Paul Streets: If we are to repair structural inequalities, we must begin with the facts

We will not move forward by debating our history and vilifying the other side. I am no more likely to change the minds of those who don’t believe my views on the historical context of our unequal society, than they are to change mine. But if we start with the facts, it’s hard for either side to argue against the need to do more.

Paul Streets

This article was first published in the Third Sector.

Many of us will have watched the George Floyd trial from a distance, fearful of the consequences for race relations across the US. Perhaps with the verdict we can reflect on a small step in the right direction. 

But much like the weather, whatever happens in America ends up over here.

In this country, the Black Lives Matter movement led directly to the Sewell report – and a debate that risks polarising our discussion on race through different understandings of history, and setting up one group of disadvantaged people against another. 

Focusing on racial inequality does not negate social class as a driver of disadvantage and lack of opportunity.

Of course there are black people, Asian people and people from minority ethnic groups who are successful – just as there are white working-class people, who "make it" – but exceptions do not prove rules. The intersection of race and class doubles disadvantage. 

Whatever personal beliefs people hold on structural societal inequality, the facts speak for themselves.

They are in our prisons. In our pupil referral units. In our mental health units. In maternal deaths through childbirth. In the boardrooms of private, public and voluntary sector organisations. 

Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities do not live in a Britain that feels or looks equal to any objective observer. White, educated men like me benefit from unequal opportunity. 

The history that underpins this is all around us, in the buildings and statues of Georgian Britain, in London and the leading ports of the time: Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. 

The inherited desk I write this from is English oak veneered with Caribbean mahogany – much of which came back as ballast on returning empty slave ships. A personal metaphor, perhaps, of our national story.

None of this means that we shouldn’t be proud of a cosmopolitan Britain: but to be proud, we need to be honest about what we have got wrong. 

We will not move forward by debating our history and vilifying the other side. I am no more likely to change the minds of those who don’t believe my views on the historical context of our unequal society, than they are to change mine.

But if we start with the facts, it’s hard for either side to argue against the need to do more.

We must ask searching questions about what is to be done in the institutions and services that lead to poor outcomes for black, Asian and ethnic minority communities: whether they are provided by the public, private or voluntary sector. 

Something is not working in our practice – and it is structural. Doing more of the same, or arguing against the historical reasons for inequality is not going to fix it.

While the Lloyds Bank Foundation is not an endowed funder, we hold considerable power and have a responsibility to tackle structural racism and improve the outcomes of racialised communities. 

This starts with our own practices, by investigating why we have historically lower levels of success for black, Asian and ethnic minority led organisations. 

It’s why we developed a racial equity funding strand, and set ourselves a minimum target that at least 25 per cent of our funding will go to these organisations. 

It’s why we are committed to working with those we fund to provide the development they require, to at least see a way towards a more level playing field. 

The target forces us to challenge and redesign what we do, and address the bias we know exists from our past practice. 

More importantly, it means we can learn to improve our practice, whilst supporting communities to find their own solutions for working with those they reach.

This is just a start. We all have a long way to go.

And it isn’t either/or – a focus on structure, or a focus on individuals and communities. Unless we embrace a shared wish to see a more diverse and equal society that we can all take pride in, we will fail. 

The lessons of conflict elsewhere, from Apartheid South Africa to Northern Ireland, are that to move forward to a better future we must sometimes see beyond our different versions of the past, or risk living in it forever.

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