May’s race disparity audit – our panellists give their verdict | Hugh Muir, Kehinde Andrews, Faiza Shaheen and Dawn Foster

Four writers interpret newly released statistics on the effect of ethnicity on life chances in the UK

Hugh Muir: An audit isn’t action, but ministers can’t dodge the facts

Hugh Muir

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. It is in that light that we should view Theresa May’s unveiling of the latest race equality audit, with the accompanying website. Information is power. We can whinge to the point of saturation about individual disproportions in schools, or health, or policing or housing, but the big picture is much more powerful. That’s why those who fare quite well from inequality didn’t really want us to see it. We knew it would be grisly. But not as unsightly as this.

We know black pupils are permanently excluded from school three times as often as white British pupils. Why is that? That at key stage 2, 71% of Chinese primary school pupils met the standard for reading, writing and maths, but just 54% of white British pupils and 13% of white Gypsy and Roma pupils did. How’s that explained?

That Dorset police were seven times more likely to arrest black people last year than Essex. That in Stockport’s primary schools fewer than a quarter of black 11-year-olds reached the required standard in reading and maths, while in Sunderland the figure was more than three-quarters. What happens in Sunderland that doesn’t in Stockport? If we are serious about fairness – about the one-nation part of one-nation Toryism – isn’t it about time we had transparent stats to work with?

There will be griping. Already from the right, accusations that May is surrendering to the antiracist lobby and encouraging a grievance culture. Moans from Munira Mirza, former adviser to and loyalist of Boris Johnson, he who so memorably described our piccaninny smiles. Risible.

This is a well-trodden path. Minorities who say things should be fairer are uppity, women who claim their rights are strident. Rare is the group advantaged that gives it up easily. An audit is clearly not the same as action. But it provides a basis on which to demand action. And as owners of this data, ministers can’t plead ignorance.

There’s a lesson that, in post-Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, should already be apparent. Social advance is never set in stone. Progress can be erased. That’s why, if equality of opportunity is to be a priority – as all the major parties promise – this audit information needs to be collated, updated and kept out there, front and centre.

Faiza Shaheen: It’s not just race, it’s class – look at the top of the Tory party

Faiza Shaheen

Every time new data is published on racial disparities I get into futile debates about whether it is an issue of race or class. These people need to look up a term: intersectionality. It may be wonky but the concept reminds us that it is not about either/or – it is about both. The issue of racism cannot be separated from others of classism, sexism and so on, because these systems of oppression are intimately linked.

Take the issue of the disproportionate number of people of colour in lower-paid jobs. Does their income level make it simply about class, or does their race at least partly explain why they are more likely to find themselves in these jobs in the first place? The statistics that show graduates from ethnic minority communities are less likely to get jobs than their white counterparts indicate that racial discrimination seems to be present. On the flipside, if you just deal with racial discrimination but not the issue of economic inequality, you end up only equalising misery across the ethnic groups and keeping the class hierarchy in place.

There is something fishy about the way in which some of these statistics are reported. There is a disparity in educational outcomes for white children against black children on free school meals, partly explained by the huge improvement in London schools, but the differences between ethnicities in the same class are tiny compared with the differences between the richest and the worst-off.

When working on a BBC documentary about whether the UK will ever see a black prime minister, we found that a white state-educated child was 12 times more likely to make it than a black state-educated child, but the real difference was a white privately educated child who was 90 times more likely.

Maybe the first thing the Conservative party should do to understand this data is to examine the class and race makeup of their own political party and start joining the dots.

Kehinde Andrews: Tokenism at its worst, from a government that doesn’t actually care

Kehinde Andrews

This audit is the worst kind of token gesture, made by a government that has no interest in addressing the systematic racial injustice. From the beginning it was an exercise in futility, gathering data that we already have to tell a story we are all well aware of. Racial inequality is as British as a cup of tea, and if the government did not know the scale of the problem before the audit then we should dissolve parliament immediately on the grounds of incompetence.

Rather than address the problem of racism the government is using the report as a symbolic exercise to show ministers care. They don’t. Theresa May has been part of a government that has made almost every indicator of racial equality worse over the past seven years. Even the minimal efforts on stop and search were mostly superficial, publishing the stats but not really addressing the issue.

Stop and search rates remain disproportionately high, and the underlying problem of ethnic minority communities and the criminal injustice system remains exactly the same. Austerity also hit these communities the hardest, while running down sectors such as education that are supposedly meant to address inequality.

The attack on public sector jobs has been particularly damaging to black communities who rely on the state for careers due to severe employment discrimination. As home secretary, May presided over one of the most racist periods of Britain’s migration policy, with “Go Home” vans, mass deportations and a willingness to let black bodies drown in the Mediterranean as a deterrent. It is offensive that this same prime minister and her government are using a completely empty gesture to burnish their racial justice credentials. The report is not welcome, and is actually a backward step in addressing the serious issues that Britain faces as a nation.

Dawn Foster: Why does it take a shock at the polls to wake the Tories up?

Dawn Foster!

It’s no surprise that the only thing capable of making Conservatives worry about race is a shock at the polls, with the Tories finding their base is whiter than ever. And the findings will be no shock to anyone living in modern Britain. Prior to austerity, inequality was a persistent issue, with race, class and gender often combining to further impede people’s life chances.

In the UK where you are born and who you are born to still matters more than however much effort you put in, or your core aptitude. The Conservative mantra has always been that we live in a meritocracy, and the grafters will rise to the top: at last week’s party conference the merchandise stall stocked tea towels and mugs with a portrait of John Major and the slogan: “What does the Conservative party offer a working-class kid from Brixton? They made him prime minister.” It’s a comforting image, that handily sidesteps the nagging fact that Major remains an outlier: parliament is still disproportionately male and pale.

Meritocracy comforts people, because accepting that some people have it easier than others dims the gleam from your own achievements. No one thinks they’ve had it easy, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to accept that in a country as socially divided as Britain, many people overcome far more barriers than others to reach similar positions. In Brixton a few years ago on Christmas Day I sat in a soup kitchen with homeless men, but also many local working-class kids, whose parents struggled to put a Christmas dinner on the table and were relying on charity to feed them on a day of celebration.

Government cuts are worsening conditions and life chances for millions: housing costs, benefit sanctions and in-work poverty are making people’s lives a misery around the UK, and the cuts fall disproportionately on women and specific ethnic groups.

The poorer educational outcomes for white working-class kids aren’t a surprise: schools are struggling to retain teachers and fund basics such as glue sticks. Teachers talk of children coming to school hungry, and holiday hunger is straining food banks that are already inundated. Children can’t learn while distracted by hunger in schools that are struggling to function financially.

And what comes after school? In post-industrial towns, forgotten economically, it’s low-paid, insecure work if you can’t make it to university, and increasingly, even if you do graduate.

Inequality this deep shouldn’t affect a country as rich as Britain, but for as long as we cling to the idea that anyone can succeed with enough persistence, we will continue to ignore the social and economic barriers caused by cuts to public services and a socially divided education system.


Hugh Muir, Faiza Shaheen, Kehinde Andrews and Dawn Foster

The GuardianTramp

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