Long-read

The use and abuse of ethnic minorities

Why Western elites love some minorities more than others.

Salvatore Babones

The largest national minority group in the United Kingdom today is… Polish. More than 900,000 Polish citizens currently live in the UK, accounting for more than 1.3 per cent of the population. Many other Britons can claim Polish descent, as the plethora of Polish surnames in British national life attests. Actual Polish citizens are more common in England and Wales than people claiming Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean or even Irish descent (Scotland and Northern Ireland publish less detailed summary statistics). Poles are everywhere you look.

But you won’t find them in the national statistics. Unlike many other national statistical agencies, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) does not try to collect comprehensive data on population by national origin. Instead, it collects data only for 18 ‘recommended’ ethnic groups. Recommended by whom? By government agencies and interest groups. In other words, the squeaky wheels get the data, while the quiet go uncounted.

The ONS and other UK statistical agencies produce detailed data on Black Caribbeans, Black Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and a complex web of mixed identities, while ignoring other groups that, frankly, don’t attract the attention of people in power. And where the ONS leads, organisational checklists follow. Thus the BBC has successfully pushed its on-air Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) on-screen representation up to more than one-quarter of total TV time, despite the fact that these groups make up just 14 per cent of the England and Wales population (even when including mixed-race people as BAME). British Poles are hardly visible.

It can be (and often is) argued that members of racial minority groups require special intervention because of the historical burden of poverty and discrimination. But at a time when by far the highest earning ethnicity in the UK is Indian, and ‘White British’ people actually earn slightly below the national average, this hardly holds water. It can also be argued that racial minority groups have been treated unfairly because their ancestors were forcibly removed from their home countries, but this doesn’t really apply to the UK in the same way it does to the US. Nor does the UK host minority indigenous populations of the kinds found in the settler colonies of the old dominions.

The real reason why particular minority groups are marked out and counted is that they are useful – useful to elites, useful to those who would be their leaders, and useful in ways that other, less visible minority groups are not. No one particularly benefits from identifying and enumerating hundreds of thousands of hard-working, well-assimilated Poles. But there’s a lot of money (and even more political capital) to be earned on the backs of BAMEs. And so, in Britain, BAME’s the game. Look abroad, and it becomes clear that BAME is just a name that British elites give to the people they want to groom for long-term dependence.

Who counts, when, where, and why?

History is full of terrors and tragedies, but if one minority ethnic group has a special claim to restorative justice, it is the Jews. And for a brief period in British history, roughly corresponding to the second half of the 20th century, there was a distinctively Jewish claim to anti-defamation. Overt anti-Semitism was beyond the pale of polite society. No longer. Elite sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people is now waning, and as the troubling rhetoric of today’s Labour Party demonstrates, tacit anti-Semitism is once again becoming (sadly and strangely) acceptable among otherwise respectable people. Overt anti-Semitism is only a tweet away.

British Jews, who have completed the full arc from social exclusion to protected group to assimilated ‘whiteness’, illustrate well the phenomenon of the sympathetic minority. Sympathetic minorities are distinct groups in society that receive the protection and sponsorship of society’s elites. Before the Second World War, anti-Semitism was a routine reflex of British elites, but after the horrors of the Holocaust became widely known, the vilification of Jews became a social anathema. For a while, Jews continued to be excluded from full participation in ‘White British’ society, but as the ONS statistical category demonstrates, that social exclusion has now largely disappeared. The days when gentile parents were shocked by the idea of their children marrying Jews are long gone.

With social inclusion came the loss of the special status of Jews in British society. Jews no longer needed the sponsorship of elite patrons and protectors. As a result, they no longer constituted a distinct political constituency, and no longer voted as a united bloc. Community leaders could no longer credibly claim to speak on behalf of all Jews. In effect, the Jewish ‘community’ as such has disappeared: today, there are only individual Jews and the organisations to which they personally belong. They are still the members of an identifiable minority group, and they are still the targets of anti-Semitic vitriol, but they do not constitute a single, controllable, politically operational minority constituency.

Now that they are independent and assimilated, Jews no longer elicit the sympathies of political elites, because they are no longer useful to them. Some minority groups, like Australian Catholics and American Mormons, have never elicited elite sympathy, despite severe and well-documented historical discrimination. Others, like indigenous Canadians, have flipped in one generation from being unsympathetic to sympathetic. And it all has to do with the society, not the minority. A sympathetic British Indian becomes, on immigration to the US, a boring Indian-American. There is a clear minority pecking order in every society, but minorities themselves have little say in where they stand in it.

A march celebrating the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, at start of NAIDOC week in Melbourne, Australia,, 5 July 2019.

In the US, the legacy of slavery has made African-Americans the archetypical case of the sympathetic minority. Even though African-Americans no longer have legal impairments imposed on them by the majority white population, they remain ‘sympathetic’ in the sense that white elites still find it possible to override majority opinion in the name of racial justice for African-Americans. Racism and racial discrimination certainly persist in the US (as they do everywhere), but these do not explain the special, ‘sympathetic’ status of African-Americans. What makes African-Americans a sympathetic minority is their usefulness – to white American elites.

To see this, consider the plight of Chinese-Americans. Though never literally enslaved, Chinese-Americans once faced similar levels of repression in California as those suffered by African-Americans in the South. But Chinese-Americans are no longer so socially excluded as to be ghettoised into a manageable political constituency. Thus, although Californians voted in a binding referendum in 1996 to ban all forms of discrimination ‘on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity, or national origin’ in public education, University of California administrators persist in looking for ways to boost African-American student numbers at the expense of Chinese-American students. Not being particularly useful to political elites, Chinese-Americans simply aren’t a sympathetic minority.

It is deeply politically incorrect to admit it, but we all have a general idea of the minority pecking orders in our own societies. For example, in the US, where race outranks indigeneity, Native Americans have long lobbied unsuccessfully to convince the Washington Redskins football team to change its offensive name. But in Australia, where indigeneity is the crucial minority identifier, it is impossible to imagine a major commercial sports franchise calling itself something like the ‘Blackfellas’. In most developed countries, the disabled are a sympathetic minority, while the obese are not. Women are not literally a minority, but feminists are. Yet in the emerging battle between feminists and transgender activists, transgender minority status outranks feminist. Thus the feminist tennis star Martina Navratilova has been vilified for arguing that trans-women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports.

Vilified by whom? It’s difficult to say. Not by the majority, that’s for sure. The professions of the pen exercise an outsized influence: academics, journalists, lawyers, lobbyists and the like. The expert class as a whole tends to arrogate to itself the authority to decide which minorities matter and when. Political elites don’t sit as a body to judge the status of minority groups, but individual members of the political elite do see similar opportunities and incentives. When a minority group is easily identified and socially excluded, it can be politically activated and used through coopting a small number of community leaders. That makes it useful, and nothing elicits sympathy so much as usefulness. When the same minority group goes mainstream (as Jews have done and feminists are doing), it loses its utility. You can’t get much political leverage out of promoting women when other women are just as likely to support your opponents as they are to support you.

The coming minorities

So BAMEs are in, Jews are out, and Poles never stood a chance. At least, that’s the situation in the UK. In the US, blacks are still in, Hispanics are on their way out, and the Chinese never stood a chance. Down under, it’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (to use their formal label) who form the only genuinely sympathetic minority, so sympathetic that there is strong (white) elite pressure to give them a constitutionally enshrined ‘voice’ in parliament. What all of the sympathetic minorities share is their political usefulness to white elites in their own societies – both via their votes and (more importantly) through the moral claims that white elites can make in the names of marginalised others. Don’t like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson? Just label them racists on behalf of blacks or BAMEs.

As Boris and the UK Conservatives have discovered, despite the election victory, clearly demonstrable charges of anti-Semitism no longer pack the same political punch as vaguely argued charges of racism. For that matter, the US Democrats discovered the declining power of feminism in 2016, when Trump’s sexist personal history was overlooked by the majority of (white) American women. Jews and (feminist) women are no longer socially excluded groups. By joining the mainstream, they lost their political usefulness. They are still minorities, but they are no longer sympathetic minorities – or at least, they no longer excite the sympathies of those in positions of power.

Homosexuals are fast following feminists on the road to normalisation – and political irrelevance. Gay and lesbian activists are desperately trying to hold their place in the ever-expanding LGBTQ+ alliance, but these days mere homosexuality is old hat. With gay-marriage rights widely embraced in developed democracies, and a gay prime minister in Ireland (of all places), it is becoming more and more difficult to characterise homosexuals as a socially excluded minority in countries like the UK, the US and Australia. That’s why transsexuals, despite their vanishingly small numbers, have become the sexual minority du jour. Despite their increasingly high profile, transsexuals remain profoundly socially excluded, and that makes them useful. Political elites now routinely use the threat of transgender suicides to push through their preferred education and healthcare policy agendas.

In the UK, look for the BAME category to disintegrate as British Indians increasingly prioritise assimilation over grievance politics. And when Brexit happens, look for a new category to emerge: British Europeans. British Poles may not be eager to relocate into a 21st-century ideological ghetto, but many other British Europeans are. And when they do, they’ll find a large segment of the British political establishment chafing at the bit to take up their cause: the Remainer elite. The supposed ‘rights’ of British Europeans have already been used as a parliamentary bludgeon by the Remainer resistance. Demands for policies to alleviate their post-Brexit ‘suffering’ have the potential to drive politics for decades to come.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Sydney, and the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism and the Tyranny of Experts, published by Polity Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Pictures by: Getty.