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Colourblindness fails to deliver race equality

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Runnymede director Dr Omar Khan on the UN probe into the state of race equality in Britain and the Government position

I’ve just returned from giving evidence to the United Nations about the state of race equality in Britain. The Runnymede Trust were in Geneva as part of a delegation of race equality organisations. Representatives of the UK government were there too, though disappointingly this included only civil servants and no ministers or elected officials actually responsible for policy.

We were all in Geneva because the UN has a Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, known as CERD, which was established as a result of an international human rights treaty in 1969. The Committee examines each country’s actual commitment to race equality every few years, and is due to give its’ verdict on the UK next Friday.

The British government has been making the right noises on the need to tackle racial injustice over the past year or so, raising hopes that we might see some action. It was therefore disappointing to witness British officials in Geneva fail to address the full evidence on racial inequalities across criminal justice, education, employment, health, housing and political participation.

This failure to present the full evidence on racial inequality is best characterized as a ‘colour-blind’ stance. For example, paragraph 20 of the UK government’s submission to the UN states:

“We believe it is a mistake to see inequalities only in terms of race and ethnic origin, since socio-economic status and poverty affect people’s chances in life, regardless of racial or ethnic background. We have therefore made a deliberate shift away from interventions specifically on the basis of race or ethnicity, and towards increasing the impact of mainstream policies and programmes for disadvantaged communities, in disadvantaged areas.”

Even where groups are more likely to be disadvantaged – for example the black boys who still experience disproportionate school exclusions and stops and searches from the police – is it really true that socioeconomic status explains why those black children are discriminated against?

Looking at the facts - the rise in hate crime; that people with Asian or African sounding surnames have to send in twice as many CVs just to get an interview; and that the Chinese graduates who perform best in secondary school experience the biggest penalty in the labour market –suggests that racial inequality is not reducible purely to socio-economic status.

Nobody denies that socio-economic disadvantage is a significant reason for racial and other inequalities in Britain, but it is worth remembering that the Conservative-led coalition government dismissed the need for a duty on socioeconomic duty in the 2010 Equality Act.

Runnymede published an alternative report to the UN Committee supported by over 70 non-governmental organisations and academics, which you can read here.

We criticised the UK government’s ‘colour-blind’ approach and recommended a comprehensive race equality strategy, first assessing the evidence on inequalities in every policy area, and then implementing and monitoring how it will actually reduce those inequalities.

As part of that approach, we urged the adoption of what the Convention calls ‘special measures’. These include any measures that directly tackle racial discrimination and inequality, and are required by Article 2 of the Convention.

This is why we suggested the UK government is failing to conform to this crucial human rights treaty. We recommended a Roma integration strategy as one example of such special measures, but the UK’s treaty obligations require it to consider such measures wherever ‘vulnerable groups’ experience persistent and widespread inequalities.

Prevent and counter-extremism was another key focus for UK NGOs. Committee members were particularly concerned about free speech constraints, and the wide, vague definition of ‘extremism’. In both of our official meetings with the Committee members they raised questions about whether Prevent was racially discriminatory and whether it constrained free speech.

Committee members were also particularly concerned about the rise in racist violence following Brexit. Our response noted the strong evidence for that rise, but also deeper causes for those attitudes and actions, including a lack of government leadership to directly challenge racism and promote anti-racism.

The case of hate crime is therefore another key area where race equality organisations suggested a different approach from that of the UK government. We recommended a more explicit focus on community support, not least given so few of the victims of racist crimes ever see their perpetrators convicted. Community organisations are often much better placed to support the victims than the police, especially over the longer term, and need further resources to do so.

It is tragic to read the action plan announced the week before we arrived in Geneva citing Race Equality Councils as a key vehicle for supporting people given that most of these councils no longer exist due to funding constraints and the government’s colour-blind approach which implied they were no longer needed.

To tackle racial discrimination in society, the government must not only provide effective criminal punishment to the perpetrators of racist violence, but also actively and comprehensively adopt an anti-racist education policy, including by better considering Britain’s past.

One way that the government has refused to engage itself or its citizens in a truthful account of our past is by refusing to recognise the UN Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), a key demand for many of the NGOs in Geneva including Runnymede.

We anticipate that the UN will express concern that the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has not yet been adopted into UK law. We believe the British Government should do this urgently, including the right under Article 14 for individual citizens to bring complaints to the Committee. After Brexit it is important that BME citizens feel their rights are protected.

CERD are also likely recommend the recognition of the UN Decade for People of African Descent; justice for the Chagos islanders; implementation of caste discrimination; better policies for tackling Gypsy, Roma and Traveller discrimination and inequality; and the need for a more strategic approach to tackling race inequalities.
While the UK government has among the strongest legislation in the world, the CERD examination process showed the gap between that legislation and the reality of continuing racial inequality in the UK.

The process also showed the value and importance of ensuring that civil society can play its role in supporting the values of non-discrimination and human rights, including challenging the UK government where those values are not yet a reality.

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