race is developing into a marker of what one makes of Britain's place in the 21st century. The fact that, even as we top the league in our hostility to asylum seekers, Hague's remarks have sent him plunging in the polls among his own supporters is instructive. There are plenty of racist attitudes about; but they are not deemed worthy of a political leader.

It is through the prism of race that we are beginning to ask questions to which all of Britain has long sought answers. What does it mean to be British? Are you confident about what Britain might be or do you mourn the passing of what it was? Do you think that everyone should be treated equally, or do you believe that some should have privileges and others disadvantages inherited from birth? In that sense race is becoming the road map by which we navigate our way through a whole host of national issues, such as class and equality of opportunity.

Whether it deepens our understanding of Britain depends very much on the level of discussion that takes place. It is here that the problems start.

While both main parties have accused the other of using the race card neither is actually playing with a full deck. The Tories are desperate and Labour are cocky. Neither mindset is particularly conducive to a mature debate about a sensitive issue.

To criticise the commission for racial equality for asking Tories to sign its pledge is a bizarre move. A link has been established between racially charged campaigning and racial attacks. "The most serious trend we have seen is a rise in reports of incidents when the issue of asylum seekers and refugees is brought into the public domain by reputable politicians making inflammatory statements," one Scotland Yard source told the Observer. In that climate asking Tories to agree not to resort to "racially hostile language" makes perfect sense. It is only because some Tories refused that the row took off in the first place. The CRE were asking them to put their hands up for motherhood and apple pie; they ended up being accused of McCarthyism because of rightwing political beef.

But the very fact that William Hague has chosen to challenge Labour on this issue is significant. With the political centre otherwise crowded or hostile to his party, here is one area where he senses that there is both significant difference and significant weakness for Labour.

He has a point. Labour has scored some remarkable successes on race. By launching the inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's death and passing anti-discrimination legislation, it helped reshape the discourse on race. But it implemented punitive legislation on asylum seekers and disparaging remarks about Gypsies. In the words of James Baldwin: "what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other." They are proud of their fiscal prudence, however unpopular with their core supporters. But their commitment to anti-racism, as much as it exists, is their best kept secret. They cannot claim the moral high ground because they have chosen to vacate it.

gary.younge@theguardian.com

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