Race, class and geography (more thoughts on that report)

Just before Easter, the Commission on Race, equality and disparity reported.  The report has proved controversial with people focusing particularly on associated headlines questioning the existence of institutional racism and suggesting that the UK was in fact a positive example of improvements in race relations. 

I chose to hold off from making an immediate response because I wanted to engage with what the report actually said rather than the headlines.  My initial response article can be found here. As suspected, the report is not in fact a rose tinted endorsement of race relations today.  As the Commission state:

“We do not believe that the UK is yet a post-racial society which has completed the long journey to equality of opportunity. And we know, too many of us from personal experience, that prejudice and discrimination can still cast a shadow over lives. Outright racism still exists in the UK, whether it surfaces as graffiti on someone’s business, violence in the street, or prejudice in the labour market. It can cause a unique and indelible pain for the individual affected and has no place in any civilised society.”[1]

However, their opinion, based on their research – and perhaps also from their starting presuppositions is that the causes of inequality and disparity are more nuanced and complex than simply the problem of racism.

The report suggests variation in terms of the experience of particular ethnic groups so that Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities appear to suffer more than other ethnic groups. This has an observed factor for some time now. Furthermore, it suggests that geography and class may be as important factors in terms of experiences of inequality. On geography, they comment:

The UK suffers from acute geographical inequality. That is hardly news. But the scale of the gulf in opportunity is seldom appreciated. According to Professor Philip McCann of Sheffield University about half the population in the UK live in areas where prosperity is no better than the poorest parts of the old East Germany or the poorest states in the USA, like Mississippi or West Virginia. For 30 years, says McCann, the country has been decoupling. London and the South East plus pockets of affluence and dynamism elsewhere have been pulling away from the rest[2]

This geographical problem is in their view primarily one affecting white British communities. However, notice that:

Geographical inequalities also afflict a significant section of the South Asian population who live in the former mill towns and ex-industrial Midlands.[3]

They also observe the impact of things like overcrowded housing and poverty affect those communities. So, it is interesting to observe that Pakistani households are identified as doing well in terms of overall household wealth. This may perhaps reflect the point that a significant proportion of household wealth is located in property values. If we take into account the affect of over crowding and multi-generational households, we may need to consider the possibility that household wealth may not be reflected in per-capita disposable wealth.[4]

However, I think the significant point to note at this point is that whilst there is a significant proportion of white British people affected by geographical and class related disparity, that the tw communities (Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani) are:

  • Among the longest standing non-white ethnic communities in the UK
  • From Commonwealth countries (i.e. those associated with colonialism)
  • Among the most populous non white populations in the UK.

I want to make three comments about this. First of all, that seeing people from newer, less populous immigrant backgrounds succeeding in life here in the UK may not be the same as seeing race based issues resolved. 

Secondly that if there are issues relating to class and geography, then this is not a positive point if it reduces the salience of race based issues. We are still dealing with issues relating to privilege and prejudice. This also reflects the point that those communities will also have been most affected by class and geographical type issues in their countries of origin and it is worth remembering that those countries and provinces were under British rule for a substantial proportion of their recent history.

Thirdly, it may be worth considering that those communities were built around immigration that was strongly encouraged by the UK in order for working class type positions to be filled after the War.  So, as I alluded to in my first article, we must not underestimate the longer term, ongoing impact of policy decisions from 60 -70 years ago

In other words, I do not think that the class and geography issues can be decoupled from the race issues affecting certain communities.  Indeed, whilst we may not see evidence of institutional racism here, it does seem that such issues fit within the criteria for structural racism and failure to respond to the needs of such communities effectively may reflect a form of indirect systemic racism.

Fourthly, and most crucially from the perspective of a conservative evangelical blog, we cannot ignore the overlap between the areas experiencing class and geographical based disparities and those areas where there is an absence of serious Gospel engagement by conservative evangelicals. This results in terms of black communities in a division between black churches and white (especially conservative evangelical churches) but it also has implications for unreached communities so that if we are seeing a growth of multi-cultural church life, it tends to be among newer immigrant populations and those in middle-class contexts.  Meanwhile Pakistani, Bangladeshi third generation Afro-Caribbean communities remain alienated not just from the wider secular culture but also from the church.

The point is this, that a focus on prioritising reaching the elites, the south-east, university and graduate m/c contexts etc means that not only has this led to the neglect of working class communities but also this neglect has fallen disproportionately on specific ethnic communities.

As we consider strategies for church planting and mission into the UK, we need to pay serious attention to this disparity.

[1] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report – March 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)(page 9)

[2] (page 37).

[3] (page 37).

[4] (See page 38).

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