May 14, 2021

Political life is full of tensions between equally desirable goals and motivations. The tension between the principle of solidarity and that of diversity in Western democracies is one that I and others have investigated, and remains a persistent “progressive dilemma”.

The recent publication of the Sewell report into the UK’s racial and ethnic disparities got me thinking about another large, awkward tension that the modern world presents us with.

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The tension is this. On the one hand, multicultural democracies encourage people to celebrate and affirm their group identity — the traditions, practices and priorities that make their group different. On the other, we regard with suspicion and alarm any significant differences in average outcomes — for example in educational or economic success — that might arise from those same group practices and preferences.

I am not suggesting that we should not care about differences in outcomes between groups, and indeed individuals. Rather, the relevant question here is which differences in group outcomes arise from some unfair form of discrimination, such as racism, and which arise from the behaviour patterns and preferences associated with a particular group. The Sewell report created such a stink in part because it said that some group differences arise from the latter and not from racism.

It’s not always the case that “society is to blame”. And it’s not mere chance that causes most people from, say, British Chinese and British Indian backgrounds to do better in the education system, and the earnings league table, than other big groups including the white majority. Obviously not all cultural traditions and preferences impact on bigger picture outcomes. Some groups prefer hip-hop others country music, no big deal. But other traditions, such as norms relating to education, work, the family and child-rearing, can have a big impact on average group outcomes.

When such group differences contribute to positive outcomes, such as the fact that around 30% of NHS consultants are British Indians, it is attributed to the group’s drive, energy, focus on education and so on. But when minority groups have negative outcomes — when they are over-represented in the prison population, the unemployed or the poor — race justice campaigners tend to default to white racism as the explanation.

Sometimes they might be right to do so. The history of ethnic minorities being denied opportunities in the past, as with women too, might contribute to differences that are wrongly seen today as inherent to the group — when in fact they arose from those eras of exclusion. But what if group differences persist even in fairer and more open societies? What if some groups that were excluded in the past are now roaring ahead while others lag behind?

The problem is that if you want to close all gaps in outcomes you will have to iron out many of the group differences and ways of life that really matter to some people. Of course, not everyone feels strong attachment to a group and they are never homogeneous things anyway. Nevertheless, respect for group difference is partly what multiculturalism was supposed to be about.

Consider, for example, how the much greater religiosity and gender traditionalism of many of the UK’s minorities, especially south Asian Muslims, contributes to a host of different outcomes: more multi-generational living thanks to a greater readiness to care for elderly relatives at home, or lower household income thanks in part to fewer women working outside the home. It might be helpful to think of the causes of group difference on a spectrum with external factors, like discrimination, at one end, and internal factors, like Chinese parenting traditions, at the other, with a grey area in the middle that is a mix of the two.

Some of this same logic applies to individuals too. Modern democracies declare our legal, political, moral equality as citizens and yet we know that the talents that make for success in our societies are unequally distributed and also unequally nurtured. This creates one of the least examined tensions of liberal modernity: being unsuccessful in a relatively open, achievement-oriented society leaves a person with less psychological protection than in previous eras.

A hundred years ago, everyone knew that life was a lottery. If you were at the bottom of the pile it was just bad luck; it was down to your class origins or skin colour. But as societies have become more individualistic and somewhat more equal and meritocratic, so the threat of being exposed to constant low-level humiliation has increased for those who don’t climb the ladders.

This may help explain one of the paradoxes of the modern world: the more we worry as a society about the differences between groups and individuals, and the more we challenge unjust hierarchies, the more visible becomes the reality of inequality, both justified and unjustified. This is a version of the Tocqueville paradox, named after the French 19th-century political writer who observed that social frustration often increases as social conditions improve.

There is a good reason for this — the rising expectations of new generations for equal treatment and opportunity whether relating to class or race — but there is also a less good reason in the growth of a grievance culture that sees all difference as discrimination.

Resentment is a powerful emotion. And a resentment-driven politics that tries too enthusiastically to suppress all outcome differences must eventually end up restricting liberty too. With class politics, this led eventually to the Gulag; with race politics it leads merely to quotas, affirmative action and race consciousness trumping colour blindness.

Yet the demand for equal outcomes in the context of group differences can be a divisive force in modern society. Glenn Loury, the black American economics professor, recently argued that “it leads either to the tyrannical imposition of standards that suppress the authentic expression of groupness or to a finger-pointing suspicion every time we see someone pop their head up above the level zone… If the Jews are over-represented here and the blacks are under-represented there, there must be some intrinsic unfairness built into the system.”

Of course, there is sometimes unfairness built into the system. But the mere existence of difference is not evidence of unfairness. Moreover, even differences that do arise from cultural norms are not set in stone. One of the Sewell report themes was that less successful minority groups, and indeed the white majority, can learn from more successful ones without abandoning their distinctiveness.

Just as racism can weaken, so group cultural norms can change. This is often easier said than done and shifting cultural norms and preferences can be a long, hard road. (Though things can also change very fast: Ireland went from outlawing homosexuality to having an openly gay Taoiseach in around 25 years.)

Another way to mitigate the problem, as I argue in my latest book, is to expand our definition of merit and success and thus achieve a better general distribution of status and reward. When the corporate lawyer and the dementia nurse come closer in status, and maybe even in pay, some of those awkward group differences might start to loom less large.

The word equal retains something of its simple mathematical meaning — one side of the equation is the same as, or equivalent to, the other — even when used in a messy, human context. Yet moderate socialists realised a long time ago that equality of outcome was an unachievable goal and that equality of opportunity, difficult enough in itself, was a more appropriate one.

The Sewell report was widely condemned and accused of victim-blaming for pointing to the complex causes of different group outcomes, I suspect though that in years to come it will be seen as starting a more honest conversation about the challenge of group difference in an egalitarian age.

It is possible to imagine a society with a sufficiently wide spread of opportunity that individual and group differences are not seen as threatening or unfair. A society of legitimate inequalities does not have the utopian ring of the equal society but it is a much more attractive goal.

David Goodhart is a commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission but writes here in a personal capacity. The piece is adapted from a BBC Radio 4 Point of View.