Ethnic inequalities – and the prejudice, discrimination and racism that underlie them – persist to a significant degree

It is often said that we have moved into a ‘post-race’ policy environment, in which politicians in particularly keen to claim that ethnic inequalities no longer matter. However this is not necessarily the case, says, counters James Nazroo of the University of Manchester, who argues that in fact they remain both significant and important, with policy implications. 

When was the last time you heard an MP, let alone a minister, talk about ethnicity in terms of inequality? In mainstream policy discussion we appear to have moved into a ‘post-race’ world, where ethnicity is no longer considered to be a driver of disadvantage.

Rather, mainstream policy focuses on ethnic identities that don’t fit; ethnic identities that encompass attitudes and behaviours that are deemed to be insufficiently British. Although there are many grounds on which to challenge the logic underpinning this focus – asking how we might define a notion of Britishness is one simple example – what concerns me most is how this ignores and aggravates underlying ethnic inequalities.

The racialisation of ethnic minority identities, identifying identity as the problem, further undermines those so identified.

Without wanting to be equally crude in my analysis, I do think that it is reasonable to simply assert that ethnic inequalities – and the prejudice, discrimination and racism that underlie them – have persisted to a significant degree. We have not seen them disappear.

In the employment sector, for example, research carried out by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) shows that there has been little change in the large inequalities in employment experienced by people in ethnic minority groups. White men and women have maintained a consistent advantage over the past 20 years compared with men and women in almost all other ethnic groups.

This research has been based on analysis of Census data and it is worth considering a few other findings from that work. In 2011, 14% of the population identified with a non-white ethnic group (an additional 6% identified with a White group other than White British), compared with 9% in 2001 and 7% in 1991. This change reflects a growing complexity of ethnic identification and a rejection of standard categories and perhaps their stereotyped meanings – the size of ethnic categories with ‘Other’ in their title have increased by half in the 10 years between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses. And the rise in the number of people identifying as mixed (a grouping that also increased by about a half between 2001 and 2011) might well reflect how the significance of ethnicity as a marker of separation might be changing. Indeed, one in eight households now contains people from more than one ethnic group (excluding, of course, those with only one person).

Given the increasing size and diversity of the ethnic minority population, it is worth considering what this means in terms of the fit between ethnic minority identities and Britishness. Findings from the Census suggest that regardless of how the issue is defined it is hard to see what the problem is. Although 20% of the population of England and Wales have an ethnic identity other than white British, only 9% have a non-British national identity, only 9% have a foreign passport, only 8% have a foreign main language and only 2% do not speak English well.

Perhaps surprisingly, well over 80% of people in the predominately Muslim Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups say they have a British, English, or other UK national identity; a similar figure to that for people in the Caribbean ethnic group. And these markers of ‘integration’ are reflected in analysis of residential segregation, which illustrate that rather than becoming increasingly segregated the ethnic minority population has become more evenly spread across England and Wales and that this ‘spreading out’ has accelerated in the past 10 years. Indeed, cities labelled by politicians as ‘segregated’ are in fact the most diverse.

Returning to the question of inequality, rather than increasing integration we see continuing inequality in the field of employment. Black Caribbean and Black African men and women have had persistently high levels of unemployment over the past 20 years, more than twice as high as the White rate and in some cases more than three times as high. And while Pakistani and Bangladeshi men and women have seen large falls in unemployment over the period 1991 to 2011, they continue to have much higher unemployment rates than White men and women. Worryingly, this fall is mainly a result of a large rise in part-time work, with a fall, rather than a rise, in full-time employment rates.

There are two exceptions to this generally negative picture. Over the past 20 years the employment profile of men in the Indian and Chinese groups has converged with that of White men. Why these groups, why men and why changes over the period 1991-2011?

Answering questions such as these will help us understand some of the drivers of ethnic inequalities, which are, of course, not restricted to employment, but are present in all spheres of life. But the social world and causal processes operating within it are not neat: consider how identities might be configured, experienced, acted upon, reshaped and lived across a lifecourse, generations and periods. Dealing with this complexity requires us to go beyond common sense, superficial, easy, explanation that often exacerbates the situation of, and blames, the most disadvantaged.

Note: this post originally appeared on Ethnicity: Manchester Policy Blogs and is reposted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

J_Nazroo_1James Nazroo is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Cathy Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research at the University of Manchester, researching inequalities in relation to later life, ethnicity and race, and health.

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