Tackling racial inequalities across UK ‘will take work’

ATTITUDES: Anti-racism
protests have highlighted racial injustices in society
CHANGING ATTITUDES: Anti-racism protests have highlighted racial injustices in society


CAMPAIGNERS have called for more diversity within leaderships roles in the UK as prime minister Boris Johnson announced a new commission to look into racial inequalities this week.

The announcement comes as anti-racist protests continue across the country, triggered by the death of a black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in the US. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations have seen thousands of protestors take to the streets in major cities such as London, Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle in recent weeks.

On Monday (15), Johnson promised to look at discrimination within the healthcare and education sectors, as well as the criminal justice system. “I want to change the narrative, so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.We stamp out racism and we have a real sense of expectation of success,” he told the BBC. “That is where I want to get to, but it won’t be easy.”

Meanwhile, the latest Public Health England (PHE) review on the impact Covid-19 has had on ethnic minority communities found “historic racism” and hostility towards migrants were partly to blame for the disproportionately high death rates.

A demonstrator reacts in Parliament Square during a Black Lives Matter protest in London

The report said: “Historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work may mean that individuals in BAME groups are less likely to seek care when needed, or as NHS staff, are less likely to speak up when they have concerns about personal protective equipment (PPE) or risk.”

Tuesday’s (16) report comes weeks after critics slammed the initial PHE review, with many complaining it had not given any recommendations.

The latest incidents have sparked conversations relating to racial diversity in the most senior levels of society. According to government data last July, the least diverse workforces are fire fighters (4.1 per cent of staff are ethnic minorities); prison officers (5.8 per cent); police officers (6.9 per cent) and court judges (7.4 per cent.)

In the civil service, data showed that only 6.7 per cent of the workforce were from Asian backgrounds, while 3.2 per cent were from black backgrounds.

In business, diversity was lacking at senior levels too. A third of FTSE 100 companies and six out of 10 FTSE 350 companies still have all-white boards, analysis has found.

Noting the lack of diversity within senior levels, Sunder Katwala, the director of think tank British Future, urged corporations to turn “symbolic BLM support into real change”. “Westminster is much more diverse than a decade ago, yet diversity has flatlined in Britain’s boardrooms. Almost none is as diverse as the cabinet,” he told Eastern Eye.

Business psychologist professor Binna Kandola believes a main issue for organisations is the belief that racism is “a thing of the past”. Racism is associated with thuggery, violence and abuse, he said, so it is deemed as “obvious and blatant” behaviour. “Psychologists refer to this as old-fashioned racism,” he told Eastern Eye.

Professor Binna Kandola

“By way of contrast modern racism is indirect, subtle and critically is ambiguous – it leaves people thinking ‘did that just happen?’ This has a bigger impact on people’s self esteem and self-confidence.”

Judge Kaly Kaul QC has worked as a lawyer for 37 years. She explained that the nature of discrimination in society had changed over the decades, and was much more nuanced, whether in the legal sector or in any other profession.

“A real commitment to diversity begins on the day of appointment. It doesn’t end there, and it isn’t a statistic,” she said. “It would be very useful to have some consideration of what happens after appointment at every level.”

Sailesh Mehta is a barrister at Red Lion Chambers. On representation within the judiciary, Mehta told Eastern Eye it was “widely accepted” that it needed to reflect the diversity of society.

“Part of the problem is that the beneficiaries of unequal treatment rarely give up their privileges without a fight,” he explained. “So it is with our judges. It will take another generation before there is a more diverse judiciary at the highest levels. It will be slow, but there will be change – equality always trumps inequality, eventually.”

Kaul said BAME communities from different professions should be assisted by organisations within each sector to work on issues of racial inequality. “In mine, a judicial support network for BAME judges could help,” she suggested.

She also believes unconscious bias training should be encouraged, with school-age children to begin with, and expanded to all sectors.

Judge Kaly Kaul QC

“It can really make a difference as we all need to look at ourselves, our own assumptions and prejudices and do so regularly, at all stages of our careers,” she said. “We have to work together on these issues – race, gender, religion, non-traditional backgrounds, sexual orientation, physical and mental health differences, age discrimination.”

In education, some academics have also expressed concern that higher education institutions are “spaces of white privilege” and lack diversity.

According to figures released in February, less than one per cent of professors employed at UK universities are black. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) analysis also found hardly any
British universities employ more than one or two black professors.

According to previous HESA research, no black staff were employed at the most senior levels of leadership in UK universities between 2018-19.

Professor Kalwant Bhopal is the director for the Centre for Research in Race & Education (CRRE) at University of Birmingham Edgbaston and the author of White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society.

She believes higher education institutions are “spaces of white privilege which continue to perpetuate structural and institutional racism”.

“This is evidenced in the lack of BAME at professorial grades and in senior decision-making roles,” she told Eastern Eye. “Clear change is needed.

“Universities must be held to account for their lack of BAME staff at senior levels and demonstrate clear evidence of the changes they are making to make their workforce more diverse.”

Professor Nishan Canagarajah

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Leicester, echoed similar sentiments. BAME university staff are “chronically absent” within higher education, he said, and it needs to ensure there is an environment of “belonging” for everyone.

After joining the university in November 2019, Professor Canagarajah pledged to eliminate the ‘awarding gap’ – the difference between the chances of white and BAME students getting a first or upper second-class honours degree, which sees many students missing out on top degrees – by 2025.

“While we are seeing growing numbers of students from BAME backgrounds pursuing a university education, the numbers of university staff are not following suit,” he told Eastern Eye. “It is imperative that we have diverse staff to reflect the diverse student population we serve.

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