10 October 2017

How racist is Britain?

By Sunder Katwala

In her speech to Conservative Conference last week – between the coughs, splutters and interruptions – Theresa May attempted to describe a “British Dream” of aspiration and meritocratic advancement. It means, as she put it, “the son of a bus driver from Pakistan serves in a Conservative Cabinet alongside the son of a single mother from a council estate in South-West London”. 

The “Race Audit” data, released today, shows how that dream is not becoming a reality for many ethnic minority citizens in Britain. But the initiative is bold and right in its attempt to focus mainstream attention on the uncomfortable truths about inequality in our country today. It will also be the test of whether the “British Dream” is just a conference slogan or a genuine vision for a fairer Britain.

Children from ethnic minorities are clearly working hard and doing well, as shown by their school results and university graduation rates. But that may not be translating into the decent jobs, homes and standards of living that we would all hope should follow.

Stark and troubling findings – about mental health outcomes for black women and disparities for ethnic minorities in the justice system and in employment – will rightly shock the public and require a clear and urgent plan for change. If there is a ceiling on how high non-white Britons can go, even if they excel at school and work hard, then the PM’s vision will remain just that – a dream.

The Race Audit is an important first step towards tackling some of the worst of the “burning injustices” May referred to outside No 10 as she took the role of Prime Minister over a year ago. It is, by some distance, the most comprehensive study of opportunity and disadvantage by race, class and gender undertaken by any major democracy.

Indeed, it would be not just unusual but straightforwardly illegal for President Macron to emulate the audit in France, where there is a prohibition on the collection of official data by ethnicity. The principle is that of Republican equality – that the state of all citizens can have no business in categorising the citizens of France by their ethnicity and faith. In theory, this is good for equality, but that does not work in practice.

The British model is different. Just as this country was a pioneer in race discrimination and equalities legal protections, institutionalising this approach to regularly updating and interrogating the evidence could and should prompt action at ministerial level.

It would be wrong, though, as the authors of a letter to The Times point out today, to describe this as a “discrimination audit”. Their description of the Government’s approach to race inequality as “crude” itself risks being a caricature of what the Government is setting out.

Indeed, the Prime Minister’s main message, that “if these disparities cannot be explained then they must be changed”, explicitly highlights that not all disparities will be due to prejudice. Some, of course, can be explained –Britain’s ethnic minority citizens are, as a group, younger than their white neighbours and that will explain some differences. So will some cultural preferences and geographic clustering of minority groups, as well as unconscious bias of those assessing applications for jobs in top banks and law firms.

There is nothing to fear in the data. Shining a light on those areas where ethnicity makes a difference to people’s life outcomes, and looking to explain and address unfairness is exactly what a One Nation administration should be doing.

Some of the findings will make deeply uncomfortable reading. We should indeed seek an explanation why Black Caribbean boys are three times as likely to be excluded from school than their white peers. Others will be surprised to find that Asian trust in the police is as high as that of white British people, while Black Caribbeans are more sceptical. Findings that black men are more likely to be found guilty at crown court, with 112 sentenced to custody for every 100 white men, demand attention.

The same is true of white working-class boys being “left behind” and less likely to go to university than other groups. That finding could fuel a “competing grievances” approach to addressing unfairness in our society. Some will see the race disparity audit as proof that policy-makers are too sympathetic to minority groups; others will fear that mere lip service is being paid to ethnic minority disadvantage, while majority reassurance will always trump any real investment of political capital and resources.

Yet the audit offers a more productive way out of that cul-de-sac. The Brexit debate expanded our understanding of integration, revealing how parts of the majority white population can get left behind too. Addressing those concerns, alongside those of ethnic minority citizens, should be part of the same One Nation fairness agenda. The PM’s race audit sets out the scale and direction of the challenge ahead in order to realise that British Dream.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future