30 August 2022

Time to stop arguing about racial equality and take action


A little less conversation, a little more action. It might be that Elvis had the right prescription for a more constructive agenda on race. The Conservative leadership race has highlighted both the increasing presence of ethnic diversity at the top, and a growing partisan rift over the politics of race. But a new book from thought leaders across the political spectrum, published today by thinktanks Bright Blue and British Future, suggests a way through – moving beyond polarised arguments about language to actions that would make a difference to addressing inequalities.

For many people race can feel like a difficult topic to discuss. There are growing differences about the shifting language of race, across groups and generations. But there is potential for consensus around proposals for what should happen in practice to promote race equality and fair chances.

Ethnic minority and white Britons have different experiences of Britain’s increasing diversity. For many white Britons, especially those who are older, the pace of change has felt fast. Migration and diversity have increased, accompanied by significant progress in efforts to reduce racism and prejudice. For ethnic minority Britons, an acknowledgement that there has been some progress over the generations is more often combined with the view that it has been too slow, with a need to speed up change rather than to focus on how far we have come.

The Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests had broad support and approval from ethnic minority Britain. Two thirds were supportive of the protests, rising to eight out of ten of the Black British population, and broad majorities across other minority groups. About half of the white majority population was supportive, with a fifth critical, and a quarter on the fence.

Yet differences in attitudes towards race are not simply between majority and minority groups. There are also significant differences by age, education and geography within both majority and minority groups. To see this, ask a binary question: ‘Is Britain systemically racist?’ Among white Britons, 28% say yes and 40% no. Among minorities, the balance is flipped: 43% believe the country is systemically racist, while 26% do not. Those are significant differences. But they apply across age as well as ethnic divides: a plurality of younger white Britons does see Britain as systemically racist, while a plurality of ethnic minority over-55s disagrees.

While instincts about how to talk about race differ, it is possible to command a broader consensus when the agenda for change becomes practical. So the expert contributors to the new publication, An agenda for action, make specific and actionable policy proposals that can make a difference to people’s lives and also command popular and political support.

The public has an appetite for stronger action on hate crime, including on social media. It also wants to tackle the bias in recruitment for jobs, and expects to see Britain’s growing ethnic diversity at the top table of major institutions. Ironically, given the focus on culture wars over statues, Britain’s history of race is also the subject on which there is the broadest potential inter-ethnic consensus of all. A proposal to ‘Ensure the history of race and Empire, including its controversy and complexities, is taught in schools,’ commands the support of three-quarters of white British and ethnic minority respondents.

This contrast was reflected in the extraordinary level of polarisation in the debate about the Sewell Report in the Spring of 2021. Both the Government and its critics embarked on mutual recriminations over the perceived bad faith of their political opponents, each accusing the other side of ignoring the evidence, either about the progress made in Britain or the persistent discrimination that remains. This binary public argument often crowded out the nuanced reality. The story of opportunity and outcomes on race has never been more complex, not just across ethnic groups, but by age, education, geography and gender within them.

Ethnic minority voters can expect a rising share of attention in the years to come. There will be a larger number of ethnic minority voters, more geographically spread out over time as the suburbs become more diverse as well as the inner cities. There are likely to be more ethnic minority swing voters too. Labour maintains majority support across ethnic minorities as a whole, by a margin of around three to one across groups. Around a quarter of ethnic minorities lean right politically and the Conservatives are advancing with some minority groups, such as British Indians. Contrary to the media image, ethnic minority Conservative voters have much more appetite for action on race equality than a ‘war on woke’.

Whether race unites or divides will depend on how the public conversation is led. We will lose opportunities for progress if the opportunity is derailed by a polarised ‘culture war’ between young and old, where our major parties each pick a side and speak only to one social tribe, rather than seeking common ground. Placing more focus on what to do, as well as how we talk about race, offers the opportunity to attempt a more constructive public conversation. The challenge for those seeking common ground is to increase the salience of how we act on race, as well as how we talk about it.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

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