Is Race Getting in The Way of Tackling Racial Inequality?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

In October 2017, a government study on UK household income and ethnicity highlighted a racial pay gap. There are many factors why such disparities exist, but there is undeniable inequality between ethnic groups in Britain. 24% of White British households earn over £1,000 per week compared to only 16% of Black households. It is no surprise then, that efforts exist from political groups and charities to counteractively advance minority groups, offering scholarships and increased opportunities alongside affirmative action plans and other measures.

However, counterintuitively, addressing inequality across racial boundaries may better achieve this aim. There are moral and philosophical arguments to consider, including the claim that fighting fire with fire (or discrimination with discrimination) regresses from the ideal articulated by Martin Luther King Jr that people should be judged, not ‘by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. However – leaving philosophical arguments aside – there are also plenty of pragmatic considerations.

Merely targeting support to ethnic minorities is flawed, as some ethnic minority groups are more economically privileged than the majority White British category. For example, the Department of Work and Pensions 2017 study previously mentioned also estimated that 35% of Indian and 33% of Other Asian households have an income of £1,ooo per week or more. At the other end of the spectrum – when considering the bottom third of incomes – Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Asian Other, Mixed and White Other all have smaller proportions earning £400 or less than White British. This income bracket is particularly disadvantaged in funding children’s opportunities, rendering it most in need of social mobility support. If the focus is on providing for ethnic minority families, this could disproportionately aid ethnic groups less in need.

Benefiting ethnic minorities based purely on ethnicity thus inadvertently widens some racial economic disparities. This is especially the case for scholarships for top university students, who are already going to reap the benefits of that degree. Conversely, for all the financial difficulty that students and recent graduates can have, it is not like these are issues that affect only minorities. Another example of unintended consequences can be observed at Harvard, which was recently sued for discriminating against Asian-Americans. Part of the evidence given was that Asian-American’s outperformed other ethnicities academically, but were under-admitted because of affirmative action quotas, which were dutifully granting places to other ethnicities, including White.

Credit: Department of Work and Pensions

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean nothing should be done, but does highlight that a more legitimate and viable way to tackle racial income inequality must be found. For example, White British people could be included amongst underprivileged ethnic demographics (although this undermines the idea of an ‘underprivileged ethnic group’), or policies could ignore race and focus instead on inequality across society in general. Of course, many measures already exist: we have a progressive tax system and a welfare system. In terms of social mobility, universities, for example, have quotas for low-income students and these students can also receive more in student loans. We also have a pupil premium scheme, originally launched by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which attempts to aid disadvantaged children in schools. However, more could be done, such as investing heavily in education (especially in poorer areas) which would aid prospects for children from low-income families and yield social mobility. Regardless of specifics, removing racial aspects by focusing on such measures means pre-privileged people don’t get further leg-ups, and underprivileged people from majority ethnic groups don’t fall through the cracks. Those ethnic groups disproportionately disadvantaged, by virtue of that circumstance, will be proportionately supported, without having to calculate the exact disparity between ethnic groups.

Of course, the scope of this analysis is limited and purely focused on income – there are aspects of racism beyond economics.  Moreover, one could consider racial discrimination to be the very cause of the inequality. While this may be tackled through education and equality laws, I question whether redistribution methods (of wealth, opportunity or otherwise) along racial lines are wise, given that the majority White British group is not the most economically privileged. It would be surprising if a minority group could have enough power to impact society-wide racial inequality in such a liberal economy, which (under the highly speculative condition that individuals seek to act in the interests of their ethnic group) would naturally favour the majority. Therefore, I believe serious doubt should be cast on the claim that racial discrimination is behind economic racial inequality.

Racial inequality is more likely due to pre-existing economic situations. White British households are more likely to be wealthy than Black households due to the historic racism that severely disadvantaged earlier Black British generations, despite the new opportunities now available. Indian households, however, account for many high-earning immigrants, such as doctors, and their subsequent generations are consequently more likely to be higher-earning than average White British households. Because of this perpetuated inequality (‘money breeds money’) investing in poorer children’s futures will both improve social mobility in general, as well as proportionately decrease racial income inequality.

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