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Can The Government 'Level Up' Racial Inequality?

People at an All BLack Lives UK protest at Marble Arch, London, July 2020 | PA Images

7 min read

Boris Johnson has pledged to use the levelling up agenda to tackle racial inequality in the UK, but subsequent government speeches have called his aims into question. Micha Frazer-Carroll asks whether he will be true to his word

In June, Boris Johnson said the death of George Floyd had awoken “an anger and a widespread and incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice, a feeling that people from black and minority ethnic groups do face discrimination: in education, in employment, in the application of the criminal law.” 

He followed this up by suggesting that his levelling up agenda could help to tackle racial inequality in the UK: “It’s core to what this government wants to achieve during its time in office,” his spokesperson told reporters.

But months later, equalities campaigners have seen precious little substance to match the rhetoric. Discussion of the work of the government’s new levelling up taskforce, launched in September, has largely centred around regional inequality – in other words, making the rest of the country as prosperous as London. 

Black and minority ethnic (BME) communities are disproportionately working class, but London is home to the greatest number of BME people in the UK – and a staggering 58.4% of the Black population. These groups likely will not see the benefits of a levelling up vision that treats the city as a wealthy monolith, rather than an unequal city with a greater proportion of households at the very bottom and the very top of the wealth distribution scales compared to the rest of Britain – with majority BME boroughs at the bottom.

There is also a growing fear among BME groups that the inequalities they face are sliding down the government’s list of priorities. Last month, minister for women and equalities Liz Truss stated that she wanted to move away from so-called “fashionable” issues of race and gender, and instead, focus on the levelling up agenda. Describing her memories of school, Truss said in her address at the Centre for Policy Studies: “While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.”

The message of Truss’ speech falls in line with a growing rhetorical tendency from those in government to position racial justice as a “trend”; particularly one that distracts from the issue of class. 

It was preceded by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch MP launching an attack on critical race theory in the Commons at the end of a debate to mark Black History Month in October. “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” Badenoch announced. 

“Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory… without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” The speech was delivered less than a month after the release of government guidance that prevented teachers from using Black Lives Matter materials in schools. 

A spokesperson for the Government Equalities Office denied that the statements amounted to “choosing one group over another,” adding: “We want equality for everyone, everywhere.”

Badenoch also asserted that efforts to decolonise the curriculum were a “fad”: a statement that provokes an exasperated response from Halima Begum, director of the UK’s leading race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust. “Anti-racism isn’t a fad,” she says. “The Rubik’s cube is a fad. Flares are a fad. 90s Britpop is a fad. I wonder what Emmeline Pankhurst, Phillis Wheatley or William Wilberforce would have made of such disparagement?”

Begum feels that in this new era of government rhetoric, BME groups are being mischaracterised as the winners in the story of Britain’s inequality: “There is the risk now that the working class will be seen as exclusively white.”

The reality of the situation is that almost half of Black and Pakistani children are currently living in poverty, and more than half of Bangladeshi children live in poverty

She fears this kind of narrative-shaping could detract from the urgency to implement the Prime Minister’s stated aims on racial equality: “It creates a sense of grievance based on the perception that minority ethnic groups are over-invested in – at the direct expense of the ‘white working class’.”

“This suggests that the white working class are Britain’s forgotten race victims, left behind by multiculturalism. When in fact – while these communities have good reason to feel ignored by the government – the discrimination and structural racism that minority ethnic groups face has not changed,” Begum adds.

Ali Meghji, a lecturer in social inequalities at the University of Cambridge, similarly feels that the that the race-class dichotomy being advanced by some in government is a false one: “The idea that race is a ‘fashionable’ topic is part of an attack on what many see as ‘identity politics’ and ‘wokeism’, where racism is seen as something that belongs to the past but not the present.”

 Acknowledging the economic basis for racial inequality is unlikely to be a vote-winner for the Conservative party; after all, the ‘BME’ group makes up only 14% of the UK’s population, and BME voters are significantly more likely to vote Labour. But for Meghji the point is that such statements are at odds with other stated government aims – some, indeed, advanced by the likes of Truss herself – on the importance of bridging class divides. 

“The reality of the situation is that almost half of Black and Pakistani children are currently living in poverty, and more than half of Bangladeshi children live in poverty,” he says. 

“The unemployment rate of Black women has been at least twice as high as the unemployment rate for white women since the 1970s. Stating these figures is not fashionable ‘virtue signalling’, but is instead calling into question the substantial inequalities that still characterise British society.”

He goes on: “34% of Black people, and 28% of ‘BME’ [Black and Minority Ethnic] people – compared to 23% of white people – are classified as ‘key workers’... While BME people are disproportionately dying in our ongoing pandemic, it seems very gross to suggest that focusing on race is merely a popular trend rather than a necessary policy.”

A Government Equalities Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting ethnic minorities, as demonstrated by the creation of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and the substantial work being done to tackle Coivd-19 disparities.

“However, it is important that we also consider and remove the barriers some face due to geography, community and socio-economic backgrounds alongside our existing commitments. This new approach will broaden the drive for equality and empower individuals in this country.”

What marginalised people from all backgrounds do have, in all of this, is each other. Focus group research published by CLASS (The Centre for Labour and Social Studies) in 2019 found “significant overlap in everyday lived experiences” of white working-class and BME working-class people. 

Researchers isolated four main themes: feeling disempowered and voiceless; concern over precarious living conditions; experience of class and race prejudice; and resentment at the loss of community space. One participant’s testimony, from which the report borrows its title, included the simple yet symbolic statement: “we are ghosts”.

As senior politicians dismiss racial justice in favour of the “left-behind white working class”, it is more important than ever that we hold space for the complexity of both race and class oppression. If the government genuinely wants to level up across the UK, it will, first and foremost, have to admit that structural racism is real – and then adjust its approach to account for minority ethnic groups. Without a nuanced and robust analysis of how poverty manifests along racial lines, the levelling up agenda will prove to be little more than a fad. 

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