3 March 2023

Action on race equality: “Can we have the energy without the polarisation?”

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We may struggle with how to talk about race equality, but might it be easier to agree on what to do? A Westminster panel event discussed this question, following the recent publication of 'An agenda for race equality', a collection of essays published by British Future and Bright Blue. British Future's Director Sunder Katwala was joined by Bright Blue's Ryan Shorthouse, who chaired this panel discussion between authors who contributed essays to the collection.

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“It’s increasingly difficult to talk about race – with younger graduates having a quite different language on race, that older people can find quite discombobulating,” Sunder Katwala told an audience in London last week, at a joint British Future/Bright Blue event on race equality. “But we can actually agree with each other about what to do about it,” he added.

The two thinktanks had joined forces recently to publish An agenda for action on race equality, a collection of essays setting out actionable policy proposals to help address racial inequality. The British Future Director was joined by Ryan Shorthouse, who chaired this panel discussion between three of the authors who contributed essays to the collection: equalities campaigner Akeela Ahmed; former Special Advisor Salma Shah and Sandra Kerr, Race Director for Business in the Community.

So what can we do about it?

Salma, who advised Sajid Javid as Home Secretary, wrote about increasing equality and access to the establishment in her essay for the collection.

“The job of the establishment is to be able to reach out, because it’s not often that those [ethnic minority] communities can reach in,” she said. Drawing on her own experience inside government, she saw both positives and negatives.

“We don’t do too badly on ethnic minority representation among frontline politics,” she said, “But where we do badly is in the civil service.” Whitehall could do much more to increase diversity – not only by ethnicity but also by social class and education too.

A new monarch also turned the conversation towards the pinnacle of the establishment, the royal family. “How do you diversify the royal family? Well you can’t,” she said. “But you can diversify the advice that the royal family gets – you can diversify the perspectives that the royal family has as a consequence of who is there.”

Akeela Ahmed, a member of Cross-Government Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hatred, spoke about the challenges of building trust between the authorities and Britain’s Muslim citizens. Police need to take a more collaborative approach to working with communities, she suggested – and not just Muslim communities.

Akeela spoke from her own experience of reporting hate crime, which she has sadly encountered on more than one occasion – with mixed results in her interactions with the police.

“Too often when police and agencies have interacted with Muslim communities it has been through the lens of prevent and counter-terrorism, and this has led to missed opportunities to build trust,” she told the audience. “Negative experiences, especially among British Muslim women when they are dealing with police on issues not related to counter-terrorism – issues like hate crime, anti-Muslim hatred or issues around domestic violence – when they interact with the police and they have negative experiences that then undermines trust in the police and the police’s ability to reach into communities and engage with them.”

Sandra Kerr of Business in the Community spoke about the importance of equality of opportunity in the workplace. She has a very early introduction to the importance of work she said, as a child of Windrush generation migrants to Britain.

“My parents came to the UK in the 50s and 60s,” she said, “And they just worked, worked, worked. My mum said she came on the Saturday and was working on the Monday.”

But the experiences of black people in particular in the world of work is unequal, she told the event. “We are looking at stubborn, persistent disparities. Higher unemployment by ethnic group; underemployment and education, even higher education, not translating into progression for some ethnic groups – and our research shows a strong desire for progression,” she said.

It would boost the economy if we tackled barriers to recruitment and progression for ethnic minority citizens, Sandra said, citing a host of studies into the positive financial impact this could have.

In the constructive spirit of the discussion, Sandra proposed a series of actions that could make a real difference to people’s lives. “Setting public targets, with tracking and accountability at the top table, on recruitment, progression and pay,” would be among the first, she said. Addressing the experience of black people with recruitment agencies would be another, with black jobseekers more likely to use an agency to help find work but also more likely to feel they were unfairly treated by them.

She also urged employers to bring more diversity into heir own recruitment processes, citing personal experience. “One of the things I’m a big advocate for is not only diversity on selection panels but also in the recruitment process,” she said. “I’ve spoken to lots of employers who have said it has resulted in improvements. I’ve sat in the room and the results have been different.”

Summing up, the two thinktankers both looked positively towards future action on this issue.

“This is a first step in a longer project that Bright Blue and British Future want to do, creating a more sensible and action-orientated agenda on racial equality,” Ryan from Bright Blue told the event.

Sunder saw an appetite for positive change that could sometimes be thwarted by a political debate that had become angry and divisive.

“In the last three years there’s a new energy, a new urgency, conversations have happened that wouldn’t have happened before, big organisations have moved forward,” he said. “But it’s also been more polarising.”

“Can we have the energy without the polarisation? There’s a latent public appetite out there for it but we haven’t really got the politics that tries to do that. We have a politics that tries to do the opposite. We’ve got to find some energy in this constructive centre.”

Download the essay collection ‘An agenda for action on race equality’ here

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