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Is race really back on the agenda?

Whether it's Black Lives Matter, decolonising curricula, or shouting down the EDL, it appears that race is back on the agenda. But have we learnt the lessons from the last 20 years of equalities campaigning? brap CEO Joy Warmington asks the difficult questions...

brap have our roots in the race equality moment. Formed in 1999 our origins date back to the invention of race equality councils and the role they played in supporting communication between the Black and minority ethnic community (BME) and public organisations. Back then, there was lots of discussion about how to close ‘race’ equality gaps, and Birmingham was concerned about its future as a city – especially its ability to address challenges in employment, education, housing, and poverty.

Even then – nearly 20 years ago now – there was controversy about who was included in formal consultation processes. There was a heavy reliance placed on organisations and groups that represented particular cultures or religions. At the time, only nine such groups were identified in Birmingham – and it was unclear why these were included whilst other groups were not. What is clear, though, is that whatever approach was used to represent the interest of 'racialised' communities, it was limited by the thinking of policy makers and by the thinking of communities themselves.

If we fast-forward 20 years, very little has changed. There appears to be very similar limitations placed on who is given a seat at the table, despite the plurality of our demographics and the growth of BME communities. Not only do we appear to be challenged on how we hear and include communities, it also seems we don’t know what we are listening for or how to address overt challenges of discrimination. Unfortunately Birmingham, despite its diversity, has remained relatively static in its progress on race equality (see our report From Benign Neglect to Citizen Khan) so it is perhaps no surprise that discussions about race equality are back on the agenda again.

The limits of tolerance

The ‘noise’ this time round is coming from young people, who are increasingly showing their politicalised understanding of ‘race’ and overt and institutional discrimination. Movements such as decolonising the curriculum, for example, demonstrate a passion for real change coupled with a thorough understanding of the societal constructs that limit our understanding of oppression and how to address it. The Brexit campaign has appeared to have flushed out those who have been always willing to use the immigration debate as a thin veil to disguise their own prejudices and recent rises in hate crime and hate speech have typified the limits of our tolerance. For many of us this has not been a huge surprise. We have always felt ‘tolerated’.

Like clockwork, we appear to have woken up again to the lack of so-called diversity within many of our organisations and sectors (although I become less sure about what lack of diversity is really referring to). However, how organisations look and the progression of BME people through their ranks, coupled with the wider representation of BME people in society, does appear to be a matter of some concern – although I’m not sure how long this concern will remain. The language used to discuss these issues has also changed. Now people are using the term ‘BAME’ – possibly because they have forgotten how clumsy the original ‘BME’ label was in the first place. Making it clumsier might not be the best idea. Does it really help to describe the challenge of racism? The conflation of racism and culture/religion is constantly blurred, and adding in more letters might satisfy the politics, but will do little to address the causes of discrimination.

One thing that hasn’t changed however is our response to addressing discrimination. This is very much a deficit model, and continues to be a deficit model, where communities themselves are seen to be the problem. If only they were more aspirational, better networked, had more experience… And the solutions – mentoring, shadowing, role models, celebrations – are equally one-sided and lacking in imagination. The pace of change is really slow. Whilst we have been celebrating and sharing our food with each other, the proportion of BME people living in overcrowded housing has remained four times higher than that of White people, the BME unemployment rate has stayed twice as high compared to the White rate, and Black people remain three times more likely to be stopped and searched.

Defending our progress

So, what point are we making here? It is impossible to address discrimination without naming and addressing discrimination. We know that it is hard to hear. We want to defend our progress. We want to deny that we are the kind of society where ‘this sort of thing’ still happens. But disguising it – wrapping it up in easier terms or calling it something else – won’t help us to understand and address the structural inequality that keeps racism in place. We know through our work, that people are still afraid to mention the ‘r’ word. Recognising that we are all part of a system where it is beneficial to believe that some are worth less because of the colour of their skin is a hard message. But that’s what institutional racism is about.

Unlocking a system of oppression is hard to do. Doing better means reviewing existing approaches, but most importantly changing our thinking. One increasingly popular approach to doing this is to generate new ‘narratives’ that will help people who feel guilty or unsure about their racism to step into the discussion. This is important, but it is rarely enough. Finding new ways of marketing an anti-racist message to make it more palatable to a wider audience stops short of engaging with the causes of racism in the first place. This is the elephant in the room. Let’s be clear that this isn’t about changing the narrative, it’s about changing the world and how we relate to each other within it.

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