New Internationalist

How To Be Discriminating

Issue 128

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MINORITY RIGHTS [image, unknown] Immigration and discrimination

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How to be discriminating
As part of the prevailing majority, we need lessons in discrimination. The subtle
and unconscious tricks to do down those who are different are part of our
everyday lives. Mary Warren analyses some of these and argues for positive
discrimination against white Anglo-Saxon dominance.

ALL groups have stereotypes of others. Australians have ‘whinging Poms’, the Brits have ‘loud Yanks’ and the Americans reciprocate with ‘stuck-up Limeys’. And stereotypes often survive in the face of contradictory evidence. Many white British people, for example, know hard-working, conscientious West Indians as colleagues or neighbours, but continue to make derogatory remarks about blacks as a group. ‘Leroy and Sharon are alright, they’re different. But on the whole blacks are unreliable and poor workers’.

Yet stereotyping of other races, nations and religious groups is not just an amusing game demonstrating our capacity for self-deception, It also has serious implications for social peace and justice. Our distorted perceptions of other groups - especially disadvantaged minorities - also distort our actions towards them. A white factory manager, for example, is less likely to give a job to a black if he thinks blacks tend to be unreliable. A white teenager in Bradford who thinks ‘Blacks come here to sponge off the state’ may have no scruples about beating up Asian schoolchildren.

Group stereotyping is only part of the wider issue of minority disadvantage. In many countries minority groups, having been deprived for generations of equal access to education, employment, health services, housing and status within society, have fewer ‘life-chances’ than the dominant majorities. Add to this an element of racial discrimination and the result is a cycle of group disadvantage passed on from one generation to the next, Blacks in the US, West Indians and Asians in Britain, and the native peoples of Canada, Australia and New Zealand - to name just a few examples - are simply not competing on equal terms with the dominant white majority for the same educational opportunities and jobs.

The mechanisms through which dominant groups maintain their pre-eminence are often subtle but extremely effective. In job recruitment, for example, an ‘old boys network’ can effectively exclude unwanted applicants. If the network is all white the chances of a black even knowing of the job are remote. Or if the network is all Protestant, Catholics are excluded. No-one actually feels they are discriminating: the network itself performs that distasteful function. Choosing to advertise jobs in certain magazines or newspapers is a slightly more conscious act of discrimination but with similar effects: members of a particular group are frozen out.

‘One rule for all’ is a belief of the dominant majority which effectively discriminates. Many are horrified at the suggestion that they are discriminating against a particular racial or national group, By claiming to be ‘fair to all’ they feel they cannot possibly be putting anyone at a disadvantage. But many practices, though superficially objective or ‘colour blind’, have an adverse effect on certain minorities. Standardised job recruitment tests and selection criteria, for example, can have a highly skewed and discriminatory effect on ethnic or linguistic minorities if geared to the cultural and economic norms of the dominant group. A language test once used in recruitment by the British Steel Corporation, for instance, was withdrawn after an industrial tribunal found that a sophisticated command of English was not needed for the job, that the test was an inadequate means of predicting work performance, and that it put job applicants from the Indian sub-continent at a disadvantage.

Group disadvantage has a nasty habit of feeding on deeply entrenched prejudices. A schoolteacher who expects a black pupil- to fail academically but to shine on the sporting field might not be greatly concerned when these expectations are met. The teacher’s unthinking acceptance of the black pupil’s academic failure removes some of the pressure for improvement - giving the black pupil permission’ to fail. Both teacher and pupil lower their expectations and find the evidence to justify them.

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A similar process has helped to create black housing ghettoes. In inner city London during the early 1960s, for example, substandard public housing was offered to black people who were less aware than whites of their right to reject it. The result was that blacks tended to accept the housing that whites would reject and the officials concerned stereotyped all blacks as less concerned with the quality of their housing than with living close to one another. Over time poor housing areas became black ghettoes and the officials, with their years of experience of the housing ‘choice’ of black people, felt they knew what black people wanted.

The question is: how to break this self-sustaining cycle of disadvantage in which so many minorities find themselves trapped?

Compare the experience of black minorities in two countries - the US and the UK, Though different in their composition and history, these two groups share a common experience of racial discrimination and deprivation. During the past two decades the attack on minority disadvantage in the US has made three main thrusts: the black civil rights movement, anti-discrimination laws, and the government-supported ‘War on Poverty’ - The most significant and controversial programme growing out of these efforts has been Affirmative Action, which aims to promote equal employment opportunities for members of minority groups (mainly blacks and hispanics) and for women. While affirmative action may be undertaken by any private employer, it must be implemented by government agencies and contractors. A typical programme is:

. Analysis of the workforce to identify discrimination leading to ‘under-utilisation’ of minority groups and women;

. Goals and timetables to correct such under-utilisation;

. Recruitment from under-utilised groups,

. Training opportunities for present employees from under-utilised groups;

. Abolition of segregation;

. Validation of tests used in employee selection to ensure that they are not unfair to minority groups and women.

Many black Americans have made substantial gains since the 1960s: discrimination in employment has declined, blacks ’incomes are catching up with whites’, segregated schooling has largely broken down and the standard of black housing has improved. The contribution of Affirmative Action to these gains is disputed and it is also criticised for giving blacks an ‘unfair advantage’ - But this ignores the centuries of collective disadvantage suffered by American blacks, It is certainly difficult to imagine the gains of the past two decades occurring without the backing of Affirmative Action.

In Britain it’s different. In contrast to the hard-hitting American approach, the British government takes a ‘softly, softly’ line. The Race Relations Act of 1976 permits ‘positive action’ in favour of a particular racial group with special needs in relation to education, training and welfare services, But the Act does not make such measures binding upon anyone. The initiative is left entirely to individual employers - both state and private, And such initiatives have been conspicuously absent, Some employers have equal opportunity’ policies for removing racial discrimination, Yet simply prohibiting discrimination is unlikely to have much effect, Urgently needed are measures to remove - the cumulative disadvantage suffered by blacks, for example through carefully targeted programmes of ‘positive discrimination’ in recruitment and training. So far only the Greater London Council has such a programme, with ‘equality targets’ set for black employees. But even this modest scheme is bringing accusations of ’preferential treatment’ for blacks.

The status quo in British society is manifestly to the disadvantage of blacks and must be changed. Inevitably, positive discrimination in favour of blacks would mean a loss of privilege by some whites, but the removal of an unfair advantage can hardly be branded ‘unjust’. Non-binding government recommendations are merely a cosmetic exercise, They are not enough to break down entrenched barriers of racial discrimination and minority disadvantage, The experience of the United States shows that more decisive action is needed and can be effective, The alternative is to fritter away time until Britain’s black minority decides on change by force.


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