How ‘diversity’ breeds division

The more the authorities talk about racism, the more they racialise everyday life.

Munira Mirza

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Topics Politics

‘That is what they want; to play on people’s legitimate fears, to create division and destroy the mutuality on which our society depends.’ David Blunkett, home secretary (1).

In his three years as UK home secretary, Blunkett has painted a terrifying picture of racist thugs roaming the streets of Britain and religious extremists stoking up hatred between communities. The government has toughened penalties for racial and religious hate crime, and plans to introduce an offence of incitement to religious hatred.

In its consultation paper, Strength in Diversity, published in July 2004, the Home Office promised even more measures and laws to eradicate racism (2). The implication is that ordinary people are vulnerable and in need of protection from an army of race and diversity policy advisers. This view is shared by much of the race relations industry, with fears of growing Islamaphobia since 9/11 and far-right extremism in the guise of the British National Party (BNP).

But first we ought to question how racist society is today, and whether greater regulation of speech and behaviour might do more harm than good for race relations.

While everyone in the policy world is talking about the rising problem of racism, the reality is almost the opposite. While there are still serious cases of racial discrimination, on the whole the British Social Attitudes survey shows a dramatic decline in racist attitudes over the past two decades. Of people surveyed today, twice as many view racial discrimination by employers as wrong, as compared with gender discrimination. Indicators such as the rising numbers of interracial relationships suggest a high level of social integration.

The curious paradox is that while people may be less racist than before there is a widespread perception that racism is growing. Forty-three per cent of people surveyed by the Home Office felt that there was more racism now than five years ago. Interestingly, it was white people who were more likely to say this, while ethnic minorities were more likely to say that there had been an improvement. This suggests that heightened sensitivity to racism does not accord with the lived experience of ethnic groups. At a time when race relations have never been so smooth, increasing numbers of people are pessimistic about racial issues.

I would argue that this trend reflects the impact of race relations policies introduced by the government after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, headed by Sir William Macpherson. A raft of new legal and policy measures was initiated to eradicate institutional racism – the most significant of which was the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000. This places a duty on over 43,000 public authorities to ‘promote…good relations between persons of different racial groups’ – effectively requiring bodies to prevent acts of racial discrimination before they occur. Social institutions such as the police force, education system, and health service are now legally obliged to monitor people’s interaction with each other in order to tackle racism.

But the more public authorities talk about racism and devise anti-racist policies, the more they racialise people’s everyday experience. It seems that everyone today is seen as a potential racist who needs to be monitored and every member of an ethnic minority as a potential victim of racism.

Race relations policies are having a dramatic impact in the modern workplace, by encouraging the growth of diversity training throughout the private and public sector.

Diversity training is supposed to help ‘promote good relations’ between different ethnic groups and capitalise on workforce diversity. However, there is warranted scepticism about whether such training alleviates tensions or exacerbates them. Much of the content of this training is overreliant on pop sociology and pseudo-therapeutic techniques. Participants are expected to talk about stereotypes they harbour deep in their subconscious, and disclose feelings of harassment and victimisation. Trainers claim to eliminate stereotypes in the workplace, yet in talking about ‘different cultural perspectives’ they end up generating new and more insidious stereotypes in their stead.

Participants are instructed in the ‘correct’ ways to engage with people of other cultural groups and how to tread carefully around their different values. Yet the little evaluation that has been done on diversity training schemes shows their spectacular failure. A recent in-depth study by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) on diversity training in the police force admitted that a large proportion of officers felt their training was patronising, and resented the implication that they were closet racists.

The CRE’s inquiry also revealed the extent to which such schemes create a heightened sense of racial difference and anxiety among officers about ‘causing offence’ to other racial groups. The authors noted that black and Asian officers in the Metropolitan Police Service were up to two times more likely to be subjected to internal investigations and written warnings. The reason given was that ‘supervisors often lacked the confidence or experience to tackle problems informally with ethnic minority officers, that they were wary of doing the wrong thing’ – so they were more likely to report these cases to the professional standards department, which happened to be overzealous in its approach to handling complaints. Unsurprisingly, ethnic minority officers felt that they were being unfairly targeted.

A typical workplace is knee-deep in office politics that need to be managed effectively, but the duty to ‘promote good relations’ is so vague that it risks conflating acts of serious racial harassment with people just not getting on with each other. When tensions between individuals are labelled as racist by a third party, it can frustrate the efforts people sometimes have to make to get on together. Ethnic minorities are also encouraged to be on guard and report the ‘unwitting prejudices’ of their colleagues, making them more likely to view bad experiences as racial victimisation.

Where diversity schemes are introduced in an institution or community, the number of reported racial incidents often rises. The clearest example of this trend is in the USA, where diversity training is already a mature, multi-billion dollar industry populated by consultants and video and guidance literature. Its most notable achievement has been a year-on-year increase in complaints and racial harassment litigation.

Institutions are not the only targets of diversity management. Since the mid-1990s, whole communities have been subject to such policies and practices. The town of Oldham provides the clearest example of what can happen when public authorities take on the role of diversity managers.

In the 1990s, the Oldham police force began a deliberate strategy to raise awareness of racially motivated crimes in the area. Officers were so keen to demonstrate their commitment to dealing with racism that they treated crimes between whites and Asians as racially motivated, even when they were not reported as such.

Along with other UK public institutions, the Oldham police used Macpherson’s open-ended and highly subjective definition of a racist incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. As a result, the number of racial incidents recorded in Oldham between 1997 and 1998 was 238, almost twice as many as the next highest division, Rochdale, which recorded 122, and over four times higher than in any other division in Greater Manchester. These statistics do not prove that Oldham is more racist than its neighbouring town, only that the police drew more attention to the issue. In the absence of interrogation, such ‘statistics’ gave the misleading impression that community relationships in the borough were deteriorating.

Oldham was also unique in that the majority of victims of racial incidents were white – 116 out of 204. The local BNP was strongly vilified in the media for pointing to this figure as evidence of white victimisation by ethnic minorities, but it was the police who promoted such explosive statistics in the first place.

Indeed, much of the BNP’s opportunistic strategy has piggybacked on the racial divisions flowering under official policy. Long before the BNP started to make an impact, Oldham council’s multicultural policies had begun to racialise communities and make divisions seem like a natural fact of life. When white people in Oldham are constantly told in the classroom, the police station and the local library about how culturally different their Asian neighbours are, perhaps we should not be surprised if some of them start thinking that Asian people inhabit an alien world. In the wake of policing and other diversity policies, the perception of hatred between Asians and whites gathered pace. Part of the result was the explosion of racial tension in Oldham in the summer of 2001.

So what about those people who are racist – how do we deal with genuine prejudice where it surfaces? The first step must be honest debate and the freedom to challenge prejudices out in the open. Free speech is important not so that extremists can have their say, but because in a democratic society people are trusted with the right to listen to anyone and form their own opinions.

On the night of Oldham’s local elections in 2001, all the elected candidates were banned from speaking on the grounds that they might fuel racial tensions. Implicit here is the notion that the people of Oldham cannot be trusted to listen to their elected representatives and debate with each other without descending into fanatical violence. Many residents felt that the decision was patronising and fuelled a sense of disenfranchisement. More importantly, it closed down debate on race issues in Oldham, perhaps where such debate is needed most.

While diversity policies are supposedly introduced in the name of protecting ordinary people they inevitably result in policing and managing them, making race relations worse. Left to their own devices, individuals today are more tolerant and willing to engage with each other than in the past. But as government and policy-makers implement diversity policies in institutions and communities, they risk storing up distrust and anxiety for the future.

Munira Mirza was commissioned by the Institute of Ideas to write a response to the Home Office’s consultation paper, ‘Strength in Diversity’. See the full response, on the Institute of Ideas website.

(1) New Challenges for Race Equality and Community Cohesion in the Twenty-First Century, Rt Hon. David Blunkett, speech to the ippr, 7 July 2004

(2) Strength in Diversity, Home Office, 19 May 2004

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