Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, has warned that it is time to recognise that whilst disadvantage in the UK has historically meant that black and ethnic minority (BME) groups and women have been the worst hit, in some parts of the country it is now the white working classes that are facing the greatest disadvantage. As Phillips put it:
…the colour of disadvantage isn’t black or brown. It is white
Speaking at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) summit on immigration, he said it was time for British society and its leaders to get a clearer understanding of whom might be disadvantaged and what groups and communities may need support.
To illustrate his point, Phillips highlighted the educational achievement gap between some BME groups and their white counterparts. While two thirds of children of Chinese heritage routinely get five good GCSE’s as do three out of five Indian heritage youngsters, 85% of poorer white boys did not. Similarly, while those Bangladeshi girls who made it to university did well, there was an underclass of teenage white girls who would not make it into higher education at all due to having already given birth to their first child.
He added that now was the time for positive action to support and assist the white working classes:
We may need to do so with the sort of special measures we’ve previously targeted at ethnic minorities. But the name of the game today is to tackle inequality, not racial special pleading. We will fail to do so at our peril
Phillips argued that if the disadvantage currently being faced by those white communities was not addressed and that their grievances were not heard, there was a very real danger that the resentment felt towards immigrants and other BME groups could result in an anti-immigrant backlash. More worryingly, he added that this could mean a stark rise in populist ring-wing extremism.
[If an out of work white mother] sees a clever, young, Latvian with three degrees doing the job she would like to do…It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out how she’s likely to feel.
And add to that the picture of her child’s nursery class, with, as she will see it, an overworked teacher confronted with a class of 30 that speaks 15 languages at home. Who will she resent for not having the life she thinks she deserves?
It is good to see the leader of the UK’s equalities and human rights watchdog raising these controversial issues. Long has it been that ‘equalities’ has been perceived to be about giving – even giving away – something that is ‘ours’ to ‘others’. In many ways, reinforcing the ‘them’ and ‘us’ scenario that too many far-right and indeed various mainstream politicians are increasingly prone to voice and buy in to.
Equalities of course is about making society fairer for all. Let’s hope that others will now follow Phillips’ lead and begin to really challenge those who deliberately equate ‘equalities and human rights’ with ‘political correctness gone mad’ for political or other gain. If we do, then it will be a massive step in the right direction: a massive step towards society being fairer for all.
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