Meenakshi Sarkar, CERIC Postgraduate Researcher
Britain is a country where we despise prejudice, embrace equality and believe in the fundamental right of the individual to make the most of his or her talents in a free society. Yet all too many of us remain trapped by the accident of our births, our destinies far too likely to be determined by our sex or race; … our deeply held religion or belief make us lesser beings in the eyes of others. And far too many of us are still born into families without the material or social capital to give us the right start in life.
(Trevor Philips, Chief of EHRC, Foreword ‘How fair is Britain?’ 2010)
“We believe that how far you go in life should be based on your talent and how hard you work – and nothing else. That was the ambition set out by the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street in July 2016, and it remains this Government’s abiding mission to tackle burning injustices.
(Damian Green – First Secretary of State, Foreword, Race audit Report, 2017)
Race issues are not new to Britain. In the last 50 years, post-colonial Britain has struggled to keep the promise of equality to its ethnic minorities, many of whom came in the early 1950s from the so-called ‘commonwealth’ countries. These, Noah has quipped, are ironically named ‘as there was nothing common and the wealth was accumulated in one place’ (Noah, 2015).
So when on assuming her role as the Prime Minister of UK in 2016, Theresa May commissioned an ‘audit’ to tackle the ‘burning issues of injustice against ethnic minorities’ in the country, aspirations and eyebrows both were raised. The much hyped race audit report was released on the 10th of October 2017 and is disappointing in many ways. Firstly, contrary to what was claimed to be a ‘first of its kind’, this is a collection of the many government initiated and independent studies and the sixth such major report focussed on equality issues (or rather the lack of it) in Britain in five decades and unfortunately it does not tell us anything that we didn’t know. Some people have called the new portal on which all of these reports have been uploaded ‘a large drop box and ironically the government took 411 days to create the same’ (The Guardian, 2017). Various reports have been brought together under one portal which is a slight help but the data is dated and not customised to the purpose of the audit.
List of 6 major reports on ethnic minorities in last 50 years
||W W Daniel- Racial Discrimination in England
||David J Smith- Racial Disadvantage in Britain
||Colin Brown- Black and White Britain
||Tariq Modood et al -Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage
||EHRC: How fair is Britain?
||Cabinet office: Race Audit Report
From the titles of the reports mentioned above alone, it is evident that ethnic minorities in Britain are still at a definite disadvantage in the labour market and that Britain is ‘not fair’ after all. Have these reports made any difference in terms of how British policies and labour markets have responded in the last five decades and what difference will this new report make as Ms May has ‘vowed to tackle the issues of inequality’? Satisfactorily answering this question calls for a detailed analysis which is beyond the scope of this blog, but some relevant questions need to be raised.
In the 1994 PSI report by Modood et al, it was argued that Britain no longer had a Black and White divide, but rather a three way split which cannot be simply explained by racial discrimination:
With Chinese, African Asian and sometimes Indian people in a similar position to whites, Caribbeans some way behind, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis a long way behind them. Whatever the explanation for that layering of socio-economic positions, it is not simply racial discrimination. A more complex analysis is required (PSI ,1997:10)
The authors of the report further argue that many of the disadvantages and other experiences associated with minority status continue long after ‘naturalisation’ has been completed; and besides, the nationality laws associated with Britain’s former empire are far too complex for this to be a useful criterion. Thus skin colour is considered another option: after all, the majority group is defined as ‘white’, and some (or even all) minorities are often referred to as ‘black’. Colour would also reflect the fact that minority status is likely to follow from generation to generation, whatever changes occur in the cultural behaviour of the people concerned. On the other hand, colour cannot be used to distinguish between minority groups (for example between Caribbeans and Africans, or between Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis). So, colour as a criterion on its own fails to explain the differences within groups of same color and indicates a differential degree of discrimination. So is religion then leading to a double penalty for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis? There are enough studies to indicate the presence of a ‘Muslim penalty’ which affects labour market prospects of followers of Islam or even people with Muslim sounding names (Lindley, 2002; Khattab et al, 2011).
So what has changed in these twenty plus years?
It has been alleged that the groups which do not do well in the labour market must have human capital issues, such as poor English language ability and low qualifications. Thus, many ethnic minority groups including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Caribbean respond to this by putting their children in Higher Education. As evident from Tables 1 and 2 (below), the proportion of ethnic minorities with low qualifications has gone down considerably and the English language proficiency of all minorities have gone up. However, has that resulted in concomitant progress in the labour market? While the Chinese and Indians have definitely done well (even better than the white British population) and are more likely to be in professional managerial roles, the same cannot be said of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Caribbean people (Table 3). This questions the assumption of proponents of ‘human capital theory’ that the British labour market is meritocratic and also of politicians who think equal opportunity will ensure equal outcomes.
In fact, the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean men’s position in terms of being in professional managerial positions has deteriorated even further since 1994 (Table 3)
|Table 3. Job levels of men in professional managerial and employers roles
The persistence of gap in the labour market performance of these groups shows that there are factors beyond the control of people which affect the type of jobs and kind of roles they would ‘end up in’ and investment in human capital does not guarantee them the ‘good’ jobs.
Much has been said and debated about white privilege, but I would like to argue that like the ethnic penalty, white privilege does not come with the skin colour alone, but class and gender play a vital role too. Thus white working class men are less likely to be in university, or have adequate numeracy or literacy skills than those from white middle class and are worse off than Indian and Chinese middle class men in terms of being in professional managerial jobs. As far as religion is concerned, while there might not be any direct privilege accorded to Christians, there is definitely a penalty for Muslims which might put non-Muslims at a relative advantage. Additionally, while women in general have improved their human capital status across most ethnic minority groups, they are still less likely to be in senior positions and are still largely limited within elementary professions in care and services. Thus class, affiliations (Religious), gender, and ethnicity form what I call a ‘cage’, factors which one is born into and keep people’s potential imprisoned.
People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. This audit means that for society as a whole – for government, for our public services – there is nowhere to hide.”
(Theresa May, Prime Minister, 2017)
Yet another report, more data, much a do about nothing? Theresa May says ‘UK must act against race inequality’. This much is obvious, but when and how is the question that I am afraid no one seems to be having answers to at the moment, including Ms. May.