Britain Needs a Fresh and Frank Approach to Race


It is always a problem when public-policy positions freeze into an orthodoxy. Orthodoxies presume that we know the answer to difficult questions, which is seldom the case. Orthodoxies also fire up the prosecutorial instincts of zealots and, still worse, bureaucrats, which are morally repugnant. Orthodoxies are particularly dangerous when they infect policies that shape not just the rules of society but also its overall tenor.

This is exactly what has happened to the broad subject of race relations in Britain. An orthodoxy that was hatched by US academics and activists has taken over the discussion of race not only in British universities but in the civil service and the corporate sector. This orthodoxy rests on several fixed assumptions: that disparity in outcomes is evidence of discrimination; that racism is an all-pervasive force; and that the most desirable result of public, or indeed corporate, policy is not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome, either between ethnic groups or between individuals — an extraordinarily radical proposition concealed within the bland word “equity.” This orthodoxy has been gathering strength for decades but has now become hegemonic.

Bureaucrats who endorse this argument are given fast promotion up the career ladder, if they are permanent employees (one White senior civil servant is famous for carrying a copy of Robin DeAngelo’s “White Fragility” wherever he goes); if they are consultants, they are awarded fat contracts. Those who question them, such as Tony Sewell, the author of a government report on ethnic disparities, are given a monstering.

Which is why a conference held in Cambridge last week deserves some notice. Co-sponsored by two organizations dedicated to improving the quality of public life and discussion — the Equiano Project and Civic Future — it attracted some 130 people. Most of the attendees belonged to minority groups and were critical of this orthodoxy, or at least critical of the notion of orthodoxies in general. The meeting featured prominent US thinkers such as John McWhorter and Glenn Loury, of Columbia and Brown Universities respectively, and Paul Johnson, the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a respected UK research group. The aim of the conference was not so much to pick holes in the establishment but to put forward alternative solutions to recognized problems. 

Three arguments were particularly powerful.

The first is that race-relations are both complicated and dynamic. It makes no more sense to think of “racism” as an immutable force than it does to think of all minorities as being an undifferentiated mass, as in the unfortunate label BAME — Black, Asian and minority ethnic. According to Johnson’s IFS, Chinese and Indians in the UK often outperform Whites in education; young Black males from the Caribbean are three times more likely to be expelled from school than young Black men from Africa. Over the past two decades Bangladeshis in England have gone from performing significantly worse than White British in the state academic exams to performing significantly better.

The relative performance of different groups can often be explained by particular circumstances rather than all-encompassing “structural racism.” Pakistanis have suffered from the fact that many were brought over to work in a textile industry that subsequently collapsed. Bangladeshis have benefited from the fact that they are concentrated in London where the government of Tony Blair focused resources and ingenuity in improving the schools. Right now, the large numbers of minority women who work in retailing may be disproportionately affected by the proliferation of automated check-out counters. 

Such complex dynamics are cause for optimism: Minorities may well have to work harder because they face a wide variety of social and economic obstacles but there is no monolithic force preventing them from getting ahead.

The second argument is that policymakers need to shift their focus from what holds people back to what helps them get ahead. What institutions are changing people’s life-chances? And how can we reproduce them at scale? Focusing on structural racism and unconscious bias encourages pessimism at best and a culture of victimhood at worse. Focusing on what helps people get ahead encourages self-confidence and upward mobility. Katherine Birbalsingh, the headmistress of Michaela Community School in Wembley Park and reputedly the strictest teacher in Britain, encourages her pupils to recite W.E. Henley’s poem “Invictus,” with its concluding lines “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” The recipe for racial progress is not atonement but ambition.

The third is that Britain is not the United States (“Thank God,” many of the conference attendees added under their breath). The slave trade shaped America, particularly the South, more profoundly than it shaped Britain, though the UK is certainly not innocent. The ubiquity of guns also means that every encounter between the police and citizens is fraught with risk.

The British Conservative Party is much more minority friendly than the US Republican Party: not only is the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, ethnic Indian but his most likely successor, Kemi Badenoch, is the child of ethnic Yoruba parents. She spent some of her childhood living in Nigeria and declared, during her parliamentary maiden speech, that she is “to all intents and purposes a first-generation immigrant.”

Nobody should underestimate the power of racial prejudice or the continuing legacy of slavery and imperialism. Repeated studies of job applications show that people with “minority” names are more likely to be rejected. And repeated police scandals, particularly in the Metropolitan Police, show that the most reprehensible attitudes continue to survive. But it is precisely because race remains a problem (or a set of problems) that we need to encourage as much fresh thinking as possible.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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