by MARK BONHAM CARTER
Readers of the Catholic Herald will not need to be reminded that in this postChristmas season, the message of humanity is goodwill. Institutions as well as individuals have a part to play in putting that message into practice — and among these institutions is the Cornmunity Relations Commission.
You may not know that under the Act of Parliament which created the Commission we are instructed "to encourage the establishment of harmonious community relations," and if you do you may well wonder what this means and how it is to be ichieved.
Both goodwill and harmony are easily said, but difficult to practise. Both are ambiguous words and I have no doubt that harmonious community relations have ex isted in societies which are flagrantly unjust.
In all probability, for example, Mr. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, is sincerely in favour of harmonious community relations so long as the black majority accepts the hegemony of the white minority.
If therefore the establishment of harmonious community relations in this country .is to mean anything, the harmony we seek to achieve must be consonant with the principles of justice.
So justice is an essential part of what we are after and what the C.R.C. was created to encourage. Justice means among other things treating people equally, irrespective of such essentially irrelevant factors as the colour of their eyes, hair or skin.
That would not seem an unreasonable objective, or one which it should be hard to attain. The world we live in.is rapidly growing smaller, and it is inhabited by people of blue and brown eyes, dark and fair hair, white, brown, black and yellow skins.
These differences are genuinely superficial, yet they have provided pretexts for hostility and conflict in a world which already has plenty of pretexts for both. One of the Commission's tasks is to see that these "pretexts" do not in fact become the causes of real conflict.
How do we set about this?
First we try to mobilise the goodwill of ordinary people up and down the country. Unless we can gain the support of individuals, nothing much will he achieved by governments. This, then, is the first priority and was the first priority of the C.R.C. when it was set up in 1968.
There are now some 80 community relations councils in areas of substantial settlement by people from overseas. These councils, which are voluntary, autonomous bodies, depend for their effectiveness on the support they receive from the people who live in the place where they have been established.
To do their job effectively community relations councils must not only mobilise voluntary effort, they must also be able to work effectively with local authorities. Many of the needs which they identify, many of the problems they encounter, can best be dealt with by the local authority.
Community relations councils have small human and financial resources at their disposal — their chief task is to identify needs and see that those needs are properly met. Many of these needs fall within the responsibility of the local authority, for others the community relations council may have to turn to a voluntary organisation, the local Citizens' Advice Bureau, youth club, Shelter or church.
But at the end of the road the way in which community relations develop in this country will depend on the way in which people relate to each other; on whether they treat each other as fellow human beings or prefer to classify individuals as members of groups, black or white, indigenous or immigrant, Catholic or Protestant. to which they ascribe common qualities, virtues or vices.
So first and foremost we are concerned with tackling public attitudes, with persuading people to see others as they see themselves, not simply as members of a classified group, but as individuals with particular per son alities, particular qualities, to be judged on their own merits.
The C.R.C. itself has, broadly speaking, two functions. It co-ordinates the work of community relations councils, offers them advice, disSeminates experience and provides them with finance to employ a professional officer or officers. It also has a relatively small sum of money — £75,000 in the current year — to support projects undertaken by local councils.
By mounting projects themselves, community relations councils can demonstrate how local needs can be met, and if they do this successfully the project may be taken over by a local body which can call on other and large financial resources.
The projects.initiated by community relations councils cover a wide variety of activities. Typical among these are setting up multiracial play-groups in our inner city centres, the teaching of English to Asian women in their homes by volunteers (72 of these schemes are now operating), summer projects to provide enjoyable and stimulating activities for the young during their summer holidays, etc.
But in addition to this the' Commission has a national role analogous to that which community relations councils perform locally. The Race Relations Act (1968) enjoins us "to advise the Secretary of State (Home Secretary) on any matter referred to the Commission by hint and to make recommendations to him on any matter which the Commission considers should he brought to his attention."
At present we are preparing a report for the Home Secretary on unemployment and homelessness among young blacks. On April 25, 1971, when the census was taken, it showed that 16.2 per cent of young men horn in the West Indies and living here between the ages of 16 and 20 were unemployed, in contrast to 8.1 per cent, the national average for that age group.
Moreover this figure is worse than it seems because the vast bulk of the West Indian population is living in areas of high employment. We hope to produce that report, together with positive recommendations as to how this situation should be tackled, early in the New Year.
In addition we have submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Select Cornmittee on Race Relations and Immigration on the various inquiries they have made into housing, the problems facing the schoolleaver, police/immigrant relations, and education.
What this. amounts to is simply this --the Commission has a duty to see that the needs of minorities are taken into account by the Government when framing policies and when putting these policies into practice. To do this we require the expertise to give that advice and so we have specialist sections dealing with education, employment, housing, social services, and youth.
These specialists not only lean on the Government; they also provide advice and support to community relations councils in the field. Secondly, we must be able to identify the needs of minorities which are neglected and bring them to the attention of central and local government.
The minority population of this country is small, about 2.5 per cent. of the whole, and their needs are not readily apparent in most cases either to the Government or to M.P.s.
Thirdly, we are asked to "provide course of training in connection with cornmunity relations." School teachers, policemen, social workers, immigration officials and others are con stantly in touch with members of minority groups living in this country.
Unless they have some idea of their backgrounds, of the difficulties which they face as a consequence of discrimination and prejudice, they will be unable to do their various difficult and important jobs properly.
To ensure that an understanding of the implications of living in a multi-racial society is part of the training of those who work with and for the public is an important task in which we are heavily involved.
Fourthly, we must never forget our central function, which is to work for improved community relations. We must be aware of the anxieties of the white majority, we must concern ourselves with areas of misunderstanding and friction. We are not the spokesmen or representatives of the minorities. Our role is to protect the public interest in general, and it is indubitably in the public interest as a whole that no group should he regarded as inferior or see itself as so regarded.
What matters most is that each person should receive the respect that is his due as an individual. Such is the only sure path to "harmonious •community relations."