Neither political gestures nor telling BAME people how to think, can solve a problem that calls for open debate and institutional reform.
It is said that we owe to Metternich, the distinguished 19th-century diplomat, one of the most famous phrases about the global economy. In an era when Europe dominated the world, he came up with: “When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold.”
That was easily adapted, with the rise of the United States, to: “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” It remains true today. Not only foreign policy and economically, but also in terms of culture.
The protests that followed the horrific death of George Floyd have spread not just around the United States but across the Western world, triggering a chain of protests and political gestures in the UK too.
A quick reminder of some of the highlights.
Demonstrations started in Manchester and London on 28th May, and outside the gates of Downing Street, with protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” and “fuck the police”. I understand and empathise with why people make a comparison; there is a trans-Atlantic Anglo-American intercourse at play, and off course there are some real issues here and Britain will need to do better, but we need to also understand that Britain’s race pain is not the same as America’s, where last year just three people were shot to death by the police. The Americanisation of cultural wars homogenises national priorities and obscures cultural and political differences, to such an extent where policy brutality may be a problem in a US state, while not being a priority in an English county. The globalisation of politics obscures local conditions and is extremely damaging to equality and rational debate.
There has already been uproar in Westminster overly a fairly innocent remark made in Parliament by Kemi Badenoch MP. Britain, she said, is one of the best places in the world to be black. Her fast-growing army of critics took this as a blithe dismissal of racism – an attempt to disregard a black women’s experience.
This was followed with a letter to Priti Patel MP, signed by 32 Labour MPs saying that as BAME politicians they would not allow her to “gaslight other minority communities”. After sharing her experiences of racism as a child, Labour MP’s accused her “not being black enough” and distracting from the racism facing black people — as if somehow her struggles were worth less because she is of Indian heritage (indeed her parents were from Uganda). That being called a ‘Paki’ as a young girl wouldn’t have had the same crushing, hurtful impact as any other racial slur.
Earlier this month, the government published the “COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities” report, and even before the review, the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch said that being black or from a minority ethnic background is a significant risk factor to COVID-19. This government is able to take race seriously and Priti Patel is essentially being denied of her own experience. Isn’t that racist in itself? Why is Priti Patel’s experience of racism any less than BAME’s from the Left?
I particularly felt this, especially because I have something in common with Patel and Badenoch: we are all ethnic minority women who do not accept the standard leftist view of racism.
During the last Conservative Part Conference in 2019, I spoke about the integration of refugee communities, highlighting the wealth of opportunities that is available to BAME communities in the UK and the failure of some to take advantage of it. For some, this was the worst thing I could do. I would never be forgiven by some people, who just couldn’t understand why an ethnic minority person would have sympathy for Conservative policies. It often feels like we are not allowed to think for ourselves, outside of the orthodoxies set down by the Left. That experience is why today I have the greatest sympathy for Conservative MPs like Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch. I know how I have been treated for simply being supportive of Conservative policies — heaven knows what actual Tory MPs from ethnic minorities must have to endure.
The Tory view, in general, would be that Martin Luther King had it right when he defined equality as judging people by the “content of their character”, not the colour of their skin. Labour, now, is more drawn to the Black Lives Matter agenda, where skin colour matters a great deal – especially for those MPs who see the world in terms of oppressors and the oppressed.
But look, I get it. Race and racism is an incendiary topic, with plenty to discuss. If you’re white in this country, you will on average have some advantages. But dig deeper, and things become far more complicated.
In the UK, Britons with a Bangladeshi background typically earn 20 per cent less than their white counterparts. But those with Indian heritage are likely to earn 12 per cent more. For black Britons, it’s 9 per cent less; for Chinese, 30 per cent more. It’s therefor hard to put these differences down to systemic discrimination based on skin colour. The question is the extent to which discrimination is definitive of minority economic success?
It is because of this that I reject a “white vs BAME” narrative as being an American import that fundamentally misunderstands Britain. Culture wars can be incredibly patronising and insulting and more importantly not useful for judging policy issues. Even the term “black” lumps together those with African and Caribbean backgrounds, which can be simplistic in a country where the former group are (for example) twice as likely to get into university than the latter.
Admissions to university – a useful proxy for future life chances – also offer a fascinating insight. The average 18-year-old English applicant has a 35 per cent chance of going – but it’s 50 per cent for those categorised as Asian and an almighty 68 per cent for Chinese. Black students, as a whole, do better than the national average. The ethnic group least likely to go, with a 30 per cent entry rate, are whites. You tend not to hear that figure, because so much of England’s public debate about higher education tends to be driven by an obsession about who gets into Oxbridge.
Deploring racism is easy. It is far harder to look into the huge disparities between the ethnic groups and ask what explains them. More dangerous still is to ask whether culture or family structure might play a role.
The hot potato that no politician wants to handle is the shocking underachievement of poor white boys: they do worse academically than any other group. Ladders of opportunity work for those eager to climb. But what about those who have come to believe that it’s not worth trying? The problem of the “hard-to-reach” poor white boys is one of the toughest questions of equality – and race – in Britain today.
Playing the game of identity politics is easier, with a more visceral appeal. But it has become dangerous.
Our society is at risk of silencing important truths – where you cannot be seen or heard saying anything that falls outside of the Left’s line on race and racism. In the same way that when I grew up in Afghanistan, there were things that you could not do, in some cases criticise the government, in order cases you can’t criticise a way of thinking or religion. So, what we’re seeing in the west is slowly but surely these intrusions causing each of us to self-Censor. People have become scared to like or retweet a tweet. Afraid to say something to their family and friends from fear of being denounced. They’ve began to change their behaviour, defensive and afraid. Put simply, anything you say can easily be labelled racist. The kind of formal social relationships that you need to be healthy in order for a civic society to be strong, are being weakened by people’s desperation to jump on anything as being potentially offensive. Is this the kind of environment we want to live in?
I expected the “Black Lives Matter” movement to provoke vital conversations about the meaning and impact of race in our society, the nature of racism and what to do about it.
However, from black boxes shared on Instagram to meaningless supportive BLM statement on corporate websites, I’ve come to realise that people are far less interested in examining race in our society and are more concerned about making political gestures and instilling a cancel culture; which stops people from thinking for themselves. Organisations and companies simply want an easy fix, a stamp of approval that can brand them as non-racist – not because they’ve changed their company policy on recruitment on instance.
My father is of Afghan heritage, he come from a war-torn poverty-stricken environment and grew up working as child so that he can feed his family. Afghanistan has been through over 40-decades of war and almost 200,000 civilians killed since 2001. His experience of disadvantage, brutal journey to the UK as a refugee and racism should not be overlooked because he does not think or accept the Leftist view on BAME communities in the UK.
The way for real change and progress, I suspect, is not via empty gestures, a tick-box culture or shutting people down who may think a different way to you. It can move forwards only through practical measures and debate. The sooner we realise that, the better.