The government has routinely attacked 'identity politics' – yet Boris Johnson's diverse cabinet is often held up as a beacon of representation. Journalist and former Ethnic Minorities Officer of Warwick Students' Union Taj Ali points out this contradiction, and argues that Johnson's government must prioritise economics over optics.
Last month, Equalities Minister Liz Truss announced an ‘overhaul’ of equalities work in the UK. She lamented what she referred to as the focus on “fashionable” issues like race and gender and promised to focus more on social class. The attempt to counter-pose race and class as if they are mutually exclusive and not intrinsically interlinked is deeply problematic – since ethnic minority communities are disproportionately working-class. There is an implication here from Truss that by focusing on race issues, class issues have been neglected. But the reality is that the government has done nowhere near enough to support racial equality or improve social mobility either.
Liz Truss also hit out at 'identity politics' in her speech – rhetoric which has been echoed by many government ministers in the past few years. It is ironic that a government that derides “identity politics” often uses identity politics itself to avoid accountability and criticism. Whilst the government pats itself on the back for having the most diverse cabinet in British history, ethnic minority communities continue to face extensive and persistent economic inequalities in the criminal justice system, healthcare sector and education system.
Ethnic minority cabinet ministers continue to uphold institutional racism today, using their identities to give us the illusion of progress when in reality they maintain and uphold systems of oppression. Such tokenism is deeply insidious and allows the government off the hook. For instance, during the Windrush scandal, former Home Secretary Sajid Javid attempted to weaponise his identity in an effort to prevent the government being held accountable. Javid told former shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott that she didn’t have a ‘monopoly on anger’ over the Windrush scandal as he was a ‘second-generation immigrant too’. Except, this anger was not evident in his voting record. Javid voted for the legislation which led to the Windrush Scandal.
We saw the same phenomenon play out a few months ago when a Cabinet Office inquiry uncovered evidence of Priti Patel bullying civil servants within the Home Office. Despite the evidence, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ignored the findings and ruled that she did not break the ministerial code. Boris Johnson clearly bent the rules for Patel, and many of Patel’s colleagues rallied behind Patel, using her identity as an ethnic minority cabinet minister to deflect from her atrocious behaviour. Notably, Jacob Young MP tweeted in Patel’s defense, writing: “A female, BME [Black and Minority Ethnic], daughter of immigrants who speaks out against the ‘woke’ left… of course they want to tear her down.”
Priti Patel may well be the daughter of immigrants, but this does not mean she has the interests of immigrant communities at heart. In fact, under her watch, we’ve seen mass deportations and a shameful abdication of the government’s responsibilities in supporting refugees fleeing war and persecution.
Boris Johnson has long paraded his cabinet (the most ethnically diverse in British history) as being reflective of the country, however, such representation is not truly reflective of social class. Is the appointment of billionaire chancellor Rishi Sunak really a win for ethnic minority communities in the UK? With nearly half of BME households living in poverty, many would disagree.
By showcasing a supposedly ‘diverse’ cabinet whilst upholding policies that hurt BME groups, the government deflects from the very real issue of racial inequality in this country. The government’s record on race equality can not and should not be determined by how diverse the cabinet appears to be. We’ve seen how a brutal decade of austerity has disproportionately affected ethnic minority communities, with the poorest Black and Asian women being hit hard by changes in welfare and income support, as well as drastic cuts to public services.
Liz Truss says discussion on equalities has too often been dominated by “fashion” and not “facts”. So let’s take a look at the facts. British Pakistani and Bangladeshi children have the highest rates of child poverty in the country at 54% and 59% respectively. Workers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage also have the lowest median hourly pay of any ethnic group, in the latter case earning 20.1% less than white workers.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these inequalities further. Ethnic minority communities face both a higher risk of contracting the virus but also greater financial hardship as a direct consequence too. Just last week, the Guardian reported that BME workers have suffered the brunt of job cuts during the pandemic. The number of BME workers in employment has dropped by 26 times more than the drop in white workers.
This follows findings from the Office for National Statistics last month which looked into the wellbeing of different ethnic groups. The research found that 27% of Black people reported finding it difficult to make financial ends meet, compared with fewer than 10% among most white groups.
The unemployment rate for BME communities has already reached 8.5%, much higher than the overall average of 4.9% and the 4.5% average for white workers.
The way ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic exemplifies how structural economic inequalities can harm our health. BME communities are also more likely to be living in overcrowded accommodation and less likely to have access to good healthcare. According to ONS's analysis of English Housing Survey data from between 2014 and 2017, Bangladeshi families were 15 times more likely than average to experience overcrowding than white British households, while Pakistanis were eight times more likely and Black families 6 times more.
There is a clear link between deprivation and risk of Covid-19. The mortality rate is much higher in the most deprived areas of the country. Data from the Office for National Statistics has shown, from March to mid-April last year, the mortality rate in the most deprived areas of England was double that of the least deprived areas.
Race and class are, of course, interlinked. Ethnic minority communities are more likely to live in the most deprived areas in the UK. If our government is serious about tackling racial inequality, we desperately need structural economic change to tackle such deprivation. Working-class communities – white, Black and brown – are being failed, not because the government focuses on racial issues at the expense of working-class issues, but rather because the government fails to tackle either of these interconnected issues.
Instead of optics-based institutional performances of anti-racism that continue to accompany institutional harm, we urgently need economic policies that will make a real difference to the lives of marginalised communities in this country.
Header image via Number 10 on Flickr