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Pitting racial and geographic inequalities against each other is a callous Tory strategy – we can overcome it

A worrying new survey suggests that the majority of people don't understand how discrimination affects Black Britons. The reality is that inequalities are interconnected.

26 Feb 2021

New research published by King’s College London on ‘British attitudes to inequalities after Covid-19’ has dragged up some of the worst beliefs in our society. When asked, for instance, why Black people are more likely to have lower earnings and to be unemployed than white people a small, but horrifying minority of people (4%) said this was due to an innate lack of ability to learn, and less than half identified that it was due to discrimination.

But perhaps most interestingly, in relation to how our government has been approaching its own strategy around inequalities and their manufactured ‘culture war’, the survey found that the majority of Britons believe that geographic inequality is the most serious inequality in the UK, followed by income equality. Less than half of people believe that racial inequality is the most serious.

These results indicate that the general public may be on board with the government’s “levelling up” agenda – spearheaded by Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities. Back in December, she argued that “individual dignity and humanity” were inconsistent with “equality of outcome” and that a focus by previous governments on issues like racial inequality had led to “a narrowing of the equality debate that overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality”.

“Trying to create a hierarchy of inequalities to target and inequalities to ignore is ill-advised if we truly want to make Britain into a fairer place”

To be honest, many parts of her speech were confusing and disjointed. It was also perplexing that she played into the idea that looking into racial disparities means that we have to ignore all other disparities – the idea that somehow talking about racism stops us from talking about “white working-class children”. Equality is not a zero-sum game, it is not Top Trumps where one card outweighs another. Trying to create a hierarchy of inequalities to target and inequalities to ignore is ill-advised if we truly want to make Britain into a fairer place.

The survey, of course, isn’t gospel and may just reflect the nature of the questions being asked, rather than the attitudes of those (2079 white and 121 “Black and minority ethnic”) surveyed. Perhaps it is actually the case that many Britons think that all sorts of societal inequalities are equally deserving of attention, but when asked by researchers to rank them – researchers who were asking questions that are more often posed in the US than the UK – they did so anyway. Being asked which particular inequality is the most important is different from being asked which inequalities are important to you.

However, at face value, the survey’s findings indicate that some people in British society do not recognise that there is a “multidimensional nature of inequality“. They seem to believe, like the Minister for Women and Equalities, that in order to target geographical inequality we must detach it from income inequality, and we must detach it from educational inequality and so on and so. 

“We should reject the idea that helping one group means that we must forsake another”

Yet, as organisations like the Runnymede Trust have been saying for decades and as even the government’s much-criticised commission on race and ethnic disparities have noted,  the reality is that much of our inequality is interconnected in Britain. For example, working-class boys of Caribbean and of Gypsy and Roma descent are the groups most likely to be excluded from school, which may link to the disproportionate representation of Black men, Gypsy and Roma men in British prisons – because, as the Institute for Race Relations have highlighted, there is a school exclusion-prison pipeline in this country.

By acknowledging how our societal inequalities are interconnected, the closer we get to resolving some of these inequalities. But by pretending that inequalities are all disconnected and that talking about one inequality means that we have to ignore another, we will unnecessarily halt our march for equality. We should reject the idea that helping one group means that we must forsake another, or that highlighting one issue means that we must dismiss all others.

The only people who benefit from the politics of division are the very few members of the elite who will be left unscathed if structural inequality continues. The rest of us have to stick together and reject an “us and them” mentality that is unfortunately sometimes stoked by members of the political right. It is only when those in power recognise connections and seek to advance structural change that, to use the words of the United Nations, our society will “leave no one behind”.