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Tackling Racial Injustice

It's not perfect, but Labour's race and faith manifesto is the boldest anti-racist programme ever put forward by a major party at election time - and is needed now more than ever.

It was ironic that the launch of Labour’s ‘race and faith manifesto‘ should have been overshadowed by an attack on Jeremy Corbyn from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis over antisemitism. After all, the manifesto contained several ideas that would surely please Mirvis: a school curriculum to teach students about antisemitism; harsher penalties for attacks on synagogues and other places of worship; legal protection for the practice of kosher and halal meat, and the right to wear religious symbols. In contrast, the  Conservatives aren’t offering so much as a blue bean to combat antisemitism in British society. 

The document also contains a range of eye-catching measures, starting with the goal to “eliminate race inequality from our economy”. It may well be the most radical document addressing these issues thus far produced by a major political party anywhere in the world. That tells us something positive about Labour, but also something much more negative about the priority given to tackling racism in mainstream politics. 

Some will say that the ambition to “eliminate” racial disparities is unrealistic, but it has never been seriously attempted before, so the field is wide open for Labour to lead. Tony Blair promised to end workplace discrimination within a decade, but that deadline expired in 2013 with the employment gap between BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and White British citizens largely unchanged. New Labour’s lukewarm commitment to meeting the challenge it had set itself was plain to see. The picture today is very different — or it could be, if Labour makes this as much a part of its transformative mission as another ambitious project, the green industrial revolution. 

Tools for the Job

So how do Labour’s specific proposals measure up to its goal? The current ideas fall some way short, but they do provide a springboard. Take, for example, the plan to extend pay-gap reporting to ethnic-minority groups. This relies on the embarrassment factor to shame firms into action, which in turn depends on media coverage (or at least social-media outcry). Large companies are already becoming immune to criticism of their gender pay-gaps, and race gaps will probably attract even less attention. To make progress in this field, Labour will need a more robust approach: that means a strong enforcement body, wielding sticks as well as carrots, for private and public sectors alike. The obvious solution would be to turbo-charge the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) watchdog (and not hold grudges against them for investigating Labour over antisemitism while failing to do the same for the Tories on Islamophobia).

The race and faith manifesto calls for the strengthening of public-sector duties, which are an element of our “equalities framework”. But the duties work best as the basis for a toolkit, to create the policies that are necessary to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place. What we need is an equalities audit commission, supported by mini-commissions dedicated to areas like disability, sexual orientation, age, gender, race and faith etc, with real powers to investigate and apply sanctions when necessary. Those bodies with a specific mandate would be tasked with changing attitudes and behaviours — and pursuing more legal test-cases — while the larger entity would go in and sort stuff out. 

Meanwhile, a new government Department for Women and Equalities, and a race-equality unit at the Treasury — both of which are proposed in the race and faith manifesto — would build on the work of the current Racial Disparity Unit, making the promise of equality-auditing all policies “before, during and after implementation” a reality. The document calls for name-blind recruitment practices and measures to address the lack of diversity at middle and senior management levels in the private sector: both will require a blend of guidance, persuasion, compulsion and enforcement, so everyone understands the benefits of acting, and the penalties that will follow if they don’t.

Other goals include reducing the disproportionate number of BME children excluded from school or in youth custody, and addressing racial disparities in health outcomes. These objectives will rely more on monitoring and analysis, so policy solutions must take the dynamics of how discrimination is manifesting itself into account. For example, one factor behind the high level of school exclusions is subconscious fear on the part of teachers, born of deep-rooted stereotypes, that equates a combination of blackness and loudness with “aggression”. How do you legislate for what is sometimes unwitting prejudice? Or factor in the idea that “aggression” from black pupils may not simply be a cultural tendency to express themselves in a certain way, but also the product of frustration after years of feeling discriminated against in school (not to mention stopped and searched by police on the way to school)?

Another example from the manifesto is financial access for BME small enterprises. A 2013 government study found little evidence of prima facie discrimination, yet there were racial disparities caused by lower credit ratings. This is due to a much wider picture of BME people being economically disadvantaged due to discrimination throughout their lives: this includes the inherited disadvantage of growing up in deprived neighbourhoods and housing, or being unfairly criminalised by the police. These are issues that demand nuanced as well as radical solutions.

Vision and Narrative

There have been many studies conducted into different areas of racial disadvantage, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but there is a need to weave together ideas into one coherent socialist vision, and a narrative to sell to the wider public. This all points to the importance of a new Race Equality Bill, to enshrine the goal of eliminating race inequality from the economy, and underpin the entire race and faith manifesto. This would be quite separate from the question of reopening the existing 2010 Equality Act, in order to restore the socio-economic duty of tackling class prejudice, add a new one for intersectionality (multiple discriminations against different aspects of a person’s identity), and empower the EHRC. 

However, we also need to ask how far Labour would embrace a focus on doing what needs to be done to address unequal racial outcomes. This would have to be one of the core missions of a transformative government. Everyone might agree that action of some kind is a good thing, especially if it’s more than the other parties are offering. Yet the topic is still viewed with suspicion in some quarters of the Left as “identity politics”: the idea being that race campaigners cannot be true believers if they don’t see everything through a class lens. This overlooks the fact that we have two eyes: race and class analysis can work together to create an enhanced form of anti-racism, in much the same way that the Green New Deal blends socialism and environmentalism.

The second section of the race and faith manifesto addressed itself to “historical injustices” such as the legacies of slavery and colonialism. It included the call for two apologies, one directed towards black and Asian soldiers, the second for the Amritsar massacre of 1919 (though an apology for the enslavement of Africans did not feature, which I assume was an oversight). We should address reparations — as John McDonnell told a session at this year’s The World Transformed, to much applause — but we can also improve the way we present this issue, in order to bring working people, the labour movement, and our fellow socialists with us. Developing a narrative that promotes “common cause” between everyone who is struggling or dispossessed  will be crucial.

This will mean working together to convince the public of the need for action — including the fabled “white working class” (often composed of white working-class people who live and love alongside their BME and migrant working-class neighbours). While many working-class communities can be described as multi-ethnic, in contrast with the abundance of mono-cultural middle- and upper-middle class neighbourhoods, the Right can still foster divisions among those communities, so optics matter. The only real publicity the race and faith manifesto attracted, aside from the antisemitism broadside, was the story about plans to teach the history of the British Empire. That proposal is important to change the way Britain sees itself, but Labour should also avoid being seen as peddling blame and guilt, talking instead of the need to achieve justice for people of all backgrounds, and laying the blame for historical injustices at the feet of the exploiting class.

Overall, the race and faith manifesto is an important, radical document that every Labour member should read. What it lacks in depth or narrative is more than made up for in a solid set of ideas to tackle serious, deep-rooted problems of institutional racism. It is a paper that will probably make sense to civil servants. But it will have to be promoted tirelessly by the progressive movement when a Labour government takes office, in order to change our institutions so they can drive change in others.