Published in The Times Magazine

Standing in Wolverhampton bus station on our final day of school in 1995, my best friend James Lockley and I made a deal: neither of us would ever willingly choose to set foot on a West Midlands bus ever again. We’d each taken four a day, to and back from school, for seven years, dodging muggings, fights, accidents and fires in the process, while fellow pupils from less rough parts of town were picked up by parents in Mercedes and Range Rovers, and we’d had enough.

Sitting on the 54 to Bilbrook at dawn some 20 years later, I find myself wishing, intensely, James had had the chance to fail with me. He passed away too young, in his early twenties. And twisting past the Goodyear factory where my father worked in the Seventies, the sewing factory where I was employed as a child labourer in the Eighties, and the streets I used to walk down to see James in the Nineties, I realise that his passing is probably why I’ve avoided this part of town ever since.

What has finally brought me back here, at the age of 38? Well, I’m spending a day with the bus drivers of Wolverhampton to get a sense of the state of race relations in Britain. I’ve tiptoed around the subject in recent years, and have reluctantly succumbed to a suggestion that I explore the issue at length. And there’s no better prism through which to view the issue of race in Britain than the bus drivers of Wolverhampton.

You see, my home town was one of the first towns in Britain to experience mass immigration in the 20th century, my family among the thousands of West Indians and Punjabis who came to the Black Country to staff factories in the Fifties and Sixties. And their battle for equality became focused around the case of bus driver Tarsem Singh Sandhu, who in July 1967 returned to work after a three-week illness sporting a beard and turban.

Since both were forbidden by Wolverhampton Transport Department, Sandhu was deemed to have broken the terms of his employment. The subsequent dispute, taken up by the Indian Workers Association, led to people on both sides threatening to set fire to themselves in protest, resulted in tens of newspaper and TV journalists visiting Wolverhampton to produce items on what was seen as one of the first British cities to fall victim to the race wars raging in America, and had academic David Beetham arguing in Transport and Turbans that the dispute ultimately “contributed to the climate of opinion” that led to local MP Enoch Powell making his racially incendiary Rivers of Blood speech in April 1968. And no conversation about race in Britain is complete without a mention of the Rivers of Blood speech.

Not that there is any sign on the bus of the “dangerous fragmentation within society” that Powell suggested the Sikhs were instigating. My driver and guide for the day, 51-year-old Balvinder Swali, sports the most extravagant beard and turban this side of Amritsar, and greets Sikh passengers in Punjabi, but everyone gets a cheerful Black Country “Alroit”. He maintains banter with a white colleague along the way, and the vast majority of passengers say thank you as they get off, as rarely happens in London.

However, the picture doesn’t remain rosy through the day. Almost every ethnic driver I talk to in Wolverhampton’s National Express depot complains of receiving racial abuse from passengers, and not being able to respond in turn (“Yow used to be able to just twat ’em back”), with Swali’s turban and beard regularly attracting the theologically confused taunt of “Osama”. In Wolverhampton bus station canteen, the white, Asian and black drivers sit in distinct groups, often talking their own languages and eating their own food. And bleakest of all is how the black and Asian drivers, who seem to make up more than half of the workforce (National Express were unable to proffer figures), talk about their children’s prospects in Britain.

Swali, a second-generation immigrant who was born in the town in 1964, has four kids, for instance, and says in his heavy Black Country accent that he worries that the job market is “not completely equal” for them because of their race. His 45-year-old colleague, Jasvir Bassi, who remembers not getting served in local pubs as recently as 1991, frets about the racial discrimination his two children, a 23-year-old son in his fifth year of training as an architect and a 16-year-old daughter, will face despite their academic excellence: “If you have a certain skin colour, certain jobs are closed off to you.” Then there is 50-year-old Balkar Singh Duhra, a driver of some 24 years, who is so depressed by his own prospects (“There are hardly any Indian managers on the buses”), and the prospects for his two children, a 39-year-old dentist son and 21-year-old student daughter, that he is thinking of joining the former in Australia. “People in Britain basically think English people are better than us. Things [in terms of race] are getting worse.”

There’s no shortage of data to back up the idea that there might be a glass ceiling in Britain when it comes to race. Britain’s 8 million or so people belonging to ethnic minorities may make up 14 per cent of the population, with some estimates predicting that so-called BAME (black and minority ethnic) communities will account for 20 to 30 per cent of Britain by 2051, yet they barely exist on the boards of public companies, with 62 per cent of FTSE 100 boards being all-white and only 5.25 per cent of board members being from ethnic minority groups, and Race for Opportunity reporting in 2014 that just one in 16 top positions across the economy goes to people of colour.

But some sectors are worse than others. In February this year, the Runnymede Trust found that of the country’s 18,500 professors, only 85 are black and only 17 are black women, and that it is more difficult for black and Asian students to get into Britain’s most selective universities even if they have the same grades as their white counterparts. There are just 27 BAME MPs in parliament, when a figure of 117 would more accurately reflect reality. Then there is my chosen field of the media, where, according to a 2013 NCTJ report, 94 per cent of journalists are white.

Not that I noticed the almost total whiteness of my industry until recently. My home town may be 27.5 per cent ethnic, and I may have attended a state primary which was minority white, but I barely even registered the issue of race in my teens and twenties. If you’d asked me about racial inequality when I started out, I probably would have mumbled that it was a thing of the past. I’d been surrounded by lovely white liberal middle-class people at Wolverhampton Grammar School, Cambridge University, and then at The Financial Times, had progressed with ease, and, solipsistically, had no reason not to believe the best.

But, looking back, I was kidding myself. The progress hadn’t been easy at all: many of my Anglo-Saxon contemporaries had drifted into jobs, but I’d worked insanely hard, toiling up to 90-hour weeks in fast food joints and factories and applying for more than 200 jobs in the media, only to just scrape through when offered three interviews in return. I’d been wilfully blind to shocking racism in my home town even within my lifetime, with major civil disturbances, for instance, provoked by football supporters wearing KKK style hoods in 1978, and a colour bar still operating in some Wolverhampton working men’s clubs as late as 1984. And in this Pollyanna-ish manner I’d also chosen to overlook my own experiences of racism.

Accepting all this was a long and slow and painful process, and the penny only really dropped in my thirties when I took a girlfriend, who worked at an international law firm, to a work party and she observed as we left, that every single person in the room, apart from us, and the waiters, was white.

Once I started noticing, I couldn’t stop noticing. Why was it that my only ethnic friend from primary school, who was at least as academic as me, was now working for the minimum wage around the corner from where we grew up? Most of the black and Asian people I’d attended school with weren’t exactly thriving. And then there were all the brilliant black and Asian people I’d met in London, who, one by one, were dropping out of British corporate life: the wildly talented Oxbridge-educated Asian woman who was for a while the only person from an ethnic minority group in the leadership team at one of Britain’s biggest companies, but who got so fed up with the lack of progress and being confused with secretaries and cleaning staff that she downsized; the brilliant Indian academic who worked for several years at a British business school, but, tiring of the fact that the management team was entirely white and refused to change, left to earn more money in India; the handful of black and Asian journalists who, one by one, left to do other things.

It was upsetting to accept that while Britain had embraced itself as ethnically diverse at the London 2012 Olympics, it remained, at the top, a white man’s game. Not that I did or said anything about it. I’ve never been a campaigner, am not left wing, and am certainly not politically correct. And I’ve since realised that silence is a common coping strategy among the few ethnos who break through the glass ceiling. In talking about race, you risk undermining your own achievements by attracting the allegation that you yourself are some kind of token, or risk being seen as a whiner, a phenomenon that was corroborated by a recent study by the University of Colorado, which found that women and people of colour who campaign for greater diversity at work are rewarded with lower ratings in their performance reviews, while white men who push for diversity experience the opposite.

Eventually I found a constructive outlet for the frustration in becoming a trustee, and then chair of Creative Access, a media charity that pays for students from black and Asian backgrounds, who in many cases are also comprehensive-school educated, to get their foot in the door at media companies. But as I have gone about talking to executives and students, and occasionally writing about it, I’ve come to another realisation about race in Britain: it is almost never discussed.

Which is not to say that race does not regularly make headlines in Britain. British tabloids love a xenophobic front page, and there are regular race “scandals” with celebrities being caught using the N word or P word or whatever. But these “debates” almost always involve white people arguing what is and is not racist, and usually revolve around language, not policy or power. For most part, as a nation, we go about acting as if, as Nigel Farage has claimed, racism is a thing of the past.

The factors that have led to this are deep-seated and complex and I could write a book listing them, not least how the extent of problem remains unclear because companies are under no legal obligation to measure numbers; ethnic diversity doesn’t feel relevant as an issue for large swathes of Britain because just three UK cities (Greater London, Greater Birmingham and Greater Manchester) account for around 50 per cent of the total BAME population of England and Wales, and the success of a couple of ethnic groups in a few areas has led to the delusion that racial equality has been achieved.

However, the single thing that has done most to suffocate discussion about race is the poisonous connection made between anti-racism and “political correctness”, which has recently been blamed for everything from grooming in Rotherham, where fear of being branded racist undoubtedly had a crippling effect, with staff failing to confront sex abuse of white girls by groups of mostly Muslim men, to Jeremy Clarkson being let go by the BBC for punching a colleague. But those who use the phrase “political correctness gone mad” in relation to any mention of race aim to do exactly what they accuse proponents of political correctness of doing: they want to shut down all conversation.

Trevor Phillips was right to argue in March that, “People should feel free to say that many Jews are rich and powerful, or that black people are more likely to be convicted of robbery, because both are true … without the fear of being accused of racism or bigotry.” I have no problem in hearing that there are issues of misogyny within the Indian community, or that the British Muslim community in the north needs to take some responsibility for rooting out groomers. You could even use words like Paki or wogs as you discuss these issues, if that’s kind of language you prefer, as long you also acknowledge a plethora of racial inequalities at the same time, not least that Britain imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than the US, that most children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks in England are black or Asian, that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, that unemployment among minority ethnic young people is more than twice as high as among white people of the same age, that almost half of all Bangladeshi men work in restaurants, that 24 per cent of Pakistani men are taxi drivers, and that BAME workers make up a disproportionate proportion of the underpaid.

I realise the gap between those who sympathise with these arguments, and those wildly hostile, is colossal. Indeed, I was going to say that the divide reminds me of a line in a recent Economist theatre review that stated: “White people want to believe racism is behind them, whereas black people know it pervades their days.” But I actually think the gap is much more profound than that. Not only does white Britain want to act as if racism is defeated, it often acts as if it is the real victim of racism. Retiring MP Ian Swales recently stated as much when he claimed he was not running for re-election in large part because no one could succeed unless they were women and people of colour (even though white men like him make up a disproportionate majority of membership), while researchers from Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School observed it in the form of a study that found that self-described white Americans believe they have “replaced blacks” as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.

I understand why and how such feelings must arise. When race is only ever discussed in the petty terms of language and political correctness, you’re going to feel that it’s a petty issue. Some people sometimes complain of racism too easily, something several bus drivers I met acknowledged, with two black drivers, Alex Spence and Michael Lewis, arguing that the “race card is played too easily”, at the same time as worrying out loud that “You have to try four times harder than white people” to succeed as a person of colour. But it has still been depressing to discover that even some liberal equality campaigners are reluctant to recognise race, not least the 30% Club, the pressure group for women on boards, whose founder, fund manager Helena Morrissey, has gone out of her way to object, repeatedly, to the 2020 Campaign, which aims to inspire those who lead Britain’s FTSE 100 companies to ensure that there are no all-white boards by 2020, arguing that “setting more and more targets for companies, however well-intentioned, just leads to gridlock and possibly resentment”, even though she herself has set up a pressure group to promote targets.

Quite often, this aversion to acknowledging race is expressed as an aversion to positive discrimination, which is seen as unmeritocratic. But I don’t know of a single campaigner or organisation advocating positive discrimination in 2015 – we haven’t, as a nation, even learnt how to talk about race yet, let alone started coming up with solutions. Those who argue against quotas ignore the fact that the UK has for centuries had a quota system in place, that mindlessly lavishes all power upon privately educated white men.

According to the Sutton Trust, independent schools educate just 7 per cent of the population, but account for 71 per cent of senior judges, 36 per cent of the Cabinet and 26 per cent of BBC executives. Less than 1 per cent of people go to Oxbridge, and yet Oxford and Cambridge account for 75 per cent of senior judges, 50 per cent of diplomats and 47 per cent of newspaper columnists. Incredibly, one in seven judges went to just five independent schools: Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse or St Paul’s Boys.

I sometimes suspect that the reason I made it, when most of the Asian people I grew up with haven’t, is that I do a pretty good impression of being one of these men: attending a private school on an assisted place taught me how to talk like the white middle classes, while Oxbridge taught me how to behave around the ruling classes.

At the establishment level, equality doesn’t persist because of crude racism. It persists because posh white men keep doing favours for posh white men. It is nepotism that stops women, people of colour and the working classes from progressing. Would my late mate James, as the son of a builder and a dinner lady, have faced a glass ceiling? Yes. The white working classes are as rare a sight in the upper echelons of British life as ethnic minorities. And the reasons to promote racial equality are the same as the reasons the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has cited for its cause: it would reduce “group think” at the very top; it would increase the legitimacy of certain professions, and the subsequent promotion of talent would benefit Britain’s economy.

This last point, the business case, is what motivates me to continue talking about race, even though doing so probably damages my own prospects and I could do without the abuse that comes my way when I do. And if you want to see how Britain could benefit from sorting out its problems with racial inequality and social mobility, you could do worse than take a bus ride around Wolverhampton. I know the city is a national joke, with the Lonely Planet guide recently branding it the fifth worst city on the globe, alongside San Salvador and Detroit. But in one way Wolverhampton is pioneering: it went through the experience of mass immigration years before most of the country, and therefore provides some important lessons.

Of course, I see no shortage of negative reminders of what remains a painful history as I drive around town, going past the road where thousands of Sikhs gathered to protest in defence of Sandhu, the Working Men’s Club that, the day after Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, voted to keep coloured immigrants out under any pretext, either as members, visitors or visiting artists, the house that in August 1965 150 white people attacked just because it was occupied by Jamaicans, the hall where in 1969 Enoch Powell justified plans for a ministry of repatriation.

But near the end of the 54 route, there is the i54 business park, where most of Swali’s passengers alight. It’s the home of the gleaming new £500 million Jaguar Land Rover engine factory, officially opened by the Queen last October, and visited recently by everyone from Vince Cable to Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. With JLR being a British exports success story, producing some of the most innovative and desired cars in the world, the plant is rightly the pride of my home town, and the West Midlands. Though the company is owned by Tata, of course, an Indian conglomerate, and is run by a rather ethnically diverse management team. Bloody darkies, eh, coming over here and reviving great British brands and creating thousands of jobs in the process.