31 March 2021

Time to bin the useless ‘BAME’ acronym

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A new report published by the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has unsurprisingly caused a stir – dominating mainstream news coverage and more politically-engaged sections of social media.

There are two particular strands to the report that I am delighted with – the dismantling of the crudely homogenising ‘BAME’ acronym and taking pseudo-intellectual theories of ‘white privilege’ to task.

The ‘BAME’ acronym finds its historical roots in the idea of ‘political blackness’, and is frequently used by many in anti-racism movements. As far back as the 1970s, left-wing organisations have sought to rally against racial discrimination in Britain by fostering feelings of ‘pan-minority solidarity’ in an effort to mobilise a ‘shared black resistance’. But even back then, there were dissenting voices in the anti-racism movement – including British intellectuals of Asian origin – who argued that such efforts were harmful for non-black minorities and gave undue prominence to people of African-Caribbean heritage.

If truth be told, the ‘BAME’ acronym which is most unhelpful when one considers the social, economic, cultural, and political complexities of modern-day Britain. It is guilty of lumping together a variety of ethnic-minority groups which differ in terms of social integration, socio-economic status, political attitudes, and cultural norms. And these individual ethnic groups are both internally stratified by social class and traditionally report major intergenerational differences on indicators such as social trust and democratic satisfaction. Consigning ‘BAME’ to the dustbin of history would be a welcome development.

But we mustn’t overlook the reality that racially homogenising terms such as ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ mask serious ethnic and cultural differences. Tying together Britain’s Black Caribbeans and Black Africans under a ‘Black’ label serves to conceal significant social and political differences. Compared to their co-racial counterparts of Caribbean heritage, people of Black African origin are far more satisfied with the British democratic system and more likely to hold a positive view on the condition of UK race relations. Migratory background and cultural factors come into play here – essentially a ‘frame of reference’. Britain’s Black Africans, a comparatively ‘recently-arrived’ section of the UK’s general migrant population, often originate from unstable countries characterised by rampant institutional corruption and bitter ethnic fractionalisation. Therefore it should be no surprise that they tend to have a more positive attitude towards British democracy and UK race relations.

Being of Bangladeshi and Indian origin, I can safely say that the term ‘South Asian’ has also become redundant – similar to the category ‘Hispanic’ in the US, which lumps together well-established Cuban-Americans with Puerto Rican migrants who have recently escaped the island’s financial and climate troubles. Putting together Britain’s sizeable Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi ethnic groups is astonishingly unhelpful from a social policy perspective. British Indians, who are considerably better-integrated and hold a collectively higher socio-economic status, do not predominantly originate from exceptionally deprived, lowly-educated regions in the Indian subcontinent (as is the case with Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities). In modern-day Britain, children of Indian origin are the least likely to live in a low-income household – with their peers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage being the most likely to live under material deprivation. But we should be wary of creating merged ‘Pakistani-Bangladeshi’ categories, with pupils of Bangladeshi heritage outperforming their Pakistani-origin peers on a number of educational metrics.

This clear need for ‘disaggregation’ is also needed for the white mainstream – which is far from being a hyper-privileged, mono-cultural, ethnically homogenous bloc in the UK. It is entirely plausible that much of the white British mainstream value education differently to Britain’s extremely successful Irish-Catholic population, where there are also relatively stable family dynamics and the Church maintains a relatively important role in communal life. But also, we should not overlook the plight of Britain’s Gypsy and Travellers communities, who are blighted by unstable family structures, poor educational outcomes and relatively high levels of criminal-justice involvement.

More broadly, too many coastal and former industrial towns have seen the collapse of the family unit and the atomisation of local communities. Research from the Centre for Social Justice found that children who experienced family breakdown were twice as likely to fail at school. Against a backdrop of substance misuse and alcohol dependency, responsible and inspiring adult role models are a relatively scarce commodity. And, starved of meaningful public investment for decades, their chronically under-resourced education systems are bursting at the seams. This is the story of predominantly white working-class ‘left behind’ coastal towns across Britain – whether it is Blackpool in Lancashire or Great Yarmouth in Norfolk.

What this tells us is that both the ‘BAME’ acronym and the myth of ‘white privilege’ have no place in social policy-making for Britain’s multi-ethnic democracy. Socio-economic inequalities are not solely driven by institutional discrimination – and this kind of reductionist thinking does not belong to much-needed discussions on fairness and opportunity.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent analyst in British public attitudes.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.