Race Matters

Racial disadvantage: are some Government policies contributing?

When Sadiq Khan was sworn in as the new London mayor last month, the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, said that the first Muslim mayor of any capital city in the EU could “pave the way for a ‘prime minister of colour’”. Dr James Rhodes says this appointment is a great leap in the right direction but understanding how Government policies impact on racial inequality is even more important


In January David Cameron asked David Lammy to lead a new government review into discrimination against black and ethnic minority people in the criminal justice system. Cameron was quoted in The Sunday Times saying that “if you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university’”. The PM stated that in his ‘2020’ agenda, he will work to improve access to universities, employment opportunities, and apprenticeships for black and minority ethnic communities.

For Cameron, the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic people within institutions central to the operations of society – elite universities, the police, and armed forces – should “shame our country and jolt us into action”. In response, he called for the need to not simply improve individual life chances but also to actively “tackle discrimination” and “be far more demanding of our institutions”.

While it is unclear how serious or sustained these policy commitments are, the very fact the question of racial inequality and exclusion is recognised as a political issue is to be welcomed. That these views came from a Conservative leader, a party which historically has been reticent to legislatively act to address racism and disadvantage was significant itself. Perhaps even more significant was that this intervention occurred within a purportedly ‘post-racial’ Britain, where explicit reference to racism and racialized inequality has been most notable by its absence from mainstream political discourse.

At a time when racism is often viewed simply as a relic of the ‘bad old days’ or as the preserve of specific ‘outlying’ groups and individuals, to hear, from the heart of government itself, that racial disadvantage is (albeit only potentially for Cameron) something ‘ingrained, institutional and insidious’ within society certainly marks a change in the tenor of recent political debate.

Cameron is correct to signal injustices within universities, the military, and criminal justice system. A 2015 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that black people in England and Wales were five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. Similarly, research by the Runnymede Trust highlights that black and minority ethnic students are less likely to be admitted to elite institutions such as Oxford University, despite possessing comparable grades to their white peers. For a society keen to present itself as progressive and meritocratic – at least in intent – the above remains an enduring barrier to the ‘equality’ that Cameron purportedly desires.

The PM is right then to point to the ‘institutional’ rather than simply ‘individual’, and the ‘insidious’ rather than atypical, nature of racial disadvantage. However, within Cameron’s account, racialised inequalities are identified in and outsourced to key institutions outside – and seemingly independent of – government. The PM’s commentary fails to reflect on the role of central government itself. Here austerity, the domestic ‘War on Terror’, and immigration and asylum policies for instance, are all central to the reproduction of racial inequality and disadvantage.

So while institutions such as universities and the armed forces should be working to ensure fairer practices and more equitable treatment of all members of society, they do not exist in a vacuum; indeed, it is central government that plays a key role in shaping the wider landscape within which institutions operate. Here, the dialogue and the decisions made shape both institutions and the lives of those who encounter them.

For example, increased rates of inequality amongst minority communities will impact upon institutional access and experiences, while the degrading of public services adversely affects those most reliant upon them for education, health, transportation, housing, and quality of life. If the government is serious then about tackling racialized inequalities and discrimination it has to reflect upon its own practices more critically.

Take austerity policies, for instance, perhaps the defining feature of the contemporary Conservative administration – these have had particularly harsh impacts upon black and minority ethnic communities, according to the Runnymede Trust. As groups that continue to be more exposed to socio-economic inequalities and more reliant on the reorganised or revamped and managerial functions of the welfare state, they are clearly more vulnerable to cuts to it. Indeed, historically the public sector has provided important provisions in terms of both services and employment for black and minority ethnic communities. The 2016 budget will similarly exacerbate existing racial and class inequalities through cuts to welfare, public spending, and a failure to tackle poverty. The Runnymede Trust has called for the government to conduct an Equality Impact Assessment with regards the impact of their own fiscal policies upon minorities.

The government also must think more critically of how it talks about issues relating to questions of race and disadvantage. The negative language used to label specific groups – be that in connection with ‘migrants’ or ‘Muslims’- has ramifications upon everyday and institutional experiences. So when for instance Cameron refers to ‘swarms’ of migrants, or when the government approves the use of vans bearing the slogan ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ to circle city streets as a public warning to ‘illegal immigrants’, this severely compromises the claims to equality of both newer and established minority communities in Britain. Research conducted at Warwick University into the impacts of the ‘Go Home’ campaign suggests that it served to harden public attitudes towards immigration.

Beyond immigration policy the detrimental impacts of the ‘Prevent’ agenda on the everyday lives of many Muslims in Britain have been widely noted. The 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has been criticized for placing a statutory duty on institutions such as schools and universities to ‘monitor’ student activity for signs of radicalisation. Academics and students have warned of the ways in which counter-terrorism policies are working to criminalise and marginalise Muslim communities within the higher education system. What is also interesting within Cameron’s intervention is the absence of any explicit reference to the experiences of Muslims or the existence of Islamophobia within contemporary Britain. This is despite the fact that research reveals the sharp and sustained inequalities that Muslims routinely face as well as the rise in negative stereotyping and hate crime.

Cameron’s interventions, then, are important in moving beyond a political juncture in which questions of racialized inequality, disadvantage and discrimination have too often been side lined. But, attempts to tackle this must place central government and its actions at the heart of any critical reflection and reform.

Government must play a leading role, not only in addressing racism and racial inequality through the demands it places on institutions, but also through a more critical reflection of its own policies.

Dr James Rhodes is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester. This article was first published on University of Manchester blog

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