May’s mirror reflects British society’s troubles
Well into the 21st century, in what is regarded as a progressive democracy, people can’t fulfil their potential or suffer abuse because they belong to another religion or ethnic minority. How can this be right or acceptable?
Theresa May, who is a prime minister under siege, deserves some credit for initiating a race disparity audit that has opened a public debate, but it has also exposed her government for not doing enough to improve equality. As May herself asserted, this exercise was one of “holding a mirror up to our society”. However, the troubling image emerging from this report has put the government, and to a large extent the entire society, under notice. The sorry state of race relations requires the government, in partnership with others segments of British society, to act — and act with a sense of urgency and purpose. It must be ensured that minorities are able to enjoy the same opportunities and quality of life as the rest of the population.
Nearly one-eighth (above 12 percent) of the British population is made up of ethnic minorities. For them, life in the UK means higher unemployment levels, less likelihood of owning a house, and that they are more likely to be poor and suffer from health issues. More generally, they face bias and prejudices that in Britain are ingrained in almost every walk of life.
Employment and property ownership represent two of the most significant socio-economic indicators of the status of individuals and groups within a society. Both the figures are strikingly worrying for the cohesion of British society: they reveal that the unemployment rate is 5 percent for white British but 8 percent for black, Asian and minority ethnic people of working age. Similarly, the audit shows that two in three white British households own their home, while in the case of ethnic minorities the figure is only two in five.
A further grave source of concern are the findings regarding the gaps in educational attainment between the UK’s different ethnic groups. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, higher levels of educational attainment are correlated with several positive economic and social outcomes for individuals. On the whole, highly educated individuals generally “have better health, are more socially engaged, and have higher employment rates and higher relative earnings.”
The picture of British education is mixed and is a cause for hope and concern at the same time. Pupils in several ethnic groups have been outperforming their white British counterparts — attainment among those of Chinese and Indian backgrounds is higher throughout their school careers, with impressively high rates of entry to university. However, the picture is very different for pupils from the Gypsy/Roma and Irish traveller communities, who are most likely to leave school at 16 with no qualifications.
Progress in education has been made among black ethnic groups but, nevertheless, black Caribbean pupils have fallen behind, while those from a mixed race background also made less progress than average. Considering the fact that education is a strong driver of economic success and social status, these figures should alert those in charge of the education system to invest more in pupils who fall behind in the early stages of their education.
The sorry state of race relations requires the government, and its citizens, to act with a sense of urgency and purpose to ensure minorities are able to enjoy the same opportunities and quality of life as the rest of the population.
Beneath the debate about the need for government and state institutions to adopt policies which are more aware of and sensitive to ethnic diversity, lies the deeper and more disturbing issue of racism within British society. While Britain is one of the most tolerant countries in the world, there is also an ingrained racism, including an institutional one. A recent survey by NatCen, Britain’s largest independent social research agency, found that 26 percent of respondents claimed that they are “very” or “a little” prejudiced towards people of other races. A number of years ago, a poll by the European Social Survey showed that almost 20 percent of Brits agreed with the notion that “some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent.”
Moreover, black people are four times more likely than whites to be stopped, arrested, charged and harshly sentenced, according to another report. In 1999, a judicial inquiry into the cold-blooded murder of young black man Stephen Lawrence by a group of white youths and the subsequent police investigation reached the conclusion that there was institutional racism within police ranks.
The government should be commended for commissioning and publishing this audit of racial disparities but, unless the report’s words are matched by policies, it is condemned to be another exercise in futility. Especially for the young among British minorities, there is a thirst to become truly integrated within society and free from disrespect and prejudice. This should require no explanation in a modern society, as morally and legally everyone deserves to be free of discrimination. However, since this is not as obvious to everyone as it should be, it is left for relevant laws to be enforced and for people to be constantly reminded that the condition of equal rights for each citizen and each human being is paramount for a healthy and stable society.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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