Why we need to redouble efforts to address structural racism

The recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report is an attempt to derail effective action on racism.


Women In Technology


Analysis by the Guardian over the weekend and a report out today by the Resolution Foundation shows the pandemic has disproportionately affected young black workers in the UK.

The Guardian says more than 40% are unemployed – three times the figure for white workers of the same age. It says that before the pandemic, between January and March 2020, 10.6% of young white people were unemployed compared with 25.3% of young black people.

The Resolution Foundation puts the figure, based on data from the end of 2020, at 35%, which it says compares with a rate of 24% for young people of Asian descent and a rate of 13% for young white people. It adds that the unemployment rate of young black people during Covid has risen by over four times the rate of that for young white people.

The figures come after publication of the much criticised Government-backed Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report which fails to back mandatory publication of ethnicity pay gaps and refutes the idea of systemic racism. Its chair says in the foreword: “We no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.”

While the report acknowledges that “impediments and disparities do exist”, it says they are “varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism”. Instead it suggests that many are more to do with perception. It adds: “Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined,” says the report.

Since its publication several of those quoted in it have said their work has been distorted for the purposes of the report and even members of the commission itself have expressed concerns about the way it was slanted.

If systemic racism does not exist, then what is the reason for the disproportionate effect on young black people when it comes to unemployment or the disproportionate impact of maternal deaths for black women or the disproportionate impact of the Covid death rate on ethnic minorities or the many other disproportionate impacts we know exist?

Yes, ethnic minorities are not a homogenous group, but to deny there are broader structural issues at play when we look at, for instance, the senior leadership in companies and organisations surely goes against the vast majority of the evidence. I recall exploring the stats on higher education a few years ago when I was an education reporter. It was almost impossible to find a black British academic at a Russell Group university, particularly at professor level, although several had moved abroad to places where the curriculum was less narrow, positive role models greater and structural barriers fewer. I’m not sure an awful lot has changed in the meantime.

The same old ‘debate’

You would hope that we would have got beyond arguing whether or not racism exists by now, but we seem to have to keep coming back to the same old ‘debate’ because some sections of the community are simply closing their eyes and ears and are being actively encouraged to do so. This is despite months of Black Lives Matter-inspired protests where people have been recounting their experiences again and again in the hope that things will change.

It is clear how emotionally draining this is. The same thing happens for women. There is an outpouring of shared experiences and then defensiveness and backlash. It’s happening in schools too. People are fed up with having to keep telling their stories if the response is denial, obfuscation and political game-playing.

Is there any point in engaging with this cynical report? It is, after all, just a political power game, designed to appeal to a certain section of the electorate. Engaging with it just leads to time wasted debating whether racism does or doesn’t exist or to some sort of spurious argument about which countries are more racist than others which is again designed to block action.

Better by far to focus on uniting those who can see it for what it is, across the different intersectional divides and beyond. Politics is very short term and maybe the longer term is more positive. Young people are connected internationally nowadays. They are much less likely to read the traditional press which tends to trot out the same old, same old dressed up in various different, ‘modern’ guises. They are exposed to international culture and trends.

Nevertheless, to paint all young people as progressive is a mistake. The school uprising of young girls after the Sarah Everard case is testament to that – the level of abuse and attacks reported in schools is all too real – and certainly there are still a number of young people where I live who are still happy to indulge in racist abuse of their fellow students, no doubt spouting the views of their parents and/or grandparents, many of whom excuse racist comments as ‘banter’ and fail to understand the cumulative, corrosive effect of making someone feel stupid, ugly or lesser simply because of the colour of their skin.

The whole snowflake, anti-woke ridiculousness is designed to silence people, to try and make others think that it is the victims who are the problem rather than those who have bullied or attacked or undermined them. It’s a psychological minefield and it says a great deal about those in power in our country that every time we seem to move a step forward we are hit by an almighty backlash. They just don’t want to change, except in a superficial, tokenistic way. The important thing is to conserve energy and focus it on proper conversations rather than grandstanding political ‘debate’.

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