Systemic racism is everywhere you look these days. There was athlete Bianca Williams last month, then MP Dawn Butler this week, the Metropolitan Police getting it in the neck as usual for pulling over black drivers. The fact that Ms Williams’s vehicle was being driven in what the police regarded as a ‘suspicious manner’ including being on the wrong side of the road, and that Ms Williams refused to get out of the car when asked, or that Dawn Butler’s vehicle was stopped as part of routine car registration checks, seems not to count for anything among race activists.
The conduct of the police and their apparent use of ‘racial profiling’ in stop and search is one of the two chief targets of race equality activists. The other is employment. As David Goodhart explained in a Daily Telegraph piece last week: ‘The two pieces of evidence that are most often cited is, first, the CV test that finds that those with ethnic minority names have to send more applications to get a job interview and, second, the fact that black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites.’
In terms of stop and search: ‘Much of the disproportionality falls away once you look at where stop and search is actually happening: in inner-city areas with high levels of violent crime,’ says Goodhart. As Vlod Barchuk recently wrote on TCW: ‘When the “positive outcome rate” of stop and search is considered, i.e. the percentage of searches that result in an arrest, caution or fine, any disparity largely disappears.’
A recent example of a CV test is this one published last year by a team from Oxford University. The researchers from the Centre for Social Investigation sent around 3,200 fictitious job applications to a variety of employers in the UK who advertised online on a popular recruitment platform. Each application had the relevant qualifications and experience for the role but the sex and ethnic background of the applicants were varied randomly (though all were presented as either born in this country or living here since they were six years old, to attempt to control for worries about language skills, for example). The jobs applied for were cook, store assistant, payroll and admin clerk, receptionist, marketing assistant, sales representative and software engineer, which were selected to ‘vary with regard to required skills, qualifications and level of customer contact’.
The researchers recorded the ‘callback rate’, the proportion of each category that received some expression of interest from employers, whether an interview or enquiry for more information.
Here are the results, with some added colour-coding to highlight differences by sex:
You’ll see that they are not exactly a neat fit with the woke hierarchy of privilege. White men, for instance, supposedly the most privileged, are ranked 4th, 5th and 7th. White British men are behind all white women from Western Europe or America (British or otherwise) as well as Indian and South East Asian men. Other Western European and American men are 7th, behind Pakistani women and Eastern European men. Men also make up four out of the five bottom places, and again contrary to intersectionality theory, African and Middle Eastern women are preferred to men from the same regions.
What does this tell us? On the face of it, it tells us that many employers appear to be discriminating at least at shortlisting stage on the basis of race and sex – though not always in favour of ‘white’ people, and certainly not always in favour of men. Bizarrely, the authors claim that ‘the discrimination encountered by minorities does not vary by gender’ when the results clearly indicate otherwise. The difference between white men and white women is particularly pronounced, throwing further cold water on the increasingly implausible feminist narrative that Western women today are treated by society as inferior to and oppressed by men.
How reliable, though, is this kind of study? It suffers from some obvious defects that throw into doubt the general applicability of its conclusions. The range of jobs, for example – where are the healthcare workers and caring professions that employ large numbers of ethnic minorities in this country? Why is software engineer the only highly skilled profession and how does this affect the outcome?
Sample size is also a problem. Although the researchers sent out around 3,200 applications, once that is divided by the eight different racial groups and two sexes, and taking into account the weighting the researchers used, it leaves many categories with only around 114 applications each, meaning that a gap of 2 per cent represents the impact of just two or three extra callbacks. No wonder the researchers stated that some of the differences they found were ‘not statistically significant’.
Having said this, it is important to acknowledge that the overall results – a 24 per cent callback rate for white British compared with 15 per cent for ethnic minorities – is large, statistically significant, and in line with other similar field studies, and not just in the UK. A 2016 meta-analysis of 42 such studies in Europe and North America (noticeably these studies never seem to be done in non-Western countries, hampering genuine international comparison) came to a similar conclusion, that members of ethnic minorities on average receive only two-thirds of the callbacks that the majority group receive. What’s more, and counterintuitively, the situation appears to have got worse rather than better in EU countries since the turn of the millennium when directives banning employment discrimination were brought in, possibly because employers have shifted their discrimination into the less visible earlier parts of the hiring process.
Social scientists have pondered the reasons for this persisting discrimination, suggesting it is based on stereotyping about group behaviour and skills, previous experience with members of ethnic groups, and preference for those who are similar.
Does this mean that Britain, and indeed all Western countries, are guilty as charged when it comes to systemic racism? Not so fast. For one thing, not all employers do this, and also it is being done by individuals rather than as a matter of company policy (though perhaps it is being sanctioned on the quiet). Also, we have no information about the racial background of those hiring, which is surely relevant to questions of whether their decisions are racially motivated.
The context is also significant. Ask yourself, why is it in hiring and policing that activists most readily find evidence for racial ‘profiling’? What do these two activities have in common? One answer is that they are activities which require quick judgement about people to assess the risk they might pose, or, in the case of hiring, the potential fit with the role and the company’s culture. With the need for quick-fire judgement come shortcuts, and one of the human brain’s basic shortcuts is to group things by their degree of similarity, including cultural similarity, to allow crude assessments of likelihood. The question is whether it is realistic to eliminate all such shortcuts from quick-fire decision-making, and what the effective remedies might be.
The two main remedies proposed are anti-bias training and diversity targets. There is, however, no evidence that anti-bias training works, not least because the assumption that discrimination is typically the result of implicit bias rather than something more deliberate is very uncertain. Dr Patrick Forscher, a researcher who has examined hundreds of studies looking at the impact of implicit bias interventions on discriminatory behaviour, comes to a stark conclusion: ‘Based on the evidence that is currently available, I’d say that we cannot claim that implicit bias is a useful target of intervention‘. The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission agrees, reporting in 2018 that the evidence for unconscious bias training’s ability ‘effectively to change behaviour is limited’ and that it may even cause a ‘backfiring’ effect, making people more biased. Yet that is not so surprising when you consider that the discriminatory behaviour frequently cuts across racial lines: the police forces accused of racial profiling, for instance, are typically racially mixed and there is no evidence that ethnic minority police officers behave differently from white officers. Likewise, when it was found that Airbnb hosts appeared to be discriminating against black potential guests, it was also noted that black hosts were no less likely to do so than white ones. Whatever lies at the root of the differential treatment here, it does not appear to be an implicit white bias towards other whites.
As for targets and quotas, they are even more offensive to the principle of merit than the low-level racial discrimination they are intended to remedy. They embed racial categorising and decision-making into the heart of an organisation’s systems and structures, which is likely to lead to a deterioration in race relations, a dysfunctional mismatch of people with roles, and an enshrining of race-based discrimination in an organisation’s culture.
Ideally, of course, no one would be judged on the basis of their membership of or association with an ethnic group but as an individual on their own merits, and that is certainly the standard most of us aim at. In practice, however, it will not be possible entirely to eliminate the human propensity to understand the world through cultural generalisations and bring them to bear on decisions, particularly when fast assessments of risk and fit with limited information are an inherent requirement of the task at hand.
Most importantly, we must ensure that any interventions we undertake to try to make things better do not inadvertently make things worse and cause more problems than they solve. That is often the fate of well-meaning interventions in the fraught area of race relations, where, for example, a constant casting of black people as victims of white people and white society in need of reparations and assistance from their ‘oppressors’ and the state risks inculcating a debilitating dependence and fatalism rather than self-reliance and personal responsibility. As Katharine Birbalsingh observes in relation to education: ‘It simply isn’t the case that the more black historical figures are taught at a school, the better black children do. As black people, we must look at what we can do for ourselves first and foremost instead of asking the state to do it for us. We do not teach Chinese history on our school curriculum, yet Chinese children are some of the highest achieving.’
Calvin Robinson gets to the nub of the matter, again speaking about activists’ demands for ‘black’ education, but with clear wider application: ‘What’s actually happening here is a further attempt to cause division and stoke up racial tensions. I’m not sure this campaign has much to do with young people – who tend not to see their race as their sole identity. This is more about addressing the insecurities of a particular sub-section of adults stuck in a victimhood mentality. The idea that if young black people see more black people in their history books, it will somehow improve their self-esteem is totally wrong. All the evidence seems to demonstrate the opposite, that by separating the curriculum into black and white the campaigners are going to cause problems where there were none to begin with.’
The causing of problems where there was none to begin with seems to be the forte of the race relations industry. No one would claim that Britain is free of racial prejudices. But Britain is a land where racial discrimination in education, employment, the provision of services and so on is unlawful, and where people of any background can succeed and frequently do. As David Goodhart observes: ‘Thirty-five per cent of British Caribbean men are now found in the top two social classes (in the eight class schema), up from an average of 11 per cent in the 1980s/1990s. This is only slightly less than the white British proportion.’ That opportunity for all is something of which we as a nation are rightly proud. Sadly, there are many people today who appear to take such a cultural achievement for granted, and who fail to see that searching out and stoking racial grievance in order to redefine British society along racial lines is taking us backwards, not forwards, and helping no one, least of all members of ethnic minorities.