“The colour of disadvantage isn’t black or brown: it is white…”

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.


5 thoughts on ““The colour of disadvantage isn’t black or brown: it is white…”

  1. I can’t applaud Trevor Phillips even when I agree with his basic point. Disadvantage has never been the exclusive domain of any colour. I can’t recall anyone ever claiming that it is. Comparing the underachievement of the very poorest of any ethnicity to the highest achieving communities is about as useful as pointing out that the Royal Family is a good bit richer than unemployed factory workers. What is the point exactly? Unemployed factory workers are not poor because the Royal Family is rich, and white working class boys aren’t underachieving because Chinese children are doing well. Ethnicity often factors into disadvantage – if you want to make the point that this also applies to white folks then SAY THAT – don’t insinuate that white folks are losing out because others are benefiting from ‘special measures’. Phillips says “tackle inequality, not racial special pleading” – but including white as a (sometimes) disadvantaged ethnicity does not suddenly render the claims of all others as “racial special pleading.” No-one is arguing that the problems of the disadvantaged white underclass shouldn’t be addressed under the banner of equality – Trevor is fighting phantoms again.

  2. Personally, I’m not insinuating anything, despite your insinuation otherwise.

    Working in equalities on a day to day basis, I just think that it is a useful development that will help those from within the white community that have traditionally been resistant to the notion of equalities – largely because it is perceived to be something that ‘we’ do for ‘others’ – begin to find a way of seeing that equality is about striving towards levelling the playing field for ALL rather than some.

    Your insinuation rather than mine – my premise is quite explicit.


  3. Sincere apologies for the misunderstanding – the insinuation was Trevor Phillips’, not yours. I really ought to strive for greater coherence in my ranting. To clarify – it’s that sound-bite-loving, headline-hunting Mr Phillips that I’m accusing. Yahya Birt has provided a useful little summary of Trevor’s past performances halfway down this post: http://www.yahyabirt.com/?p=32

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