Discussing anything to do with race is an incredibly difficult thing to attempt at the moment. The rhetoric that currently saturates the airwaves makes the voicing of an opinion akin to walking across a minefield in a WW2 film. You know somebody is going to get blown up – you just hope that somebody isn’t you.
Nevertheless, I’m going to wade in, and I hope you’ll be gentle with me.
I’m not the type of person to point fingers. I tend to believe the best of my fellow humans and only react negatively when given evidence to the contrary.
Two things happened yesterday that gave me pause.
Firstly, we saw the release of a report in the UK by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. After nine months, this team of researchers stated that their evidence showed that the UK is “no longer” a system rigged against people from ethnic minorities. That the UK is not “institutionally racist” (though they were careful to point out that racism still exists), and that factors such as family structure and social class have a bigger impact on how individual lives turn out. They stated, effectively, that the UK is a “model” for race relations.
As you can imagine, the furore has been deafening.
Throughout the day, I saw a chorus of voices rail in disbelief at the sentiments expressed in the report. I saw the authors of the report forced to defend themselves, at some points losing their cool and responding by going on the attack.
My own thoughts are not straightforward.
I strongly believe in evidence-based research and I applaud the fact that the panel was, notionally, at least, independent. I also think that some of the points they make have merit. There’s no doubt that the social class (for want of a better word) you are born into plays a part in your chances in life, and that many complexities of the race equation are ignored in the emotive rhetoric around the subject. I also don’t believe that it is the job of a report such as this to worry about being ‘divisive’ as it has been labelled. The ‘job’ of research is to be accurate, not to pander to the views of any particular set of stakeholders.
But what the report seems to miss is the lived experience of millions of people of colour in the UK. It seems to suggest that if we were only fortunate enough to be born into the right household (and perhaps pulled up our socks a little bit) we’d all be elevated to the same level playing field as any other citizen of this country. This is not the life experience that many people from minority cultures recognise and thus I can understand, to a certain extent, the sense of scepticism and disbelief that has greeted the report from such communities.
The issue here is that the term ‘evidence-based’ is not a magic formula. The individuals you pick to carry out a project of this sort may enter into the work with conscious or unconscious biases. Thus, it doesn’t matter if some of the panel are ethnic minorities themselves. If they have come in loaded with preconceptions it can skew their perception of their task. The evidence they pick may be selective, and the data might be interpreted in different ways. I’m not saying that this is what has happened here, I’m merely suggesting how they might have arrived at their (controversial) conclusions.
Personally, the fact that the evidence this panel has chosen to focus on has been interpreted by them to mean that there are no structural problems in opportunity for people of colour in the UK is difficult for me to swallow. I come from a low-income background. Education helped me to climb out of that social setting and achieve relative success in life. But I do not for one second believe that every person of colour in this country could do the same. There are other factors (factors based on bias or prejudice, I mean) that can act as obstacles at every stage – from access to top university places for students of colour, to bias at interviews, to promotion prospects for people of colour, especially within the white collar sector. Many of these biases have been well-documented.
Approximately 13-15% of the UK population is from a minority background. That being the case we would not expect to see an even split between white and non-white actors across society. For instance, in the makeup of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But at present the proportions are far lower than 15% across most areas. This is one of the clearest indicators of a lack of equality in opportunity – and an institutional bias of the kind that the report states no longer exists.
I’m an optimistic person and I believe many industries are changing for the better, embracing the idea of diversity, not just as a basic requirement of operating in a modern society, but also as good business practise. In a globalised, multicultural world, consumers come from all races and backgrounds. If you want their custom, you need to show them that they are represented in your organisation.
The second thing that happened yesterday was the release of footage from the George Floyd trial currently underway in America. Watching the reactions across US media has been eye-opening. There seems to be a genuine feeling that this time something has to be done. The witness testimony of those in the store where George Floyd was shopping minutes before his arrest and killing indicates that they thought he might be high on narcotics and that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. They called the police. But, for anyone still in any doubt, Floyd’s actions do not legitimise the use of excessive force by police. He was not armed, and, once handcuffed, did not pose an immediate threat to the officers who had arrested him.
A simple thought experiment would be to place a white suspect in George Floyd’s car. Would Derek Chauvin have reacted with such force when arresting a white man accused of being high and passing a fake $20 bill? If you think not, then you are basically agreeing with those that suggest institutional racism in the American police – a bias that has possibly soaked into Chauvin over many years – guided his actions. I’m not going to try the case here or second-guess what was going through Derek Chauvin’s mind at that time. I personally believe that most police services around the world, including in the UK, have an incredibly difficult task in fulfilling their role with limited resources and in a climate of mistrust. Many brilliant policing efforts are ignored because they don’t make interesting headlines. Nevertheless, I would suggest that no criminal justice system can operate effectively if it cannot reflect upon its own shortcomings and seek to change for the better.
Last week, I re-watched A Time to Kill, an old film based on a John Grisham bestseller. A poor black man in the American south guns down two white men who raped his 9-year-old daughter, then threw her off a bridge, leaving her for dead. He knows he will never get justice in a southern courtroom and so decides to dispense his own. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), his white attorney, believing the case to be lost, appeals passionately to the all-white jury: ‘Imagine if this girl was white!’.
This, perhaps, is the best way for anyone who wants to understand what the fuss is all about to grasp the problem. Every time there is an outcry about racial injustice, try to imagine if the same could possibly happen if the actors involved were white. If you can’t, it means that something is probably wrong with the system.
I’ll finish simply by reiterating my personal belief that the vast majority of people – white and non-white – are good. Good in the sense that they are willing to take others as they find them, and to treat them as they would wish to be treated themselves. That is as good a foundation as any for us to work together to make the future a more equal place.