February 5, 2024 - 6:00pm

Social inequality is a seemingly intractable problem. If anything, it seems to be getting worse. Most Britons would agree that a key objective of social policy ought to be making social mobility easier and ensuring inequality doesn’t become an entrenched reality.  

The Labour Party has just pledged that if elected to government it would “extend the full right to equal pay that now exists for women to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers”, in order to tackle the ethnicity pay gap.  

Yet, since discrimination on grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” was already barred by the Race Relations Act of 1965 and race was specifically made a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act, further legislation in this area is unnecessary. Really, it would operate more as a public relations ploy than a serious strategy to grapple with inequality. 

This is because what undergirds Labour’s proposal is the idea of “disparitism”, which is reminiscent of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion ideology so prominent in America. DEI has a simplistic understanding, in both diagnosis and resolution, for an issue as complex as social inequality. Namely, that any disparity on a social indicator between ethnic groups prima facie is evidence of grave racial oppression and must have been produced primarily by racism. Thus, it must be corrected by officialdom to more equitable levels. 

Moreover, it ignores certain “disparities” that are actually positioned in favour of particular ethnic minorities. For example, British Indians and British Chinese are the country’s highest average earners. In addition, British-born black employees earn more hourly than their white British counterparts. 

While these facts don’t disprove the existence of social inequality — given that overall black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi citizens earn less than white Britons, Indian and Chinese — they do demonstrate that a lot more factors than racism go into producing disparities. These might concern educational attainment, homeownership, geography or immigrant background, and are especially significant when the different groups which combine to form the BAME umbrella are broken down.

The problem with the disparity discourse is that it implicitly presumes the primary form of social inequality is racial and gender-based. Inequality itself isn’t the problem, just those created by — or who claim to be created by — sexism and racism. Therefore, the course of action isn’t to eliminate inequality and social immobility as such but, as with Labour’s proposal, to manage these issues in such way that they aren’t disproportionately held by ethnic minorities. 

The solution, then, is the redistribution of existing resources pushed by the state to achieve racial equality. But wouldn’t a better way be promoting economic growth — to create more wealth and surplus that can be attainted, enjoyed and built upon by struggling Britons? Growth on its own certainly isn’t a sufficient condition, but it is still necessary to eliminate inequality and reverse declining standards of living. 

Nobody can seriously claim that society is somehow totally beyond racism. Nevertheless, extant racism isn’t the primary source of social inequality today. Contemporary inequality and social immobility have developed in the context of an economy that — for white people as well as ethnic minorities — is becoming more unequal across the board. Wages and salaries aren’t keeping up with inflation, the aspiration to homeownership is virtually impossible for many, and building some level of intergenerational wealth is a pipe dream. 

This is how the problem of social mobility should principally be seen, not through tendentious racialised ways of thinking that obscure the problem by falsely diagnosing it, rather than contributing to bettering the lives of ethnic minorities.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.