Is there ‘systemic racism’ in Britain?

Systemic racism, according to those who campaign against it, is the disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities on account of the bias, conscious and subconscious, that some people, particularly from the ethnic majority, have in respect of them.

Even though racial discrimination in most contexts is unlawful, it still happens, and the impact falls largely on ethnic minorities, putting them at a relative disadvantage. This appears to be what is meant by most people who speak about ‘systemic racism’. While I do not think the term is apt—a point I return to below—the phenomenon certainly seems real and worthy of proper engagement.

One of the main examples is the attitude of the police in America. Studies consistently show that black people in America are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched, even though searches of white people consistently turn up more contraband. A disproportionate number of black people (compared with their numbers in the population) are also shot or injured by police. The reason for this appears to be a combination of disproportionately high crime rates in black communities and an associated assumption amongst police officers that black people are more likely to be involved in criminal or violent behaviour. While it may also be a result of simple racial prejudice, the fact that it is evident among black and ethnic minority police officers as much as white officers suggests it is primarily linked to higher crime rates and a psychological generalisation from them.

This is an extreme example, but the idea is that this kind of thing happens all the time. Indeed, this seems unarguable, since as humans we instinctively generalise about the categories by which we organise the world, so that behaviour commonly (or disproportionately) experienced amongst one category of people becomes associated with the category as a whole.

It isn’t just white people who do this—racial or ethnic generalisation, both conscious and subconscious, is a universal human trait arising from the way our brains organise the world. Humans also have an in-built preference for the familiar, which by nature asks less of us and is more comfortable, and this adds to the instinctive bias. It is ethnic minorities who typically suffer most negative effects from these universal instincts, and as a result in white majority countries the issues come to focus on the conduct of the ‘white’ majority and the impact it has on minorities. However, since other ‘white’ groups have also at times been disadvantaged by this bias, such as the Irish in Britain in an earlier period, connecting it specifically with ‘whiteness’ is not correct. ‘White British’ are also sometimes affected, such as when they are said to be lazy by those who prefer to hire ‘hard-working’ immigrant workers.

The faddish terms ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’ are obviously inaccurate and unhelpful, since what we are really talking about is minority disadvantage. To link it specifically to one racial group, as though it is unique to them or they are affected by it more than others, is incorrect, and indeed racially inflammatory. The use of these racially charged terms as epithets by those who are violent towards people considered representative of them demonstrates that the danger is not only hypothetical.

‘Systemic racism’, as a race-neutral term, is less problematic, but still inaccurate. Systemic racism, properly understood, is where the system itself is based on rules and processes that expressly (or by design) favour or disfavour certain ethnic groups, such as apartheid or the current Malaysian system of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy. Systems like ours, which prohibit racial discrimination and encourage integration, and indeed which include numerous positive action schemes, cannot justifiably be called systemically racist.

That does not mean, however, that actors within the system do not continue to exhibit racial bias to varying degrees. Racism persists, both conscious and subconscious, and although in many contexts (such as employment) exhibiting it is unlawful and actionable, it still happens, and this disproportionately disadvantages people from ethnic minorities. The result is not systemic racism, as the system is opposed to it and seeks to end it, but it is racial bias, and it has a statistical impact. However, since it is mostly low-level, subconscious, and in practice unlawful it is probably best to regard it as part of the more general phenomenon of minority disadvantage, in that having sometimes to endure racial prejudice, even when the system itself opposes it and aims to end it, is one of the unpleasant aspects of belonging to an ethnic minority.

Two questions arise here. First, what is the real scale of the problem—how much disadvantage does persisting racial prejudice actually cause? This will vary between ethnic groups, as racial generalisations are not all the same, nor equally negative. Those regarded as a greater crime risk by police officers and others are likely to suffer more acutely than those who might be regarded as unusually hard-working or morally upright. The negative generalisations about black people by law enforcement officers in particular are one reason why black people, very understandably, feel particularly exercised about the issue. They do not appreciate being tarred with the same brush as black criminals just because they come from the same ethnic group, or are mistakenly taken to be so.

Nonetheless, it is a fair question to ask, how much this bias actually holds people back, given that the UK is systemically anti-racist, with strong equality laws and many positive action initiatives. To what extent are ethnic minorities genuinely held back by the persisting low-level racial biases in the UK? The fact that black school children in the UK outperform white school children and are more likely to go to university, while Asian school children are well ahead of their white counterparts, are strong indications that the overall impact is small and should not be exaggerated.

A second important question is what, if anything, can be done about persisting low-level racial prejudice that doesn’t end up making things worse? Allowing that minority disadvantage arising from negative racial generalisations has some unquantified but likely small statistical impact on life chances, a key practical question is how much more can helpfully be done about it beyond what we have already done in making discrimination illegal and ensuring these laws are consistently enforced?

The central difficulty here is that by focusing on the issue the problems are frequently made worse. The challenges for ethnic minorities in integrating with majority society are reduced by, for example, encouraging integration into a shared heritage and citizenship, stressing common humanity and common belonging, diminishing differences in the public space, and encouraging an aspiration among all to be good citizens who respect one another’s culture and do not discriminate. Insofar as negative racial generalisations arise from genuine (and not merely perceived) problems within ethnic communities an important part of the answer must involve those problems being addressed, which to succeed must primarily be driven by the community itself. The unhappy association by police officers of black people with crime risk would, for instance, be much improved if the crime rate among blacks came right down. This is certainly not to justify the bias, which is a terrible thing, but it is nonetheless to state an undoubted psychological truth. (I should add that I am not aware that I personally make a psychological association between black people and greater crime risk, and I am not sure how common the association is outside of policing. However, it does appear to be an association made by many of those involved in law enforcement, especially in the US.)

On the other hand, to magnify the issue, as is now very much in favour, has the opposite effect. It foregrounds racial difference in the public space, encourages thinking in racial terms, and promotes the idea of the ethnic majority as somehow privileged or even oppressive with ethnic minorities as their permanent victims. It increases racial tensions, divisions and resentment which is not conducive to building common citizenship. It heightens cultural sensitivities so that problems within ethnic communities are left unaddressed. This is the opposite of what will make things better. Any lawlessness associated with discontent will only reinforce negative generalisations about violence and crime risk. In a situation where what is needed is a concerted effort from all to promote social harmony within a common framework of shared citizenship, what is pushed instead is a sense of grievance and a demand for remedy and even reparation from the ethnic majority. As long as this framework persists the problems remain intractable.

Similarly problematic are the positive (or affirmative) action and positive discrimination initiatives that are commonly proposed as solutions to ethnic disadvantage. Such initiatives mismatch talent with function, patronise and undermine those who achieve by their own merits, and discriminate against those who do not benefit from the preferential treatment.

I do not doubt that many from ethnic minorities continue to experience a measure of bias and disadvantage on account of their race, a state of affairs I deplore. Nonetheless, the UK is systemically anti-racist, not racist, and I question both the true scale of the problem and whether the difficulties ethnic minorities experience in this regard can be made anything other than worse by magnifying them and making them loom large in our consciousness and politics.

Further reading:

David Goodhart https://unherd.com/2020/06/facts-vs-feelings-in-the-blm-debate/

Esther Krakue https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8443669/ESTHER-KRAKUE-dared-question-aims-Black-Lives-Matter.html

Melanie Phillips https://www.melaniephillips.com/black-brown-jews-white-imperialists/

Munira Mirza https://www.spiked-online.com/2017/09/11/lammy-review-the-myth-of-institutional-racism/

Tony Sewell https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/don-t-act-white-act-migrant

First published on Psephizo.

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