Taking inequality seriously

Here are some things you’re unlikely to see emphasised as people digest the implications of the UK’s supposedly world-leading but misleadingly titled ‘Race Disparity Audit‘ and the associated Ethnicity Facts and Figures web site:

  • Adults in most ethnic groups showed improvements in at least 2 of the 4 measures of personal well-being since 2012, and self-reported wellbeing measures were similar for all ethnic groups (3.15-3.16)
  • 44% of Black adults agreed they could influence decisions affecting their local area, compared with 25% of White adults (3.11)
  • 18 year olds from all (minority non-White) ethnic groups were more likely to enter Higher Education than those from the White group. In 2016, Chinese former state school pupils had the highest Higher Education entry rate (58%) compared with 29% of White pupils. (4.15)

In other words, the report isn’t all ‘shocking’ as it has been widely described, and it isn’t all about non-white victims of discrimination. It has some important information about progress in both wellbeing and social quality.  And statistical disparities don’t always confirm common assumptions about social disadvantage or injustice. We’ve known for a long time that despite their many systematic advantages, women in modern societies generally flourish and live longer than men. Now we know that most ethnic minorities in the UK fare better in some ways than the ‘white’ majority that has long been supposed to be comparatively privileged. It’s noteworthy that the both the report and the web site are silent on longevity, but in a previous post I noted that in Scotland ethnic minorities outlive the ‘white’ population and that Indian women outlive white men by 9 years. These are achievements worth learning from. This doesn’t mean, of course, that minorities don’t continue to suffer lots of avoidable and unfair treatment, but it does mean that we must approach socio-cultural inequalities with a flexible mindset and be prepared to celebrate and learn from progress where it occurs.

Inequalities, explanations, injustice and action

Over the past ten days, countless news outlets in the UK have uncritically quoted our Prime Minister recycling dangerously populist rhetoric that confuses inequality with injustice. If we want to live well together, we need to be able to distinguish these two. And if we want to live happily, we need to remember that wellbeing is our ultimate goal, learn from successes and from social progress, and not allow our horizons to be dominated by harms and animosities.

In launching the new ‘Racial Disparity Audit’, and promising remedial action, May has adopted this new slogan:

‘the message is very simple; if the disparities can’t be explained, they must be changed.’

Damian Green, her First Secretary of State, outbid her by reducing the slogan in the House of Commons to: ‘explain or change’. Apart from the obvious problem with the assumption that all disparity is bad (hardly the kind of rhetoric you’d expect from a Conservative), have you ever before heard anything so silly as the idea that the less understanding we have of the cause of a problem, the more we are compelled to take remedial action? Or, conversely, if an inequality has been ‘explained’ that there less need to bother changing it?

It is a problem, May asserted, when someone has a worse life outcome than someone else ‘on solely the grounds of their ethnicity’. Of course unfair ethnic discrimination exists, but what’s crucial to note here is that the audit she’s commenting on makes no such claim, anywhere. Note that this was no accidental oversight on her part. She was clearly determined to misrepresent the audit in order to achieve her personal aim of appearing both moral and action-ready. The audit, she announced right at the start of her speech, tells us ‘how a person’s ethnicity affects their experience in public services and how that affects their lives.’ No it doesn’t. The report very explicitly and responsibly reminds us that it offers correlational data from which no causal conclusions can be drawn (para 1.13, p.6).

So what we have here is a Conservative leader performing a pathetic caricature of a naïve social justice warrior. In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May made a desperate bid for mass support by using populist rhetoric about ‘burning injustice,’ and stoking both anger and expectations of authoritarian rectification. All of this steers our attention not only to things that are wrong in society, but towards animosities and zero-sum oppositions between successful and unsuccessful people. May’s core purpose doesn’t look very benign at all. She wants us to believe she’s taking sides with unfairly disadvantaged people. But for that claim to be believable, and for us to trust the viability of her proposed remedies, we’d need to see serious interest in learning about causes and effects, and in learning from successes. Neither of those is in evidence at the moment.

What can we learn from May’s bad example?

The sheer idiocy and irresponsibility of May’s speech will surely provide generations of students with an entertaining case study. But for now, we need to try to understand the context from which this kind of nonsense can emerge. How could it come to pass that a national leader who is supposedly ‘passionate’ about reducing inequality should proudly display such wilful disregard for rational use of information in social planning?

Obviously, part of the explanation is that we are witnessing some pretty desperate virtue signalling by a fragile leader who is clutching at straws. But let’s not be too hasty in laughing it off. Too many of the press commentaries have similarly failed to appreciate the dangers of assuming that statistical evidence of ethnic patterns of inequality justify authoritarian remedial action. I have yet to come across a single article on the report which acknowledges its findings on wellbeing statistics – namely, that there are virtually no ethnic disparities in self-reported wellbeing (p.30). We have somehow allowed a toxic social climate to creep up on us that encourages dogmatic accusations of institutional racism to drown out calm and friendly discussion of how to build a fairer and happier society. Without wishing to prompt a moral panic, it seems possible we could be heading towards USA-style approaches to inter-ethnic relations.

Better visions of social progress

Let’s assume, perhaps optimistically, that we can all agree on one thing: all of us would love to inhabit a world in which high levels of wellbeing and happiness are widely shared. Most of us can probably also all agree that our ideal world would include interesting kinds of nontoxic cultural diversity. Interesting diversity would entail some inequalities, but they’d be morally insignificant and they’d be attributable to choices, not to unfairness. Relaxed inter-ethnic friendships would be so prevalent in public and private life that the likelihood of any forms of systemic ethnic prejudice would be minimal. Wouldn’t that be nice?

To work towards that kind of society, we’ll need a strong sense of collective responsibility for social harmony and social justice. And that will require some basic understanding of the differences between inequality and unfairness, and an appreciation of the fact that both equality and fairness are subordinate in value to wellbeing. Who wants to live in a society of equalised impoverishment and systemic inter-ethnic mistrust? In other words, we all need to understand that:

  • unfairness is only one among many factors causing inequality;
  • not all inequality is unfair;
  • equalisation is unlikely to be good if it reduces overall wellbeing;
  • some increases in inequality are actually ok provided that they don’t involve systematically unfair benefits of some at the expense of others.
  • when one category of people (an ethnic minority for example) is exceptionally successful, instead of complaining about the resulting increase in inequality and penalising them for their success, it is generally better to try to derive constructive lessons from their inspirational example
  • when one category of people is exceptionally unsuccessful, rather than pathologising them as victims of discrimination, it is generally more benign – and less racist or infantilising – to work with them to find constructive solutions


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