Why is the Government trying to develop this particular political line on race – and where does it come from?

Two different sets of roots have developed the nature of the arguments in the Government’s new independent report on race.

The first is quite common in arguments against anti-racism, uncovering the second takes some digging and readers may find it a bit weird.

The first concerns the creation of an argument and its consequent destruction – in the case of developing a specious argument.

“The Commission rejects the common view that ethnic minorities have universally worse health outcomes compared with white people, the picture is much more variable”

Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

This quote contains so many aspects of the classic “straw man” argument in which strands are erroneously laid out so that they can be easily cut down.

First, the Commission are bold enough to take on a ‘common view’. As so often with this Government, the image that they love to project is that that they are brave band of truth-seekers whom we are lucky to have. They are bold enough, for the good of the nation, to ‘take on’ a failed centre ground in an argument.

This means they love to argue from something they call a ‘common viewpoint’. It would have course have been quite easy for them, with a little research, to evidence the extent to which it is a common view that minorities universally have worse health outcomes.

I am not sure that research would have found this to be true in this country. Many would be unsure this was the case, and most would say that it’s probably the case that for some people from ethnic minorities health outcomes are worse than for others.

The ‘common view’ would argue against inserting the word ‘universally’ in the sentence. But the report deliberately uses that word to fulfil a number of purposes. Firstly, without that word it knows that the report’s argument is lost. There ARE worst health outcomes for some ethnic groups compared with white people – just not universally.

The second reason for using the ‘universal’ term is the overly ambitious aim of the report to represent the diversity of vastly different ethnic communities as being in some way ‘the same’. The intent is to juxtapose the experience of ‘white people’ as in some way ‘the same’ by contrast. For the sake of its arguments, the report needs to have current concerns about institutional racism in this country position the hugely different black and minority ethnic peoples as a single group. They seem to want to claim that anti-racists are opposed to the recognition of the existence of so many quite different groups and force us, in our arguments, to see everyone as the same.

This flies in the face of most anti-racist meetings and discussions I have been involved in. In terms of their experience of racism, Africans make a strong case, which is reciprocated, for the differentiation of their experience from that of Caribbeans. Koreans from Vietnamese etc. Everyone talks about the difference of experiences.

In health these differences are even more stark than in other areas of life. It’s true that different minorities experience the police in different ways, but given the significance of genetics in health, their experience of health outcomes is extremely diverse. The moment you have any discussion with different ethnic minorities about health this becomes obvious.

If the NHS really wants to provide equitable services to the whole population it must work towards that better understanding of that hyperdiversity As I will explore tomorrow, we are not there yet and much much more work needs to be done to develop the equity that the NHS says it believes in.

So as is always the case with brave “independent yet Governmental” reports, we must beware of the means by which they create a simplified opposition to knock down. They’re called “straw man” arguments for a reason. It’s much easier to knock one down.

But, whilst this first root is a normal part of argument, the second is truly weird and has created a very odd position for a Conservative government to get itself into.

The core of the argument against ethnic heritage being an important differentiator that has been compounded by institutional racism, is that really all discriminatory outcomes revolve around economic circumstances not race. Again, and again the report clearly feels that it wins the argument by saying the real issue for people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds with bad health outcomes is NOT institutional racism but their socio-economic background.

If you really want to understand why some people are doing badly look not at the colour of their skin but at the size of their bank balance.

Of course, economics plays a major role in all discrimination – but not to the complete exclusion of all others – including race.

I often find myself beginning sentences with, “I am old enough to remember…”, quite often for a younger readership. And indeed, I am old enough to remember left-wing debates in the 1960s (and diminishing with every passing decade) where some older people would say that class was everything and that all other discriminations (like gender and race) were ephemeral. Usually, this argument came from older men who had been fighting for left-wing politics for years. They were certain. They pointed out how often Marx and the other bearded men on flags talked about class and how seldom about gender and race. But as a recent entrant at those 1960s debates, I went with the majority of younger lefties who said then (and since) that other structural discriminations were important.

What on earth can 1960s arguments between old and (then) younger lefties have to do with Boris Johnson’s right-wing Government 60 years later?

Strangely the answer is a lot.

One of the many Trotskyist Groups that that started in 1978 and grew in influence over the next decade was the Revolutionary Communist Party. Never a mass movement it grew around a set of arguments which could be viewed as left libertarianism. One of their strongest arguments was the overriding nature of class as the explanatory tool for understanding oppression.

The link between the current Number 10 and the RCP is through Munira Mirza the director of Boris Johnson’s Number 10 policy unit. When Boris was Mayor of London, she was his Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture.

She took an Oxford MA in 2004 and Kent PhD in 2009. She became a part of the RCP network (the University of Kent was its intellectual home). Over her time in public policy, she has consistently argued about the primacy of economic circumstances and specifically argued that if public services take race into account and treat people differently this ‘fuels a sense of exclusion’. *

It’s not difficult, therefore, to demonstrate the strong link between the RCP and the heart of the Johnson Government (after all we should not be surprised when Directors of Policy direct policy) – but how does a left-wing argument about the primacy of class over race as the explainer of discrimination serve any of Boris Johnson’s interests?

His election victory in 2019 depended in part on the anger of white older northern and midland’s voters. Their anger was at being left behind and much of that is economic. They felt (and are) the victims of the unequal economics of a class society. And it’s true that for some a part of their anger is directed at black and minority ethnic people who appear to have done better than them.

If you are in your 60s and you live in an old red wall seat you probably do believe that it is all about socio-economic discrimination and not about race. A government that enters the race debate arguing this position is likely to get your support.

This explains the amount of noise about this report. The Government want their new voters in those old Labour seats to hear that disadvantage is about class and not race. “We agree with you and have the nerve to take on those who disagree with you and who want to see black and minority people as being discriminated against.” Thus runs the argument.

That’s the relationship between far-left arguments about race and class and a right-wing Conservative Government that wants to take on race politics in the spring of 2021.

But what does a Conservative Government actually DO with the idea that class discrimination is the main problem in British society? How do Conservatives frame a policy which lessens the impact of class discrimination? Will there really be fringe meetings at the Tory Party Conference about the nature of different class discriminations and the fractions of the working class?

Probably not. A pity because I was looking forward to seeing them try to work through the implications.

But this political line on class/race is not meant to lead to policy action.

What they seek is a row where they stand up for class against those shouting for race. And that want that row to be loud – and above all, long.

  • Quoted in The Article by James Bickerton “Meet the ex-communist trying to save Boris Johnson”