Dr Faiza Shaheen
There are many ways in which it feels the world has regressed in 2016 – no more so than on issues of equality, community cohesion and general love for human beings from different countries, races and religions. Marking this demise most obviously has been the anti-immigration Leave and Trump campaigns, which have triumphed electorally and been followed by a rise in racist and xenophobic attacks. Then there are the seemingly never-ending day-to-day micro-aggressions towards minority groups, exemplified by the Casey Review published in early December, pinning all of the UK’s integration problems on Muslims, and the election of anti-feminist MP Philip Davies to the Equality Select Committee.
For a child of immigrants brought up as a Muslim, this regression and its weekly airing on BBC Question Time has been felt at a very personal level.
But it’s important to take a step back and recognise why things have gone so very wrong. As much as I do blame Nigel Farage and the hateful tabloid media, those of us who have been working on equality and community cohesion for years must recognise that the type of progress we built was fragile. One reason for this is that we divorced the issue of social equality from greater economic equality. Broadly speaking, we adopted an approach that said ‘as long as black people can be rich too, we shouldn’t try and change the rules of the economic system.’ As such, progress was only ever going to be skin deep. We also allowed the integration and community cohesion debates to be separated from issues of equality – more on that later.
Earlier this year, I worked on the statistics for a BBC documentary, ‘Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?’ The show tracks the journey to becoming prime minister, looking at the particular barriers for black children compared with white state educated and privately educated children growing up today.
In many ways, the show played into some of the frames I find unhelpful. Obviously, having a black prime minister means nothing if it’s a one-off, or if it’s followed by the election of a racist demagogue. Still, I was struck by how little the statistics have changed since I was a teenager. How is it possible that just as when I studied at Oxford, there are still only a handful of black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students? Why are poverty rates still so high in these communities? Most disturbing is the evidence showing that these same communities have been worst hit by austerity.
The answer is far from elusive. In a capitalist rat-race style economy, those with an initial disadvantage are forever running to catch up. They are penalised by both poverty and reduced access to high quality public services, and narrowing the gap is a tall feat.
Nearly two fifths of black and Asian workers are working in low paid industries, with more than one in ten on temporary contracts. The aim here shouldn’t be to have more white people in low paid work – equalising misery is definitely not the answer. Instead, we need real labour market reform to make sure there are more good jobs for everyone. This would also mean that immigrant working class and white working class people wouldn’t be competing for the same bad jobs – the divide and rule philosophy adopted by the populists would no longer have fertile ground.
It’s not all economics, of course. To achieve equality we also need to change people’s attitudes to others in a way that humanises all groups and emphasises the things we have in common. Equality and integration are two sides of the same coin – something the Casey Review largely ignores.
Yes, Nadiya Hussain and Mo Farah help both to remind us how much immigrants contribute to the UK and to provide a more inclusive idea of Britishness, but seeing past our differences means having more representation in daily life. This is a big one, and certainly a longer term project. While visibility is hardly the be all and end all when it comes to addressing inequality, it’s important that we have positive characters in our films and on TV. My husband, who is an actor, is of Turkish origin, and is forever playing the bad guy. Why? Can’t we write a part for someone ‘Muslim looking’ that is positive? What does it say about us that we find this so hard to imagine?
History is a story of twists and turns, but the 2016 twist will only be followed by a meaningful turn if we wise up and forge a new route towards equality. Ironically, just when we need to be rethinking our approach, the equalities body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is facing further cuts. This is a powerful reminder that if we leave equality to the current government, things are likely to get worse in 2017, not better. Luckily, the government aren’t the only ones that can make a difference.