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Day To End Racial Discrimination: 'Covert Racism' As A Hurdle

29/03/2017 16:50 BST | Updated 29/03/2017 16:50 BST

There has been, over the last half-century, a revolution in attitudes towards a range of social groups. Fifty years ago, 80% of people thought African Americans were superstitious and lazy. By the time of the new millennium those figures were 2% and 12% respectively. In the UK, by the 1990s, Britons were far more comfortable with having minorities as neighbours and mixed marriages than they were in the 1960s. Whilst the middle of the century saw people support ideas such as "families should give boys more encouragement to go to university than girls", by the 1990s so few people agreed that it was almost pointless asking the question.

We have become more liberal, more egalitarian and more tolerant over the last five decades. This is clearly something to be marked and even celebrated. However, whilst we should not take such changes in attitude for granted, neither should we accept them at face value either.

These changes to the way people see the world have manifested themselves in our explicit attitudes - they are overt and obvious. There are also, however, unconscious attitudes - ones that are based on associations and stereotypes.

Unfortunately, when it comes to these attitudes, we are unaware that we have them. This can result in a person holding very different explicit and implicit attitudes: someone could regard themselves as being an egalitarian, non-prejudiced and fair-minded person, who does not discriminate against others. On the other hand, their unconscious attitudes would be stereotyping people on any number of factors (for example, ethnicity or gender). Worryingly, this could be impacting their decision-making.

These unconscious associations and stereotypes that we use in our day to day life will impact our behaviours in such subtle, indirect and nuanced ways that we may not even be aware of it occurring. It is this, when combined with the changes we have seen to our more explicit attitudes, which has led some commentators to conclude that prejudice and racism are on the way to being eradicated.

The reality is that prejudice, like a virus, has mutated.

Research shows that whilst the aspects of behaviour that are easier to control (for example, verbal behaviour) may show no bias, other less easily controllable behaviours may demonstrate something quite different.

This will include non-verbal behaviours such as avoiding eye contact, defensive posture, or even the way in which we are seen to be smiling. Actions like these can easily demonstrate whether we respect someone, or trust them, or whether we value them. The behaviours are so small that the person displaying them may not be aware of what they are doing. However, we are all sensitive to small cues and the person we are communicating with will have picked up on the messages. Whilst we can control what we say, we make more speech errors and hesitate more when we feel anxious.

On the surface, it could be easy to conclude that this does not matter very much at all. In practice though, these unconscious associations and subtle behaviours can have a big impact on the decisions we make and the interactions we have. The BBC found recently that when faced with identical CVs with only the names changed, Muslim sounding candidates had considerably less chance of being short-listed than candidates with Anglo-Saxon names. The people doing the short-listing would undoubtedly say they were fair-minded people. Nevertheless, despite these overtly held beliefs, their unconscious attitudes may have been contradicting them.

Many organisations have now started to develop policies on diversity and inclusion. However, many of these policies are focused on gender. Very few give much or, indeed, any attention to racial discrimination. It is as if the leaders, including many of those working in the area of diversity and inclusion, see racial discrimination as less of an issue, or at the least a much lower priority.

However, it is clear that much more needs be done. In the accountancy profession, for example, the big firms have greater diversity at graduate level. This diversity disappears, however, at the more senior levels of these organisations. Are they taking on less qualified minorities at graduate level? Or are there more subtle forms of discrimination taking place which means that minorities are not being given encouragement to seek promotion, denied opportunities to run more challenging projects or being provided with sufficient support to develop their careers?

We must recognise that these subtle forms of discrimination are occurring, and strive to not confuse changes in explicit attitudes with a reduction in prejudice. We cannot afford to mistake rhetoric for commitment, because it will only hold us back. Finally, we cannot think that because organisations take action on gender that they are equally concerned about race: it is a separate diversity issue with its own set of complex problems, and must be addressed and combatted in that context.