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race obsession harms those it is meant to help

sunday times, 29 march 2009

Should public policy be colour blind? Or must governments and public institutions take account of people’s ethnicity and culture in formulating policy? It is a debate that has been reignited by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to introduce ethnic monitoring in France.

Unlike in Britain, where public institutions routinely collect information about people’s ethnic origins, it is illegal in France to classify people in this fashion. The foundation stone of the secular French republic is that all citizens should be equal and free from distinctions of race or religion. But senior politicians have begun to recognize that France remains deeply disfigured by racism. To combat this, Sarkozy argues, it is necessary to collect ethnically-based data. He should look again at the British experience which suggests that such policies often do more harm than good.

Common sense would seem to suggest that you can't counter discrimination without monitoring it. Yet the issue is not so straightforward.

Two assumptions underlie the argument for ethnic monitoring: first, that ethnicity and culture are the most important labels we can place on people; and second that there is a causal relationship between membership of such a group and disproportional outcomes between groups. If Bangladeshis are over-represented in poor housing or if African Caribbeans are under-represented in higher education this is viewed as a consequence of belonging to those particular groups. Neither assumption is valid. Minority groups are not homogenous entities but are as divided by issues of class, gender, age, and so on, as the rest of the population. These factors often shape individuals’ lives far more than do race, ethnicity or culture.

Take, instance, the question of educational attainment in Britain. We all know that Asians excel at school and that African Caribbeans perform worst. Except that they don’t.  Pupils of Indian origin tend to do well, but the performance of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis is similar to that of African Caribbeans. Bottom of the class come white working class boys.

Children of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin used to be labelled ‘Asian’.  Now they are more likely to be seen as ‘Muslim’. When they were Asians they were bracketed together with children of Indian origin, and the differences between the groups were largely ignored.  Now that they are Muslims, the poor performance of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis has attracted attention, but is often put down to ‘Islamophobia’. To improve the educational possibilities of all these groups - Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, African Caribbeans and working class whites - we have to understand what they have in common, which derives less from their race than their class. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in this country come largely from poor rural areas, and African Caribbeans are predominantly working class.  A system obsessed by ethnic categories, however, is rarely able to make those kinds of connections.

The criminlogists Marian Fitzgerald and Chris Hale have demonstrated a similar problem with discussions of race and crime. Black people are over-represented in robbery statistics (both as perpetrator and victim) leading to the widespread belief that there is something about black culture (or even black nature) that gives rise to criminality. Fitzgerald and Hale have shown that with careful analysis of the data, race and ethnicity drops out of the picture entirely. Street crime is much more likely in areas in which there is a high population turnover and a combination of young people living in poverty alongside others who are not just more affluent but also trendy enough to own gadgets like mobile phones or iPods that are both valuable and possess street cred. It just so happens that young blacks live disproportionately in such areas. But where such areas contain large numbers of poor young whites, they too are represented in the robbery figures.

The category ‘lives in an area of high population turnover with a mixture of poor people and affluent trendies’ is not a politically salient group.  The category black is. So we tend to associate street robbery with blackness. The result is what Fitzgerald calls ‘statistical racism’. Because the relationship between blacks and robberies seems statistically so fixed, so people start believing that little can be done to change that relationship and there develops notions of innate black criminality.  Ethnic monitoring both makes us see racism where none exists and creates new racial stereotypes.

Ethnic monitoring does not just produce misleading data. The process of classification often creates the very problems it is supposed to solve. Local authorities have used ethnic categories not only as a means of collecting data but also as a way of distributing political power – by promoting certain ‘community leaders’ – and of disbursing public funds through ethnically-based projects. Once the allocation of power, resources and opportunities becomes linked to membership of particular groups, then people inevitably begin to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and only those ethnicities.

Take Bradford. The majority of Muslims in the city come from the Mirpur area of Pakistan. But few identified themselves as Muslims  – until the local council began rolling out its multicultural policies in the 1980s.  Declaring that every  community had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs’, the local authority looked to the mosques to act the voice of the Muslim community and funded social projects along faith and ethnic lines. The council itself helped create a Muslim identity that had barely existed before.  In 1990, the city’s Mirpuri community boasted 18 mosques. Fourteen of them had been built in the previous decade, in the wake of the council’s multicultural policy. A community that had worn its faith lightly now became defined almost entirely by that faith. 

National government has pursued a similar policy. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens, with a variety of views and beliefs, politicians of all hues prefer to see them as people whose primarily loyalty is to their faith and who can be engaged only by other Muslims. Should we be surprised then if, as a consequence, many Muslims come to see themselves as semi-detached Britons? This week the government published CONTEST 2, its new anti-extremism strategy. But it still has not understood the extent which its own multicultural policies have helped fan the flames of Islamic radicalism.

A policy of ethnic monitoring could have even more disastrous consequences across the Channel. In 2005 violent riots swept through French banlieus as predominantly North African youth, subject to years of discrimination and harassment, vent their frustration and anger on police and property. Both radical Islamists, and commentators hostile to Islam, tried to portray the rioters as ‘Muslim’. In fact religion played almost no role in the violence; the riots were more akin to the disturbances that set British inner cities ablaze in the early 1980s.  But had the French authorities already introduced ethnic monitoring, North Africans would probably have been labelled as ‘Muslims’ and the riots seen as a confrontation between Islam and the French state. That, I suspect, would have done little to improve race relations or dampen Islamic radicalism in France.

Ignoring racism on the grounds that all citizens are equal and hence that racial or cultural differences are immaterial, as happens is France, is unacceptable.  But so is labelling individuals by race, culture or faith and creating conflicts by institutionalising such differences in public policy.

We need to distinguish between colour blindness and racism blindness. In principle, the French assimilationist resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is an important step in the fight against racism. In practice the French authorities have turned a blind eye not just to skin colour but also to discrimination. The French policy of corralling hundreds of thousands of the poor and disadvantaged into sink estates, exposing them to unemployment rates of up to 40 per cent and subjecting them to daily discrimination at the hands of employers and the police is not designed to produce liberte, egalite et fraternite. Citizenship has no meaning if different classes of citizens are treated differently, whether through racism or through multicultural policies.