Friday, 21 August 2009

Is it discrimination? Are ethnic minority groups “racist”?

This blog is divided into two parts – not least because I will not be able to write it all in one go. I also feel that you, the reader, may benefit from a short break of a few days before moving on to part 2!!

Part 1

Normally I ignore rants from the BNP, but on this occasion this particular rant (see:
Northamptonshire County Council Funds Racist Organisation is worthy of challenge – not least because some or all of the arguments presented are often recited by others, albeit in slightly different ways. I have, for example, heard Tory Councillors on Wellingborough Council advance such arguments and also some officers in public organisations are tempted by the superficiality and simplicity of the propositions (Google: "Southall Black Sisters" and "Ealing Council). You will also hear similar refrains from the populist media (such as the Mail, Express and Sun). It is also of concern that the Government’s “community cohesion” agenda has, in part at least, added official credibility to some of these arguments.

Essentially the arguments can be summarised as follows:
  • If funding, or grant aid (from public funds), is given to Black and ethnic minority (BME) groups - or Women’s or Lesbian/Gay groups for that matter - then this must amount to discrimination against white people (or men or heterosexuals)

  • The only way to ensure there is no discrimination in the provision of public services is to provide “generic”, overarching, services that are “available for all”. There should be no funding to groups that serve “narrow” interest groups

  • If funding does continue to go to such narrow self-interested groups this is automatically and de facto bad and creates divisions in society

  • If ethnic minority organisations exist and provide services to their ethnic group this mean they are “racist”

  • Because of all this funding going to “those” groups, the new “victims “ of discrimination/injustice in today’s society are therefore white, male, heterosexual and (probably) Christian
The first thing to say is that you will not hear this argument if funding is sought from disabled groups, or groups representing elderly people or indeed youth groups, although the same arguments could apply. This is because it is obvious (isn’t it!) that disabled people/young people/ older people have special and particular needs that are clear and demonstrably best provided by groups representing or involving disabled people/young people/older people. No one would dare say (would they?) “we cannot provide funding to that group to meet the needs of elderly people because that would be discrimination against young people”.

In fact the same arguments apply in exactly the same way to BME groups. The difference is that some white people don’t actually believe or recognise that BME groups have rights, or special or particular needs, or believe that public services might best, in certain demonstrable circumstances, be best delivered by such groups to members of their community.

A parallel discourse is based on the notion of “assimilation”. Since 9/11 there has been a significant shift in the discourse away from focusing on questions of eliminating inequality and justice, to one of a shared “citizenship”, shared values and a feeling at least that funding separate groups will undermine “community cohesion” and our shared "citizenship".

But there is no contradiction between being part of a diverse society, which respects and values diversity and shares a common legal citizenship (with the same rights and obligations) and common values (if we can identify what they may be). Diversity, and diverse ways of delivering services to diverse sections of our community, is not in opposition to having a unified sense of our common humanity or shared citizenship. Only those who want to see everyone become like “us” (White British, Anglo-Saxon or whatever) see a problem. The concepts of “Unity and Diversity”, or “One Citizenship; Many Peoples”, seems too complex for many to grasp. Is it that hard?

The (first) assumption, therefore, underlying the above arguments is that BME groups have no place, or a second class place, in British society. They are not allowed to be themselves. They are not allowed to receive services that might be more appropriate to their needs and requirements. “They” should simply be like “us”. If that’s not acceptable to “them” then they have no legitimacy in “our” society.

The second assumption is essentially that there has been no history: we start from here and now (2009) and everything is OK and everyone is now treated fairly and equally. Any history (if it is acknowledge) is “water under the bridge”.

Only the BNP take this much further by suggesting that the "tables have been turned" and now 90% of the population are now being discriminated against by the rest - or at least is being "sold down the river" by a "liberal elite" that is "bending over backwards" to accomodate "all these minorities". History and evidence is conveniently discarded on the back of a fascist political project to hoodwink the British people - the lunatics are trying to take over the asylum!

It is not accepted or acknowledged that there is a continuing, real and living history, stretching back 100s of years, of discrimination, racism, xenophobia against those we now describe as “BME groups”. This discrimination continues today (albeit in more “hidden” ways) and all objective evidence of racial disadvantage and inequality continues to show that such groups are disadvantaged when comparing like with like (e.g. BME working class with the white working class). This applies as much to the provision of goods, facilities’ and services as it does in employment. Where there is a public “good” (e.g. the provision of advice services; housing, the best health care) BME groups will generally be under-represented. When it is a public “bad” BME groups will generally be over-represented (e.g. the worse schools, stop and search, living in the poorest and most deprived neighbourhoods).

Sometimes the only way to ensure that BME communities (or sub-groups within BME communities - such as BME women or BME LGBT members) are receiving their fair share of resources and receiving services that meet their needs is to fund and support BME groups that can deliver them on the ground. This is not discrimination against white people or denying white people anything (mainstream services have overwhelmingly been designed based on the historic assumption(s) of a “white” society, albeit subconsciously), but is one way of trying to ensure that BME communities are not discriminate against by inappropriate services that do not meet their needs, and which have not been designed with them in mind.

It should be noted that inequality/injustice based on social class is also an extremely important phenomena and you don’t have to be a Marxist to see this with your own eyes. However, there is much more widespread acceptance, at one level, that to tackle class-based inequalities we have to at least target resources at working class/poor communities and involve working class people in these initiatives if they are to be successful. The fact that the resources often don’t get there (either to working class/poor or BME communities!), or are badly delivered, or its just all rhetoric anyway, does not undermine that fact that most people recognise that this sort of class-based targeted support is at least desirable.

Even David Cameron is, I believe, now signed up to this on behalf of the Conservative Party (there is something called “society”!), if you believe his rhetoric. So why is it so difficult to see that resources sometimes have to be targeted at BME communities as well - who suffer from other forms of inequality based on racism and xenophobia? Could it be racism perhaps?

The third assumption is that unless services are provided to everyone in the same way (“equally”) then there will inevitably be discrimination. In fact it is the other way round – if you try to deliver services to everyone in the same way you will, most definitely, end up discriminating – not just against BME groups but everyone else who doesn’t “fit” the “box” either – which is likely to be most of us at one time or another.

There is an Aesop’s fable (the Stork and the Fox) which illustrates this:

At one time the Fox and the Stork were on visiting terms and seemed very good friends. So the Fox invited the Stork to dinner, and for a joke put nothing before her but some soup in a very shallow dish. This the Fox could easily lap up, but the Stork could only wet the end of her long bill in it, and left the meal as hungry as when she began. "I am sorry," said the Fox, "the soup is not to your liking?”

"Pray do not apologise," said the Stork. "I hope you will return this visit, and come and dine with me soon." So a day was appointed when the Fox should visit the Stork; but when they were seated at table all that was for their dinner was contained in a very long-necked jar with a narrow mouth, in which the Fox could not insert his snout, so all he could manage to do was to lick the outside of the jar. "I will not apologise for the dinner," said the Stork: "One bad turn deserves another."

The moral of the story (from the point of view of looking at discrimination at least – there are other morals as well) is that whilst, on both occasions, food was presented in the same way and there was no denial of food, the means of delivery nevertheless prevented the stork and fox eating each others food - because they were different from each other (in the above fable the effective discrimination was deliberate; in another contexts it could be unintentional, “unwitting” or “thoughtless”).It is also the case that all human beings are differenty in a variety of different ways as well as sharing a commonality in being human.

Unless we recognise and value the diversity of all our communities – with all its shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, etc., - and are prepared to offer choices to people in the way that services are delivered, we will inevitably provide services that only meet the needs of some and not all despite possibly our best intentions. To feed both the stork and the fox on an equitable and fair basis we have to provide the food in different ways (and possible different food as well). Anything else will discriminate against one or the other whilst superficially treating them “equally”.

To summarise at this point: it is not “discrimination” to fund certain groups to provide certain and specific services that meet certain needs in certain ways (such as BME/Women’s or LGBT groups). Indeed the reverse applies. If services are provided “to all” in the same way this is likely to result in unequal, unfair and inappropriate services. This is particular so if there is a history of unequal and unfair treatment that continues and it is right for this to be addressed in this way.

**** End of Part 1 ****

Part 2 will look at:

What is the legal position in respect of discrimination and providing fair and equitable services. What does the law have to say about having separate ethnic (or gender-based or LGBT) groups.



  1. Have read this blog and the blog from the northants bnp.

    This makes sense and explains the situation well.

    The other? - well, what can we expect from a group that has a 'family fun day' which involves the mock trial of a golliwog accused of being black, found guilty and then dropped in a fire by a 12 year old girl.

    All done while others look on making nazi salutes.

    (google the news of the world story)

  2. Paul, Any group set up purely for the advancement of one ethnic grouping being superior to another i.e. the BNP is by its nature separatist and racist

    But for me the environment people live in and the services they need rather than there ethnicity have always been primary in understanding the way groups form and operate and also whether or not they face additional barriers in the communities they live.

    For instance there is a vast difference in need between established and new entry communities. Also groups that were set up for one purpose often grow and redefine their purpose as they develop.

    This should lead some to question whether or not we could prioritise need better not on grounds of ethnicity but on the basis of local condition

    Therefore anyone making a judgement on ethnicity alone black or white has missed the whole point.

    Authorities should when deciding on grant allocation start from the point of recognizing or identifying the need and also any gaps in the local service before they ever get round to thinking about ethnicity.

    Meanwhile the far right will continue to single out individual abuses in the system which are the most press worthy and suggest to the world that it is the tip of an iceberg rather than being an exception to the rule.

  3. Tony,

    I broadly agree - meeting need and prioritising need is the prime objective of public policy, but this means that it is important not to neglect or overlook potential or actual need based around particular areas of difference (such as ethnicity/disability/age/class, or whatever). Need and difference need to be looked at together. Therefore your formulation "...identifying the need and also any gaps in the local service before they ever get round to thinking about ethnicity" is not, in my view, the right approach - it needs to go together, not be an after-thought or at the end of a process.

    I also don't think it is correct that the far right "...continue to single out individual abuses in the system". 99 time out of 100 they are not singling out "abuses", but rather they are just against any kind of specific support (e.g. the funding of Dostiyo) or positive action on behalf of marginalised or discriminated groups - especially anything to do with BME communities. For them it is a matter of principle - to essentially protect the elevated status and privileges associated historically (and currently) with "whiteness" within British society.