On the subject of race, there is a strange convergence of views between the far-Right and the “woke” Left. Both are determinists and both deny the possibility of peaceful, consensual progress towards greater equality.
The far-Right starts with the assumption that differences of outcome between races are determined by inherited characteristics, above all intelligence. The woke deny this biological determinism, of course, but are equally fatalistic about society and culture: individuals may start off as equals, but those from ethnic minorities are oppressed from birth by a system that is inherently racist. Most people reject both camps; for anyone who believes in freedom of the will, neither form of racial determinism is remotely persuasive. Society is imperfect, but capable of improvement.
This intellectual hinterland is worth bearing in mind as the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities issues its report. Many on the Left will dismiss its findings as a whitewash; below the radar, the far-Right will do the same. Here on TheArticle, Denis MacShane shared his more nuanced but typically trenchant critique yesterday. The journalist and former Labour minister is unimpressed by the Commission’s recommendation that the term “BAME” should be dropped, as many of those to whom it refers (Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic) either don’t understand it or don’t like it.
MacShane is right that shifts in terminology are unlikely to make much difference and he recalls that past quibbles paled into insignificance compared to the prevalence of prejudice and discrimination. But he is less than fair to the review’s lack of more substantial proposals for reform. It provides a sophisticated analysis of British society and culture through the lens of racial and ethnic disparities which is valuable in itself. The fatalists of Left and Right are wrong to treat the Commission’s findings with contempt.
Tony Sewell, the head of the Commission and primary author of its report, starts from a refreshingly non-ideological and evidence-based outlook. His charity, Generating Genius, works with disadvantaged children of all ethnicities to improve their chances in education and life. Whether they are black boys who lack role models or their white counterparts who lack ambition, Sewell does not discriminate. He believes passionately that destiny should not be determined by race or class. In an influential article in 2010 for Prospect magazine, which was then edited by David Goodhart, Sewell argued that what held black students back was not “institutional racism” — a concept he finds dubious — but the decline of the traditional family, peer group pressure and “an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour”.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the investigation that he has led, following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, has concluded that racism is no longer the main challenge facing black and other ethnic groups in Britain. On the contrary, the report finds that British society is among the most open to talent in the world, with a dramatic improvement in educational achievement by minorities, plus a narrowing of inequalities in employment. One of the most striking statistics shows that 14-year-olds from ethnic minorities are more likely to aspire to go to university than white teenagers.
In education and to a lesser extent the economy, the UK “should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries”. Children from Indian, Bangladeshi and black African backgrounds outperform their white counterparts at school, while at work the pay gap between minorities and the white majority is shrinking; it is now 2.3 per cent. The Commission found that claims of institutional racism as a barrier to advancement were “not borne out by the evidence” and there was no evidential justification for “unconscious bias” training of staff.
While even in elite professions progress has been made, the review conceded that at the top of both private and public sectors, disparities were still evident. One example is the absence of a single black chairman, CEO or CFO in the FTSE 100 companies. Another is the fact that no member of an ethnic minority has yet been picked to lead the BBC, the Anglican Church or the Bank of England. The same goes for the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian. These and other bastions remain to be conquered, but the sense of “deep mistrust” among some minorities, “haunted” by their colonial past, remains a problem. The answer is not to encourage young people to consider themselves as victims, but to challenge overt racism wherever it surfaces — most obviously on social media.
The Commission’s rejection of the idea of institutional racism and victimhood is no whitewash. Tony Sewell deserves respect for his readiness to challenge the “woke” consensus and to place renewed focus instead on fostering freedom and individual responsibility in minority and majority subcultures. This will inevitably involve challenging deep-rooted attitudes and assumptions. While racism still matters and is deeply offensive to those who suffer it, in the Britain of 2021 it is, for most practical purposes, a distraction. The irony is that just as racial prejudice or discrimination is ceasing to be a major cause of ethnic disparities, the focus on racism in the public square is verging on an obsession. It is high time to change that focus in social policy towards issues such as family structure. To say that black lives do matter in Britain is not complacency, but common sense.
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