How Focusing On Race Could Overshadow The Bigger Issue Of Poverty And Disadvantage

Theresa May should be praised for the publishing of the Race Disparity Audit, earlier this month. In her first speech as Prime Minister, she announced a commitment to investigating racial inequality in our society and she seems intent to deliver on that promise.

The resulting website is a valuable resource and a clear demonstration of the willingness to address issues of diversity in our society. Yet, the report has drawn some criticism and it is true that its shocking findings offer more of a description of the problem than a solution.

However, I would argue that this has been the case with every recent investigation into racial equality. I believe it is hugely positive that such steps are being taken to identify the problem, but we now need more of a focus on how we tackle it.

I think that one of this report’s key strengths is that it goes beyond race and highlights the wider problem of disadvantage across our society as a whole. While the Lammy Review, for example, addressed the treatment of BAME individuals in the Criminal Justice System, the Race Disparity Audit also highlights some surprising divides within geographic regions and class groups. For instance, among the poorest children in our country, white children have actually been found to do the worst at school.

It’s clear that action is needed, but we need a deeper understanding of the circumstances behind this data if our response is to be fair for everyone. Theresa May’s report has found that Indian and Chinese children, for example, are doing particularly well in school. We need to ensure that any efforts to improve the performance of other ethnic groups or members of certain classes don’t punish these students for their success, such as by limiting their access to universities.

This may sound extreme, but a recent piece of American research has revealed that working specifically to give more opportunities to under-represented groups can hinder others that are performing well. This research found, for example, that being identified as Asian was equivalent to having SAT scores lowered by 50 points.

Businesses and large organisations have a part to play too, as their failure to treat people fairly is a key factor in the economic disparities between different groups. Many aren’t paying enough attention to the problem, primarily because their leaders don’t see diversity, and race equality in particular, as an important issue. However, the data shows that the reality of the situation is very different and that the patterns of disadvantage are, unfortunately, entirely predictable.

The key to rebalancing the scales is to challenge the stereotypes upon which these outcomes are based. Some of the media coverage around this report, as well as others that have come before it, has referred to the results being determined by nothing more than a “postcode lottery.” This is absolutely not the case. These outcomes are not governed by chance; they are the result of a potent mix of poverty, class and racial stereotyping.