Nasar Meer, Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”, so Theresa May told us on the steps of 10 Downing Street as she assumed office in 2016. Seems like a rather long time ago now, but in an effort to capture the mercurial centre ground thought to be vacated by a Corbyn led Labour Party, one of her first moves was to set up a race disparity audit.
As somebody who participated in this, and convened an expert group on Scotland to feed into it, with the best will in the world it will likely confirm what we already know. Namely, and as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) showed in statement that brought together lots of existing research, ethnic and racial disparities continue to be a fundamental part of the fabric of society in the UK. Some contemporary and indicative EHRC findings include:
- Significantly higher unemployment rates for Black and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) (as an aggregate about 12.9% compared with 6.3 % for White people).
- BAME employees with degrees earn 23.1% less on average than White workers – confirming this is no longer a ‘supply side’ deficit.
- Amongst Black-African and Black-Caribbean groups, just 6% of school leavers attended a Russell Group university (compared with 11% of White school leavers).
- Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black adults are more likely to live in substandard accommodation than White people (around 30% compared with round 8%).
- Rates of prosecution and sentencing for Black people are three times higher than for White people –18 per thousand population compared with six per thousand population for White people. For sentencing it was 13 per thousand population for Black people and five per thousand population for White people.
As if to demonstrate the law of unintended consequences, the only marked improvement under May’s tenure has been the increase of BAME parliamentarians that came with the 2017 general election (an increase of 9 for Labour and 2 for the Conservatives, taking the total to 52).
Beyond this most of the entrenched inequalities will remain in place; they might assume some prominence when events make them difficult to ignore, but a serious commitment to challenging institutional racism, for example, is likely to be politically unpalatable, if it is even recognised as a problem (not least because governing parties are often contributing to it – anybody recall May’s ‘Go Home’ billboards?).
What is especially dynamic at the moment and worth watching out for is the governance around race equality as public policy. This is something that spans public administration, and civil and criminal law, often forged through hard won anti-racist struggles. We might divide this legislation into three kinds:
(a) that which was created in the UK
(b) that which flows from membership of the European Union
(c) that which is a combination of the two
With Brexit negotiations underway, the key question will to what extent withdrawal from the EU revises a, b, or c? Whatever the current governments mandates, it will be difficult – although not impossible – for a post-Brexit administration to unpick the domestication of race equality components of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), especially since the UK was already compliant with race equality provisions (and indeed these came about at an EU level precisely because of the UK’s tested approach). For example, the Equality Act 2010 is not merely about being compliant with EU directives, but reflects an endogenous trajectory in incorporating the existing race equality provisions.
This means that the sunk costs are likely to be sufficiently ‘sticky’ regardless of what James Madison termed the ‘mischief of faction’. This should not be taken to imply that Brexit will not diminish race equality in the UK. In terms of the politics, if the ‘policy image’ of race equality comes to be associated with an EU imposition, rather than an endogenous creation, it becomes much more contested by those seeking to uncouple as much as they can from the EU. Put in other terms, if race equality becomes part of the ‘collateral rhetoric’ of Brexit, rather than a longstanding – though unsettled and incomplete – UK development, then the symbolic politics of this would do great harm.
Equally, in the area of trade agreements there may well be economic incentives to reduce equality protections that would bear either a direct or indirect discriminatory outcome for BAME groups. Trading off race equality in the name of efficiency and competitiveness is a very real concern, but to some extent this would mark an accelerated roll back on commitments already bearing a precarious status. For example, the Coalition Government (2010–15) significantly undermined features of the Equality Act 2010 in the name of deregulation and competitiveness.
The point being that UK governments already have the capacity to roll back from race equality commitments, and have shown the political will to do so, independent of other developments. As such the status of existing settlements are subject to their own dynamics too, in a way that cannot be explained by Brexit alone.
If nothing else, Brexit is a reminder that anti-racism is an unsettled, incomplete and on-going pursuit. It requires sustained mobilisation through actors, institutions and ideas, now as much as ever.