There is an optimistic picture which has not come into sharp enough focus
In the last 50 years Britain has become both more ethnically diverse and more middle class. Since 1972 the ethnic minority population has risen from around 3% to 16% and the proportion of this group in professional-managerial positions has risen from 19% to 50%. But how does social mobility compare between ethnic minorities and the ethnic majority?
According to an analysis I produced for the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, there is an optimistic picture which has, until now, not come into sharp enough focus. The evidence shows that ethnic minorities from professional-managerial families are just as likely to have been socially mobile as their white peers and those from the most disadvantaged unskilled manual origins were less likely to stay put than were their white peers.
Across the generations there is no uniform ethnic minority disadvantage compared to whites, with particularly impressive progress made by Indian and Chinese groups. Figure 1 shows an example of long-range upward mobility from disadvantaged family origins into professional-managerial destinations. In the first two or three decades, ethnic minority men were lagging behind but in the last decade, they were little different from or were doing much better than their white peers.
The apparent immigrant drive and aspiration has meant higher rates of long-range upward mobility than long-range downward mobility for Britain’s ethnic minorities over the long term, which can be seen in Figure 2. This country did not see the same blockage on upward mobility as experienced by African-Americans in the US in the 1960s.
In other fields such as education, ethnic minorities actually tend to perform better. For example, access to Russell Group universities by Indians and Chinese immigrants is higher than their white peers. But as figure 3 shows, there is broad progress by all ethnic groups in the last five decades for people aged 25-34. Although black Caribbeans and Pakistanis/Bangladeshis were somewhat behind white people in the earlier decades, they are now catching up, with the latter group having already surpassed them in the last decade. Elsewhere, black Africans, Indians and Chinese in particular are making impressive progress, being well ahead of whites in first or higher degrees. All this data points to a British educational system that is, by and large, a level-playing field.
Ethnic minorities are also advancing into the highest professional-managerial positions. Figure 4 shows that only Pakistanis/Bangladeshis are clearly lagging behind and Black Caribbeans slightly behind. Black Africans have always been doing well although they have fallen behind by a few points in the last decade, probably reflecting changes in immigration patterns. The Indian and Chinese groups are making strong progress in the last two decades and are now well ahead of whites. Overall, for those economically active, career advancement is at a similar level to the white majority.
While it is true that recessions have disproportionately affected ethnic communities, overall Britain has made progress in important areas like education and, to a lesser extent, access to the top jobs. The history of the last 50 years shows that the UK can be a beacon of equality, but it must ensure that this progress carries on at the same rate.
Yaojun Li is a Professor of Sociology at Department of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, Manchester University, with research interests in social mobility, social capital and ethnic integration.