Integrating equalities – will it ever work for race?

Integrating equalities – will it ever work for race?

Eight years after the passage of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, most people of African, Caribbean and Asian origin in this country face discrimination on a wide scale and still suffer racial disadvantage in education, housing, health, employment and enterprise. Too many African and Caribbean people are over represented in the criminal justice system. In 2002 for instance as 8,500 African and Caribbean people were preparing for university education a much higher number of 11,500 were being admitted into prison. But they are however under-represented in the political system; they make 2.5% of MPs in parliament.

The Act extended the Race Relations Act 1976 to cover the police and other statutory bodies, though not parliament, and provided for general duties to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, to promote equality of opportunity and good relations for and between persons of different racial groups. The specific duties; the development and implementation of race equality schemes, and the employment duty of monitoring at different stages of the employment process were meant to assist organisations in complying with the general duties.

The RRAA 2000 though perceived as a powerful law is yet to be fully tested. To date only one case has been upheld by the courts relating to whether services for ethnic minority people could be varied without a race impact assessment, and there are doubts about whether most organisations have complied with the spirit of the Act. Even government agencies have broken it with impunity and without of sanctions being applied against them; in Wales it was discovered the 14 out of 15 police forces had not complied with the scheme. The effect of this scale of non compliance is to render this law into a voluntary code whilst inequality continues to deprive people of all races from participating fully in society.

So when The Commission for Equalities and Human Rights was set up an article in the Economist dubbed it as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, suggesting that it had placed human rights, applicable to all people, above discrimination and inequalities that affects the seven specific groups of gender, disability, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, sexual transformation that the commission is expected to work with. Others felt that the powers that had been enshrined in the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 were in danger of being diluted because it was being subsumed under the banner of human rights. Another concern was the haste in creating the commission without the necessary law to back all its work. The institution has operated on a trial basis and it is only now that the law is been enacted. The major concern is; will the agency function effectively under this one law?

The law itself when it comes into force will be more complicated but may not grasp all the issues involved in race discrimination. The issues for policing the law will inevitably be more complex because in race equality issues have been allowed to fester for so long that we are now dealing with the culture of institutional racism.

The ideals of the law to achieve equality across the board are sound, though lofty; combining the achievement of equality for all with resolving discrimination for targeted groups will be challenging, especially since discrimination in the area of employment and access to services for ethnic minority people is without informed reason. For instance, nothing except discrimination can explain the wide 12% disparity in employment rates; 58% for ethnic minorities and 77% for the wider white community. The unemployment rate is also twice as high, 3.4% for whites but 6.8% for ethnic minority people.

Some campaigners strongly believe that the effect of race discrimination remains more pernicious, the incidence more pervasive and the impact more devastating than the other forms of discrimination. They assert that inequalities as a result of race discrimination are wider and therefore more resources and a more intensive approach may be required to minimise and eradicate race discrimination and they view the one law for all inequalities as diluting the race issue.

So whilst the government may be trying to resolve the issues of equality in a more efficient way by adopting a ‘one size fits all’ broad brush approach, the complexities of race discrimination actually require a more specialist approach; the methodology for dealing with race may be quite different from those dealing with the other forms of discrimination. People from ethnic minority people may need to be granted more training so that there are able to earn as much in pay as people from other groups. Bangladeshi men suffer an ethnic penalty in terms of pay; they earn on average as much as £150 less a week than white men.

There are several questions of how this commission will work effectively. Will officers be allowed to develop their specialism for the different groups or will the expertise be used across the board? and as happens in most institutions, which section would be seen as the ‘elite corps’ to work in and which would be seen as poor cousins? Which groups have the most vocal and effective lobbies that will supplement the efforts of the commission and which groups will plod on without any lobby or voice at all?

There is a danger of conflating the workings of the Equalities Bill to the extent that an atmosphere of competitive disadvantage will be created even within the commission and for the law. An integrated law will at best be seen as a generalist approach, the targets will not be clear and the sanctions may be vague and without a level playing field, equality of opportunity may prove longer to achieve or may not be achieved at all.

We know that New Labour was bold enough to implement an ‘Emily’s list’, an all women short list that propelled 11 women MPs to parliament in 1997, and that the Conservatives are looking at an ‘A list’ of minorities. Would an ‘Obama list’ of all black short list not work equally well to ensure that people of African Caribbean and Asian descent take their rightful place in the political system in this country. But as all things to do with racial equality the political will is absent?

The intention should not be to dilute race equality and relegate it to a backseat because racial equality it is too difficult to achieve. For the sake of our children who have seen Obama rise to be a president in America, a sharper focus approach may be more beneficial than the wider lens approach that is being adopted.

Ade Sawyerr is partner in Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy providing consultancy, training and research that focuses on strategies for black and ethnic minority, disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. He also comments on political, economic and social, and development issues. He can be contacted through www.equinoxconsulting.net or email him at ades@equinoxconsulting.net

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