Almost one year ago, a 46-year old man walked into a store in Minneapolis and, while attempting to pay, was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. The police were called, and the man was arrested; 8 minutes and 46 seconds later, a full two minutes after he had become unresponsive, he was dead. Last week, the person who was kneeling on his neck faced trial.
Meanwhile, the UK has been ripped apart by the fallout from the release of the Sewell report on racial disparity; in case you (somehow) missed it, it controversially concluded that “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. To many, this was an affirmation of what they’d believed for a long time; that structural racial discrimination in the UK no longer exists, and that those who claim it does are selfishly inventing an issue where one doesn’t exist. To me, though, this report was the most direct possible highlight of everything that I think people fail to understand about the structural and institutional racism that pervades our lives.
Contrary to the investigation’s suggestions, I believe that in the West, racial equality is a myth—structural racism penetrates deep into our society and continues to have huge effects today, regardless of how far we’ve come in alleviating it. This piece is my attempt to back up that idea (from the point of view of a white guy who has benefited from the exact systems it outlines).
Institutional racism is a deeply multifaceted issue, and getting into its full extent would take somebody who knows a lot more than me a lot more time than just one article. So, in the interest of brevity and providing an example of where the report goes wrong, let’s talk about one issue the investigation brings up: education and success.
Over summer, a friend of mine recommended a book to me called “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell; it’s a book that aims to explore the factors behind successful people, well, becoming successful. I really recommend reading it, but I’ll save you the time by cutting to its main finding: that success is about opportunity. More specifically, the only way that anybody ends up good at anything is by getting the opportunity to practice and become good at it. Across the book, Gladwell uses examples from Canadian ice hockey players to Bill Gates himself to show that the success of all of them was not determined by talent, but the opportunities they were provided from a young age. As he states in the conclusion to the book, success is “is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky”. The truth is that we don’t live in an egalitarian society; life is made incredibly easy for some (myself included) and incredibly difficult for others based on factors over which they have absolutely no control. This is a principle that I think can be applied across the human experience—the truth is, many of the things that you’ll be able to achieve are predetermined long before the day you are born.
Most of the people who maintain the idea that racial inequalities do not exist seem to parrot the exact same alternative narrative—that success is solely a result of hard work, and that if anyone works hard enough, their dreams are guaranteed. They laud figures such as Denzel Washington, who preaches that “hard work, works”*. They then extrapolate this to suggest that just because one person from a particular background can make it out and achieve amazing things, so can every single person from that background—and, according to them, those who fail to “make it” do so because they simply aren’t working hard enough.
Listen: in a lot of ways, this isn’t incorrect. Success definitively requires hard work; nobody with any number of ideal opportunities is going to get anywhere without putting pretty significant effort in. But how much work you actually have to put in, and how conducive that work is going to be to actual achievement, varies heavily depending on your individual situation. To harness that hard work, you need the right opportunities—who gets which opportunities, then, depends majorly on your background. It is true that in today’s UK, you’d be lying if you suggested that it were absolutely impossible for someone to do anything based upon their ethnicity (though we’re still waiting on a non-white Prime Minster; we’ll get there.) But think of it like a running race, in which some contestants start 50 metres ahead while others start behind, with hurdles and obstacles in their way—those who start behind could win, say, if those in front walk really slowly, but it’s going to be tough work. No matter how much you grind, life is still more or less a game of luck—succeeding isn’t guaranteed. And what is important is that for a middle-class white kid like me, the amount of better-quality advantages you receive in life (which you can harness to eventually become successful) is going to be so much more than the average kid from an ethnic minority background**—we start out in front, and the course is much more clear. For others, the opportunities they receive are more likely to be fewer and further between; this means they can still do well, sure, but the odds are much more heavily stacked against them.
“But isn’t all of this more or less determined by class, not race?”, you might, pretty fairly, ask. Class definitely comes into it; indeed, regardless of race, the more money you have, the better your schooling, tech, extracurricular help, and even basic food provision can afford to be. Indeed, I reckon that most of the differences that I’ve outlined above can be put down to variation in class, not race (though other more subtle racial ones definitely do exist). But even if you ignore the other factors that affect education and futures and assume (pretty tenuously) that disparities in eventual affluence are totally explained by your socioeconomic position growing up, the blaring issue still stands that race is not accurately represented across classes. In the UK, white British people are easily the least likely ethnic group of all to be in the poorest income brackets, while the most likely to be in the richest:
People of colour are far more likely to be in those lower income brackets, receiving worse opportunities and therefore being set up to do less well than their white counterparts**. White people are more likely to live in richer areas with better schools (or just be able to pay for better schools), to have affluent parents with powerful contacts, and to get tutoring, internships, extracurricular funding, summer schools, textbooks, and everything in between. This social, economic and cultural safety net consists of the exact advantages that Gladwell is on about (and many of the ones that I have benefited from myself)—sure, you can be absolutely fine without them, but you’re going to need a hell of a lot of luck. I think that many people fail to recognise this key difference between the possibility and probability of success; just because we could, in theory, all achieve something, doesn’t make us all equally likely of being able to achieve it, and doesn’t make it fair (think back to my running race analogy from before).
Being poorer, as ethnic minorities are more likely to be, doesn’t make success impossible, just as being rich doesn’t guarantee it; we’ve all heard stories of rags to riches and spectacular falls from grace. But just because one person bucks the trend created by this disparity doesn’t mean that all of them can—the truth is, most of them don’t. And as the gaps between socioeconomic classes increase due to this biased system (which they definitively are; inequality is not getting any lesser in the UK), so do the gaps between races as disadvantaged people fight harder to get less far. This is just one single, very focused example of how our society is ruthlessly rigged against ethnic minorities; I haven’t even touched on other broad issues like policing, health, or even employment (though the latter is very linked to what I have explored). Nor have I gotten into how discrimination expresses itself within classes and schools, through indirect biases such as how students of ethnic minority backgrounds can be hit with disproportionate rates of disciplinary punishment—these are incredibly pressing issues that the government’s “landmark” investigation fails to properly investigate.
For its part, the Sewell report acknowledges the issues that affect educational achievement, including parental income levels and education, geography, and family structure, while asserting that socioeconomic status by far correlates the most strongly with attainment. I more or less agree with this breakdown of the issue; what the report then suggests to solve this, though, is simply the improvement of early-age state schooling. I think that this could definitely make up a lot of ground, but at the end of the day equalising your first few years of school simply isn’t enough to deal with structural societal inequalities. This solution only addresses what happens within the classroom, and ignores the fact that most of the difference expresses itself without, through background, extra support, etc. It also doesn’t get into the massive advantage that mostly-white private schools provide.
They’ve pretty much admitted that the root of the problem is socioeconomic status, and the misrepresentation of races in this respect. So, why aren’t we dealing with that? Why are we focusing on early-age education while upholding this inadequate hierarchy when we could be working to change that system as a whole? This rationale is more or less, I think, reflected across the entire report; though in many cases, it identifies the problems we’re facing with surprising lucidity, its recommendations of solutions repeatedly fall short of what is necessary. The thing is, until we start addressing the deep racial disparities that are actually behind all of the issues we’re debating, those issues will never really go away. Many hoped that the Sewell report would start addressing that by actually beginning to confront these problems; I, for one, was incredibly disappointed to see that it didn’t.
For me, the death of George Floyd was a wake-up call to facing issues that, as a privileged white kid, I had never been privy to in the past—more than anything, it was a reminder of just how different others’ lives are to mine, and just how much I have left to learn and to understand. That’s what I’ve spent the last year attempting to do, and I’m still trying. I’m nowhere near fully getting it now (and I never will be), but I know that I’m a lot closer than I was. What worries me, though, is that there are still so many people who don’t try: who are happy to be complacent and deny just how rigged our society is, to pretend that the reason that individuals pass or fail, work the trading floor or the streets, and receive a warning or a knee to the neck is because of their own faults, and not because of a system that is structurally stacked against them.
Though the conviction of Floyd’s murderer might bring his family peace, it won’t truly bring him justice; he won’t receive that until we finally create a world in which no innocent person like him dies in the first place. What pains me is that with the way things seem right now, that reality is still a long way off.
* I don’t at all think that Denzel doesn’t understand the issue, but I think that he is often misquoted and his ideas bent to fit a certain agenda.
** I am grouping all ethnic minorities together here as they are all at a disadvantage, but I want to make it clear that the difficulties that ethnic groups face are by no means homogenous and should not be unnecessarily generalised. Every individual’s, and every group’s, experience is complex and unique and should be treated entirely as such.
A lot of this one was again fuelled by my own thought, along with hours of conversations on the issue with people in-person and over the internet; this piece is my best attempt to put my point of view on it forwards in the most comprehensive way possible. This is the article I wish I could have read aged sixteen (when I really didn’t get it at all).
However, here are a couple books I’ve read that really influenced my thinking here (from Edinburgh-based independent bookstores, of course):
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell:
(This is also a good criticism of Gladwell’s writing that is important to bear in mind: https://medium.com/@tomnew/how-malcolm-gladwell-writes-12960d83575c)
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (a really important read even if you disagree with me and everything this book stands for, as it explains this side of the argument really well):
I’ll also repost the UK Government statistics page from which I took the graph above:
Image sources (in order of use):
None of these images are owned by me, and I make no financial gain from their use. All credit goes to their original owners.