Standing outside of Number 10 on her first day as Prime Minister, Theresa May called for a Race Disparity Audit. Whilst it was highly commendable that the structural race-inequality question was once again coming back into Government focus, there was a fair amount of scepticism of what exactly it would tell us that we didn’t already know. But, perhaps more to the point, there was scepticism of how the Government would be willing to intervene given the decade-long policy of fiscal tightening, keeping taxes low, and more recently the preoccupation with Brexit? So what are we to make of the Race Disparity Audit published this week, and what should we lobby for to undo the burning race-inequality injustices?
To start with, it’s quite encouraging that the Government has sought to bring greater transparency by putting the many disparate metrics into a single portal. Not only does this give everyone access in one place (as opposed to being scattered in a multitude of reports across many civic bodies and university studies), but the fact that it’s a Government department which has effectively laid out to bare a revealing state-of-the-nation view does indeed give greater legitimacy (and urgency) to the cause.
That said, it is worth noting that statistics don’t have explanatory power in themselves to explain why things are the way they are. Hence, we shouldn’t simply jump to conclusions faced with seemingly stark differences in areas of public life, as unpalatable as they may seem at first. For example, in education, while 71% of Chinese achieve expected results, among white British people it’s 54%, and white Gypsy and Roma pupils it’s 13%. The fact that Gypsy and Roma pupils hugely under-achieve in education relative to others, may well be a consequence of the migratory cultural choice that these communities rely on for their cultural identity. The question, primarily, becomes then not necessarily of race-inequality injustice. Equally, there’s opportunity to benchmark against Chinese pupils which other communities could institute. Again, it may come to a cultural issue.
Home ownership is another good example. The proportion of White British senior managers owning their homes is 82%, which compares to only 55% among senior managers from other ethnic groups. But here’s the problem with this stat: it doesn’t normalise the contribution of inheritance and therefore doesn’t give a true measure of race-related injustices of today. That is, if the white population (broadly speaking) have been living on the British Isles for hundreds of years, it’s only normal to expect that, at a macro level, they fare better on a measure of home ownership. Not to mention, also, the disproportionate concentration of black and ethnic minorities living in major cities (as opposed to more rural areas) where property prices tend to be higher, so affordability is lower, especially with a lack of real-terms growth in wages in recent years.
Similarly, on unemployment, non-white ethnic minorities have roughly twice the level of unemployment as white people, across all regional and demographic segments. We know from other studies how morally-degraded attitudes lead to real race-inequality injustices. Most egregious is perhaps the mounting evidence of unfair discrimination that an applicant with a ‘foreign-sounding’ name faces, simply by virtue of their name. There’s also mounting discomfort among Muslim women applicants who forgo their hijab (head scarf) just so that they can be considered on the basis of their skills and passion they have to offer employers, and not have to worry about being judged based on the type of clothing they wear.
But at the same time, many have said that solutions remain elusive and of course no single policy can do it all, but, as I argue here, there are many policy interventions which the Government can quite easily institute. Some of which, arguably, may not need incremental spend. I’d even argue that these policy changes have the potential to kick-start wider positive impacts to social cohesion, productivity and cultural innovation, for a UK 2.0 that thrives as a rich, inclusive, cosmopolitan society.
For example, the government could introduce legislation that forces employers (private and public) of a certain size to ensure their workforces reflect diverse society and to make it a legal obligation to publish diversity audits each year. The Government could also institute into law, the recommendation in the Citizens UK report to introduce name- and address-blind applications. This links in well with a more hidden problem at the heart of race-inequality injustices: unconscious bias. There is no doubt, the Government needs to fund research to identify the prevalence and impact of unconscious bias in public life within organisational culture, recruitment, training and development, access to public services etc. etc.
To improve home ownership, the Government could increase the threshold for stamp duty, but, crucially, link it to affordability indices, and only for first time buyers in target areas, which could be quite easily funded by a small increase in the rate of stamp duty for high-end properties overall. The Government could also target housing vouchers to those on low incomes. Though, any intervention in housing, almost certainly would require an increase in the supply of new homes if we’re to avoid simply creating demand and therefore price increase, thus widening the disparity. And there’s a whole raft of other proposals in the Governments own briefing paper which can be implemented that may help.
Of course there’s so much more to say on this and for Government to do – I’ve only picked up on a few things for clarification. If we’re looking at this from a holistic point of view, Damian Green MP is absolutely right to state that addressing racial injustice ‘will require a concerted effort by Government, partners and communities working together.’ However, from a leadership point of view, it is very clear that we need far more intelligent and bold involvement from Government to break down structural barriers and institutional racism, to provide opportunities, and to institute nuanced policies that help level the playing field, rather than forcing people from black and ethnic minorities, as the Equality Trust called it, ‘to sprint just to stay still.’
Otherwise, the Race Disparity Audit risks being yet another report that has all the jingoism of hope – ‘build a country that works for everyone’, but fails, emphatically, to deliver any change. And with that, the opportunity to create a country that has the ambition of being the epitome of the world carrying the hopes and aspirations of millions of our own current and future generations could lay in ruin. That’s in no one’s interest.