Racism is about now, not the distant past

Boris Johnson has ‘announced’, if that’s no too grand a word for a bit of a burble in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, an inquiry into inequalities.  I’ve found it intensely depressing that a powerful moral argument about racism and police brutality has somehow been diverted into a discussion of public statues. The slave trader Edward Colston died in 1720, three hundred years ago.  The focus on people like him is a poor substitute for addressing the problems now.

The diversion from the real issues reflects, unfortunately, a failure among many people who think of themselves as anti-racist to focus on what matters.  The dominant narrative in the 1980s tried to link  the explanation for all racial problems in terms of a combination of slavery, colonialism and contemporary racism.  I hoped and thought the debates had moved on since then: it seems I was wrong. The same narrative makes sense only for particular ethnicities.  The narrative says a lot about the USA, and quite a lot about people who came to Britain from the Caribbean; but it overrides the experience of other disadvantaged groups, whose circumstances just  didn’t fit the same pattern.

The first set of issues concerns slavery.  The dehumanisation and brutality associated with slavery is often represented as something that is distinctive to colonialism, but it’s something that has been widely practised in a wide range of other circumstances.  In contemporary terms, the serfs and peasants of the middle ages were pretty much treated as slaves.  Various types of serfdom were practised in Europe over eight hundred years or more; serfs were still having to redeem themselves in Russia in the early 20th century .  Let me pick up, for instance, the example of the 1351 Statute of Labourers (one of the major causes of grievance in the peasants’ revolt, thirty years later) which stipulated that “every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol until he shall find surety to serve.” This is not the same thing as a slave trade – land and property could not at that time be bought and sold.  But the staggering assumption at the root of this law was the assertion that everyone must have a master, and not having one constituted grounds for being taken and set to work. The lives of most people, in most places, were not their own.

Next, there is colonialism. A dogged Marxist might, I suppose, argue that it all boils down to money: empires work by extracting resources from one place and moving them to another.  However,  what money does depends on where it does it.  It seems painfully obvious that what colonialism or Empire meant in South America, India, Ireland, China and much of Africa was quite different.  The East India Company, a private concern, was based in trade leavened with piracy – it was not much like anything before or since. Slavery in the Spanish empire was characterised by degradation, inhuman treatment and chattel slavery, but it still didn’t look much like the system in the USA.  To my mind, the claim that any of this can be reduced to a common factor of ‘race’ disregards  the distinct history – and the pain – of people in the colonies and the conquered nations.

And then there is contemporary racism – what is happening now.  It’s clear enough that history plays a part in forming the condition and opportunities which shape the experience of disadvantage: the position of indigenous peoples, or the continued inequalities affecting people of Irish descent in the UK, are markers.  History matters, but it doesn’t matter that much. The kind of issue that should be exciting all our concern is not about a remote history. People who have some tenuous connection with foreign countries are being stripped of their rights.  The policy is, deliberately and explicitly, ‘hostile’.  Citizens are being expelled from their countries.    Migrants are left to drown.  People are being killed in the streets.

This is about the world as it is now, not as once it was.  This morning, David Lammy has been making a powerfully articulate case for government action about things that matter – among them,  policing, safeguarding people from minority groups and workplace discrimination.  We have loads of information, reports and recommendations for action.  Nothing is being done about them.

Institutional racism comes from ‘othering’, not just from hate. We need to recognise the dignity of difference.

Institutional racism has come, in Britain, to be understood as

the collective failure of an organisation to provide and appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.

Those words come from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.  The elements of institutional racism lie, not so much in the expression of direct or personal discrimination, as in the actions of institutions – acts, processes and the promotion of outcomes which are discriminatory.

Both the leading candidates in the electoral contest have been criticised,  with some reason, for making stereotypical or prejudiced comments about race.  Boris Johnson has made offensive comments about Muslims, women, homosexuality, Liverpudlians, Africans, ‘orientals’ and heaven knows what else.  Jeremy Corbyn is accused more often of condoning racism more than of making racist statements,  with the main exception of accusing Jews of not understanding British irony; but the racism he has appeared to wave aside includes accusations of conspiracy, divided loyalties, sinister influence and Holocaust denial.   I don’t think we can appeal for ‘zero tolerance’ of inappropriate comments, because – like going ‘back to basics’ in moral conduct – it asks more of us than we’re capable of living with.  Everyone has some prejudices,  even if we might hope that public figures would think twice before they gave vent to them.

We should be more directly concerned with about the levels of institutional racism that have been on display in both the Conservative and Labour parties.  Both parties have factions who want to deny that there is any problem.  Some right-wing commentators have  claimed that Islamophobia has been invented; Labour supporters often refer to ‘smears’ (itself a racist accusation, claiming that complaints are based on deliberate fabrication and conspiracy).  The Conservative leaders promised to hold an inquiry into anti-Muslim hatred, and have backtracked; Labour stands accused of  institutional racism and a toxic environment.  We need to understand the effect on institutions that is produced, not by racial hate as such, but by ‘Othering’ – painting minority groups, such as Jews or Muslims, as alien.  The damage is done not when we call people names, but when we accuse them of alien patterns of thought, divided loyalties, dishonesty and ulterior motives.  Those, rather than outright racial hatred, are the sentiments which lead to denial, rejection and the inability to deal with justified complaints.


A protest about women-only events: can’t there be safe spaces for women?

A stushie in Edinburgh, with accompanying Twitter storm, has exercised my nearest and dearest.  The Audacious Women Festival, as the name implies, might be assumed to have something to do with women: find their tweets at @awfest.  Some of the events are open to all, and some are single-sex events intended for women.  But the idea of a single-sex event has exercised a particular lobby, claiming to represent trans and non-binary people, who have called for a boycott.  Yesterday, Glasgow Women’s Library (@womenslibrary) pulled out of two single-sex workshops they were due to conduct, leaving sixty people without an event at 30 minutes’ notice. Edinburgh Rape Crisis (@EdinRapeCrisis) has pulled a book launch planned for Monday.  Reactions on Twitter have been mixed; it seems to me that more people have condemned the organisations than have supported them.

The offence that the Festival has caused is that the organisers have stuck to the policy on gender recognition advised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: more or less, that they treat people as women when they present as women (the statement has been misread by the Twitterati who don’t understand the purpose of the word ‘or’ in a sentence).   The call for a boycott was circulated by @ClassicsQueer, who holds that that policy excludes “our trans and nb sisters”. [“NB”, for those lost in acronyms, stands for non-binary.]   She attached a document saying this:

I would urge you particularly if you are a cis woman to boycott … A few weeks ago I reached out to them as I was concerned by the ‘women only’ rhetoric and was disappointed to find their response laden with transphobia.  I was told that the events were for people who are ‘publicly accepted as women’ and that they urge me and my friends to consider if other audience members will feel ‘comfortable with your personal identity’ before attending any events.”

Sisters Uncut Edin (I think the word ‘uncut’ is meant to be taken literally)  posted:  “We stand in solidarity with the trans, nb, gender non-conforming and cis allies who have called for a boycott of the festival.”  (Cis, for practical purposes, refers people who still have the gender assigned to them at birth.)  So, on the face of the matter, it’s not good enough to accept trans women as women, which is what the Festival does; there also has to be space for non-conforming, non-binary, non-females, or it becomes the act of a “#terf” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).

The first question to consider is whether it is legitimate to ask for distinct spaces for people of different genders.  The need for women-only spaces is recognised in equality law.  As a man, I accept that women need safe spaces; for example, as a social work supervisor with a student working in Women’s Aid, I wasn’t permitted to set foot on the premises.  Women’s discussion groups have long established the principle that the presence of men changes the dynamics of group conversation. Men, and people raised as men, are socialised to engage in discussion in different ways (and often try to dominate).  The rationale for making a distinction in supportive groups is that people from different genders have different life experiences, and behave differently as a result.  Trans, non-binary and non-conforming people have different experiences again – and have just as good a case for a distinct safe space in their own right; but that experience will not be reflected either in a men’s group or a women’s group.

The second question concerns the criteria used for inclusion and exclusion.  It seems to me that if trans, non-binary and non-conforming can be treated as a unifying category (and that, rather than trans inclusion, is the substance of the protest) we are not talking about conventional distinctions between women and men at all.  Some people extend that to include LGBTIQ+ – but that lumps gender together with sexuality, and in any case we are running out of alphabet. The issue is surely, if I can borrow a phrase from Jonathan Sacks, about recognising and valuing “the dignity of difference” – a principle which applies much more widely than the issues of gender.  But you cannot hope to rely on that principle for yourself if you deny it for others; and that, regrettably, is what the critics of the Festival are doing.

The third question concerns the boycott.  I’m baffled that the people demanding to be included can imagine that this is the way to pursue an argument.  Boycotts are exclusive; they stand at the opposite end from tactics of discourse, argument and persuasion. They are beloved by trolls and bullies.  The trans-activists who made this call are behaving like Men.  This is not what feminism looks like.

Scotland’s Racial Equality Plan is a model of good sense

The press reports on the Racial Equality Plan made me apprehensive.  They’ve been talking about ‘targets’ for minority ethnic employment in Scotland.  In the limited work I’ve done on minority groups, what came over was the diversity – the position, for example, of Filipinos, gypsy travellers and and people from South-East Asia  – and their relative isolation.  There are too many small, dispersed minorities in a society to make intervention by numbers effective.   I needn’t have worried.  The plan, advised by Kaliani Lyle, is exemplary, recognising the special pressures on particular groups (notably Gypsy Travellers)  but with the emphasis strongly falling on dialogue, consultation and engagement.   Things done well are never as satisfying to a blogger as things done badly, so I’ve not much to add.

Equal opportunity for werewolves

This is a little out of my usual line, but the story in yesterday’s Independent is so fabulous that it demands to be included.  Cristina Kirchner, the President of Argentina, has adopted a Jewish man to save him from becoming a werewolf.  Juan Peron extended the protection to women, and since 2009 it has been available to Jews; this adoption comes 21 years after his parents asked for him to be included.   The tradition carries some important privileges, including an educational scholarship, and President Kirchner has used the opportunity to promote harmony in different cultures.

The most direct way to improve health: more money

A new study by the Scottish Public Health Observatory has reviewed the potential effects on health of a series of interventions.  The effects on health are considered mainly in terms of mortality and the need for hospital care.  The measures in relation to incomes, cutting alcohol, tobacco or obesity, and encouraging cycling and walking to work.

Health interventions

The biggest benefits, by far, would be gained by the introduction of a living wage; the next biggest, though it is even more important for the poor, would be an increase in minimum income benefits.  Some of the measures they are being compared to seem restrained – a weight-management service rather than measures to reduce sugar, short-term interventions on alcohol rather than taxation by unit – but the size of the difference is so big that it’s unlikely to  tilt the table.

Quotas: another zombie argument

The Guardian reports that the Labour party is considering, yet again, introducing quotas to protect the position of women and minority ethnic groups.  This time it’s about the English judiciary, but whenever the idea of quotas is mooted, it’s generally intended to protect the position of disadvantaged groups.  Good motives, however,  do not justify bad ideas.  What the proponents seem not to grasp, no matter how many times it’s been shown to be the case, is that quotas are self-defeating – either ineffective, or counter-productive – a thoroughly bad way to respond to disadvantage.

First, quotas are exclusive as well as inclusive – they define who can’t be appointed as well as who can.  So, people from the ‘wrong’ minority ethnic group are disadvantaged relative to others from the ‘right’ group.  That is the source of a string of cases in the USA, notably Bakke and De Funis.  Second, quotas become ceilings.  Elster, in Local Justice (1992), compiles a long list of evidence that while quotas may initially help to redress the balance, they shortly become devices to stop the process of equality going any further.   Third, even before the ceiling is reached, quotas act to slow down the process of redressing the balance, deterring and limiting applications from the very people they’re supposed to help.

There are decades of evidence to draw on – that’s why quotas were made illegal in the Race Relations legislation of the 1970s.   But this is another of those ‘zombie’ arguments.  It doesn’t seem to matter how often it’s exploded, cut down, disappeared or  confined, it just carries on shuffling towards us.

Sexual orientation in the Scottish Household Survey

The Scottish Household Survey offers an accessible, varied picture of Scottish life.  It has lots to say for example about participation in cultural activities and ‘sport’ (which it confuses with intentional physical exercise – walking and dancing count as sports).

The Times‘s main comment was about sport of a different kind. They latched onto a particular table, which seemed to them underestimate the numbers of gay, lesbian and transsexual people.   “Asked about sexuality, 98 per cent of respondents defined themselves as ‘heterosexual/straight’ with only 1 per cent saying they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.” Despite what the newspaper supposes, that’s reasonably consistent with a series of other findings from similar surveys.

This was one of the Scottish Government’s ‘core questions’.  The doubts of the LGBT groups focus on the low numbers of people specifically identifying themselves as gay. The problem seems to me to lie not in mis-reporting, but in the focus on ‘orientation’ rather than what people actually do. Is no-one out there celibate? Isn’t there anyone who’s just not very interested? In a society where nearly 40% of households are headed by single adults, it seems that people are being asked to classify themselves in terms of relationships they don’t actually have. This is a very strange way to define someone’s identity.

Empowering women

The World Bank has just issued a new report, Empowering Women, which reviews the legal rights of women in sub-Saharan Africa. The report is listed as being for sale from 15th October, but most World Bank reports are also available as a free PDF and I found the link here, in a 6 Mb download.

The report focuses on laws that establish the framework for other rights, including marriage and divorce, inheritance and property rights. The findings are depressing, though perhaps not as depressing as the book’s publicity suggests. The positive elements are that 45 out of 47 countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and if 21 out of 47 subject women’s rights to the authority of a head of household, that should mean that 26 don’t. The Appendix listing court cases also point to many examples of women’s rights being upheld or extended. The authors note, though, that the effect of common law, dual legal systems and the gaps between theory and practice all work to limit women’s rights, and that the effect of formalisation (e.g. in Kenya) may well be not to extend protection but to institutionalise disadvantage.

Scottish travellers

Gypsy/travellers are the minority group most discriminated against in Scotland. In a report published today by the Scottish Parliament, the Equalities Committee describes the findings as ‘deeply shocking’ and describes its reaction as ‘horrified’ and ‘appalled’. The work I do doesn’t often bring me into direct contact with travellers, but I did do some work in Aberdeenshire in 2004 which gave me the opportunity to talk directly with travellers about their situation. One of the women said what it’s like: “you’re a floor they can dance on.” The travellers talked about rampant racism, discrimination in services, harassment and lack of protection by the police – “we’re just a puckle of tinkers to them”. It’s good to see some public attention, but depressing to see so little progress.