Some reflections on ‘ethnic disparities’

The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is a long, dull read, and it’s taken me three goes to force myself to the end of it. They argue:

“Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.”

Lots of public comment has beaten me to the punch, and I’m not going to try to give an account of everywhere it goes wrong.  There are four key problems with the line they take.  The first, quickly identified by Jonathan Portes, is the extraordinary definition of ‘racism’.

The Commission … proposes the following framework to distinguish between different forms of racial disparity and racism:
1. Explained racial disparities: this term should be used when there are persistent ethnic differential outcomes that can demonstrably be shown to be as a result of other factors such as geography, class or sex.
2. Unexplained racial disparities: persistent differential outcomes for ethnic groups with no conclusive evidence about the causes. This applies to situations where a disparate outcome is identified, but there is no evidence as to what is causing it.

There are only two kinds of racial disparity: those which can be explained by other means, and those where there is no conclusive evidence.

The second point was nailed by Tom Newton-Dunne, who obviously got through the report quicker than I did.  He identifies one early comment as central:  “As our investigations proceeded, we increasingly felt that an unexplored approach to closing disparity gaps was to examine the extent individuals and their communities could help themselves through their own
agency, rather than wait for invisible external forces to assemble to do the job.”  That is the report’s approach in a nutshell – it is only when one moves on to later sections that its importance becomes clear.  As I read through, with growing disbelief, the Commission’s readiness to condone stop and search by the police  – it’s not racist, apparently, but the poor police have become “society’s punching bag” (p.190)  – I had the strong sense that the message to minority groups had become: stop whingeing and behave  yourselves.

The third point rests in the definition of ‘institutional racism’, a term which is

applicable to an institution that is racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours in a single institution.

Some discrimination is direct. If people within an organisation are empowered and able to behave in a racist manner, there’s something wrong with the processes that allow them to do that.  The vetting of tenants, GP removal of list patients and adverse selection of job applicants are examples.   And if those processes are permitted to continue despite the evidence that they are working in a racist way, there is clearly an institutional problem.

Some discrimination, however is indirect – a term which exists in our laws, but doesn’t feature in this report at all.  If the system is not ‘deliberately rigged’, they seem to be arguing, it’s not racist.  Some processes can appear to be neutral while repeatedly producing disadvantage.  Processes such as exclusion, stop and search and the operation of the criminal justice system do that.  And that is  waved aside in a report that is determined to locate the source of problems in the action of individuals.

The fourth problem lies in their emphasis on finding ’causes’. If causes are complex, addressing them one by one is not an effective way of changing the pattern. If they are unknown, that’s no excuse for inaction.  The way into a problem is rarely the way out of it.

Lastly, a minor irritation.  This is a personal blog, and it’s hard to pass over a report like this without riding a personal hobby-horse.  Students, we read, “should be taught about all famous and important people in the society” (p.91)  Paupers, peasants, prisoners, soldiers and slaves aren’t typically famous.   I think it would do this country a power of good if students learned less about kings and queens and rather more about the lives of the people who came before them.

Leave a Reply