“I don’t actually, but if I did talk to my children about the question of race,” says Nigel Farage, “they wouldn’t know what I was talking about.” His daughters were born in 2000 and 2005. For children of that age not to know about race is surprising. But when your father is the UKIP leader and you live in the leafy hamlet of Single Street, it makes more sense. It’s easy to be colour-blind when you’re dazzled by the whiteness around you.
Farage has caused a furore by saying he would scrap many of Britain’s racial discrimination laws. In an interview with Trevor Phillips, the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, the UKIP leader said discrimination was an issue 40 years ago but not now. And in response to Phillips’ surprise, he assured him that his party is “colour blind”.
Since the interview, Farage and other UKIP representatives have been at pains to argue (as much as you can call it an argument) that this is an issue of nationality, not race. Party candidate Winston McKenzie even said that UKIP is trying to protect black Britons, since they are losing jobs to foreign workers like everyone else.
Racial discrimination legislation emerged in the 1960s, alongside a tightening up of Britain’s rules on immigration. In 1960, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government announced that legislation would be brought in to clamp down on immigration to the UK. Migrants tried to get into Britain quickly in order to beat the introduction of these laws so their numbers dramatically increased in the early 1960s. Trevor Phillips and his brother Mike showed in their book Windrush that in 1959 only 16,000 West Indian immigrants came to the UK but that by 1961 the number rose to more than 60,000 per year.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into force in 1962. Members of white settler colonies of the Commonwealth, such as Australia and Canada, were still allowed into Britain because they were “patrials” whose forebears came from Britain. Non-settler colonies, such as those of the Caribbean, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, only had a connection with Britain because their countries had been occupied and plundered during colonial rule. Incomers from these colonies were restricted.
So-called “coloured” immigrants were depicted as a problem for Britain. They supposedly caused crime and overpopulation. The fact that the rate of unemployment was low in this demographic is conveniently forgotten – as is the contribution the immigrants made to the NHS, transport services and the economy in general. This is more than a little reminiscent of the way Farage and UKIP overlook the contribution that immigrants make today.
The first Race Relations Act was passed in 1965 under the Labour government of Harold Wilson. This outlawed public discrimination on the basis of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins. It was followed in 1976 by another, more detailed Race Relations Act. This law applies to Great Britain but not Northern Ireland. It specifically covers employment, the provision of good and services, education, training and welfare.
These were positive but belated, attempts to ensure equality and justice for British citizens. They were the carrot to the stick of Fortress Britain’s constricted immigration policy. Now Farage wants to remove the carrot while sharpening the stick.
Farage’s declaration that UKIP is a colour-blind party is just as curious as his position on discrimination law. Race theorists in the US such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Blake Emerson argue that colour-blind interpretations of the law actually foster white privilege and racism in the workplace.
Legal colour-blindness has a complex history. Emerson shows that in 1896 Justice Marshall Harlan evoked the idea that the American constitution was colour-blind in order to justify segregation in Louisiana. In the middle of the 20th century, civil rights activists used the colour-blind argument to fight Jim Crow legislation. And in recent years, those who have used and benefited from ideas of colour-blindness are those who are opposed to affirmative action.
Farage is wrong to think that it is positive, even anti-racist, not to notice a person’s colour. Colour-blindness actually works to conceal racism, ignore historical oppression and imply a meritocracy where none exists.
My children are four years younger than the Farage girls. They go to a primary school in north-east Leeds, where ethnic diversity is well above average. They know what race is and despise the unfairness of discrimination because of it. What is needed for a socially just society is not colour-blindness but race consciousness and anti-racist activism.