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The trouble with the diversity debate We're squabbling over symbols rather than focusing on the substance of inequality

When we're talking about equality of opportunity we need to talk about class as well as race. Credit: Carl Court/Getty

When we're talking about equality of opportunity we need to talk about class as well as race. Credit: Carl Court/Getty

October 5, 2020   5 mins

It used to be said that there were more students at Oxbridge with the surname Black than black students. It certainly seemed plausible when I was there. I had attended a comprehensive school where 70% of pupils were from ethnic minorities, so the contrast of Oxford was stark. Minorities were few and far between. And what is less often noted, is that the black students who were there had frequently been educated at either a private school or an international one.

When I ran social mobility charities, I would watch professional service firms and banks fall over themselves to hire black graduates if they were privately educated and from professional families. These young people were deemed to have the requisite social capital they claimed their “clients expect from us”. If, however, you were the sort of black young person my organisations typically helped – poor and from a council estate – enthusiasm waned.

Countless companies in my experience would talk much on their websites about valuing diversity, but diversity of social background did not tend to be high on their agenda. You could be black or white so long as you were suitably middle class. I think this points to a real problem in the UK. And it is just one example of why I think when we talk about race, we also need to talk about class.

I wasn’t surprised the George Floyd protests hit the British streets. The 2017 Race Disparity Audit showed that the average custodial sentence for a white person was 18 months compared with 26-27 months if you were black or Asian. Only 20% of those who were black African owned their own home compared with 68% of those who were white British. And the average hourly pay was £11.87 if you were white British and £9.62 if you were Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

The trouble is, the public debate on race until now hasn’t focused on these details. Among people and politicians alike it has been depressingly one dimensional, focused on symbols rather than substance. Symbols matter, but if we tear down every statue, ban every word or song that is said to cause offence and clear our museums of any artefacts deemed problematic — would any of those disparities close?

Watch closely, and you’ll see a lot of the desire to focus on symbols tends comes from those who are affluent and white, rather than from those in whose name they claim to speak. When these same people make decisions about where they live, where they send their children to school and whom they employ, they don’t often go out of their way to seek people who are different from themselves. Since they aren’t really seeking to spread opportunity, what they’re doing feels more like empty posturing.

At my charities, we did encourage employers to spread opportunity. Some firms struggled: “Our clients need us to have worldliness and you get that by travelling the world. So how will the young people you work with be able to demonstrate it?” This was a genuine enquiry from someone who did want to work with us. Skin colour didn’t matter, but background certainly did.

Then there was the offer of work experience from another firm that came with the warning: “They’ll be alongside the children of high net-worth individuals who we’re teaching how to invest the assets their parents gave them, so you’ll have to send us someone suitable”. Most of the people we helped were eligible for Free School Meals. It was like she lived on a different planet.

This is why I think that when we talk about opportunity, we also have to talk about class. Having been born on a council estate, I understand only too well the part that background — as well as race — can play in stymieing potential. We see it when only 6% of doctors and barristers are from a working-class background and only 12% of journalists and chief executives are. Or when the Civil Service Fast Stream was forced to turn its attention to social background because only 3.6% of its intake was working-class.

Anywhere from 40% to 70% of our leading institutions’ intakes were educated privately, even though only 7% of the country is. At the BBC, 60% of staff come from professional families, at Channel 4 only 9% of staff come from a working-class background. Employers are starting to realise it is a problem, but progress is often slow.

It is an environment that affects ethnic minorities and the working-class; many of the former are also in the latter. If you are male or female, white, black or Asian and from a poor background, it is more difficult for you to get to where you want to. When it comes to ‘white privilege’ you will have a hard job persuading me that a black public-school boy has had less ‘privilege’ than a white boy from a council estate, even though the former will doubtless have experienced racism and the latter will almost certainly not have done.

White working-class boys have been neglected. They have been doing worst in secondary education with lower results than almost any other group. For some time they have been less likely to go to university than ethnic minorities. But while some commentators seize on these facts to suggest the white working-class should be our focus instead of the progress made by ethnic minorities, I say we need to focus on both.

The unemployment rate in March was 8% if you were black, Bangladeshi or Pakistani and 3% if you were white. Our elite banks, law firms and consultancies like to quote what proportion of their staff are black and minority ethnic, but they frequently employ so few black people outside their clerical and cleaning staff they could almost remove the ‘B’ from BAME – their figures have traditionally been a measure of how many middle class Indian and Chinese staff they have. While 21% of all lawyers are BAME, 15% are Asian and only 3% are Black.

Representation matters greatly. It is important that ethnic minorities are represented at all levels in our country’s organisations, however privileged their backgrounds: it matters that two of the four great offices of state in the current government are held by ethnic minorities. But class matters too.

Right now, we’re being encouraged by commentators on the Left to think if someone is white and isn’t chanting incantations about what a privileged racist they are, they must be, well, racist. The response from a small group of commentators on the Right is that if they aren’t saying white working-class boys are the UK’s main problem, they must be woke. The rest of us in the middle wonder whether we should say anything at all, but in the middle is in fact a huge space for nuance.

I know that in 2020, nuance is treated much like Covid: ideally you stay locked away where it can’t get near you, but if you do venture out you must keep cleaning yourself to make sure you don’t develop symptoms of being infected by it. But hear me out.

Black Caribbean children still have the lowest GCSE attainment of any main ethnic group, but if you include household income they are replaced by white boys. Why aren’t we debating what to do about both? If you’re bright and poor in London, you’re far more likely to go to university than if you’re bright and poor in the North-East. Why are we ignoring that? Where is the energy to help ethnic minorities and those with less advantaged backgrounds to occupy leadership positions? It is going on whether or not we should replace the word ‘Empire’ in the Honours system.

The choice we all face is not between caring about ethnic minorities or caring about the white working class, nor is it a choice to be either racist or woke. It is a choice about whether we put our efforts into improving the life chances of all people or just argue over symbols, instead. The Conservatives need to focus on providing the education and employment opportunities that allow everyone, whatever family they’re born into, to pursue the life they want to – and leave the Left to squabble over what they want to Tipp-Ex out.

David Johnston was elected MP for Wantage and Didcot in December 2019, after a decade as Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.


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