Racial discrimination will plague the UK until government intervenes

The writer is chief executive of Runnymede Trust

As a child growing up in Tower Hamlets in the late 1980s, I was afraid of the flag of St George. While England fans rioted on the continent, the National Front appropriated the symbol of the country. At times, it certainly felt as though the flag was flown in our east London neighbourhood as a challenge to multiculturalism — and our community.

Today, as a disabled woman of colour, I often say that there is no greater nation to live in than Britain, not least for the safety, opportunity and civil rights the country embodies. But that is not to overlook the fact that race remains one of the most divisive issues of current times.

This week the country united in its condemnation of the racist abuse meted out to the footballers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. Despite these young black men helping to get England to the final of the European Championships, they were subjected to abuse from strangers on social media and a mural to Rashford was defaced in Manchester. These despicable acts reveal once again how far the UK still has to go to overcome racism.

This week the Runnymede Trust published the shadow UN report on the state of racial equality in England. It found that black and minority ethnic people living in England continue to experience significant disproportionate disadvantages in life, across socio-economic indicators. These range from a higher incidence of maternal death to greater use of tasers on ethnic minority children and young people to constraints on professional opportunities.

The report offers further evidence that taking a colour-blind approach to equality — simply talking about “equal opportunities for all”, or defining the conversation solely in terms of the white working class or any other single ethnic group — is unlikely to be the most effective or fastest way to achieve true social mobility for everyone.

While the reluctance in some quarters to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism is distressing, in recent months and days civil society and the business sector have found ways to counter inequality, such as monitoring and starting to rectify ethnicity pay gaps. In the case of business, the intent to drive change genuinely seems to emanate from something more than the profit motive, and efforts have redoubled since the killing of George Floyd.

The responsibility to achieve equality rests on us all. There is, however, an expectation for the state to act as a leveller if outcomes are starkly worse for specific groups. And where the root causes of disadvantage are not clearly understood, the state should commit to take action. 

To date, there has not been a strong or serious commitment from any UK government to address disproportionate disparities emanating from race. We continue to hear disturbing narratives that place the blame for shortcomings in education and achievement squarely on black and minority ethnic communities — a perceived poverty of expectation apparently compounded by family and cultural factors. This is in the absence of any acknowledgment, let alone understanding, of the role of institutional racism and its deleterious effects on society.

More needs to be done to create opportunities for young people in particular. This narrative of a poverty of expectations isn’t exclusive to minority communities. It is also foisted on the white working-class. As this week has driven home, the British public wants their leaders to take urgent steps to stem poverty, inequality and racism in our communities.

Policies must be based on evidence gathered from across the UK. The government’s “levelling up” agenda is a sensible one, though it is imperative to use data and evidence to determine where the country’s needs are greatest. Without this, we cannot reverse disproportionate racial disparities and outcomes, whether or not linked to race.

About 20 per cent of the most deprived quarter of local authorities in England are currently not prioritised for the £8.77bn levelling up funding. Among them is Tower Hamlets, where I was raised in the large Bangladeshi community. It has been given the lowest funding priority despite having the highest rate of child poverty in the country.

Three decades on, my fear of the English flag has long gone. Watching the young England team that played with such heart at the Euros, and listening to the moral authority with which they and their manager Gareth Southgate have spoken on issues including race and LGBTQ rights, highlights the extent to which this is an inclusive England.

We should remember this week as one of potentially seismic change in how England responds to the continued challenge of racism. If we were less focused on contrived culture wars, we would see the empathetic values of this country. Southgate and his players blurred the notion of Englishness to one of civic rather than ethnic identity — a feat as significant as any victory in the final. And one which we — and our leaders — should strive to emulate.

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