Time For Talking On Race Is Over, It's Time For The Government To Act

09/10/2017 11:09 BST | Updated 09/10/2017 11:09 BST

Just two weeks after stepping into 10 Downing Street Theresa May announced she was setting up an audit of race inequality in government. It was a bold move that built on her words about tackling "burning injustice"; and one the Prime Minister took despite little political or public pressure on the issue.

A lot has changed for the Prime Minister since then, not least a backfiring snap election and a difficult conference speech. A year on the audit may have been forgotten by many, but it has been eagerly anticipated among those who research the field of race inequality.

With everything that has changed since its announcement, it is good to see May's racial disparity audit highlighted at Conservative Party Conference and being launched in the coming week. How the government react to the audit, and more specifically what concrete actions they put in place to make Britain a more racially-fair society, could go a long way to turning the tide when it comes to opportunities for the eight million ethnic minorities in Britain - and also, of course, how they vote

While it's a good policy truism that one must first understand a problem before responding to it, it's also true that we've known about these racial inequalities for decades. The audit will actually reveal new data, but more important is that will gather it all in one easily accessible place, and will have the stamp of authority of a government publication. From now on, only cranks and trolls can dispute the extent of racial inequalities in Britain. With the data published by the government, it won't just be academics who publicly recognise this evidence; there will also be less justification or excuses for failing to know about or act on racial inequalities in Britain.

A key explanation for racial inequalities is racial discrimination. Ethnic groups have worse employment outcomes partly because people with Asian and African sounding surnames have to send in twice as many CVs just to get an interview - attitudes that these same employers are unlikely to disappear in promotion, pay and redundancy decision-making. Factors such as class, poverty or educational attainment of course also explain racial inequalities. Yet those educational outcomes may also result, at least partly, from discrimination: for example because teachers differently assess intellectual ability or classroom behaviour.

And if income, class or region explain racial inequalities, the question then emerges: how does government propose to reduce those inequalities and to ensure the benefits of any such interventions - for example building more council housing - flow proportionally to ethnic minorities?

Supplementing the race disparity audit, other forms of data or evidence help us interpret ethnic inequalities in Britain. In addition to the CV studies, up-to-date surveys on both minority and majority attitudes and perceptions show continued evidence of racial prejudice.

More recently social experiments conducted in laboratory-like environments are also yielding illuminating results. These experiments show that even a very mild racial prejudice or attitude can have significant effects: for example, reduced wages for all black people and increased wages for all white people. Even if people aren't overtly racist, and even if their preference against certain ethnic groups is so mild as to be unconscious, this can have a wide impact where competition for jobs is tight, or where people have to make quick decisions.

The Runnymede Trust recently published a study jointly with NatCen, tracking social attitudes over three decades. It found that 44% of people believed some races were 'born less hard working' than others. This goes a long way to explain why there are such racial disparities in society, from less pay and fewer job opportunities to barriers entering top universities, to disproportionate sentencing in courts for the same crimes.

So what should Theresa May do about the racial inequalities her audit will reveal? First, examine the data carefully and consider how and why those inequalities persist. Second, task each secretary of state with a plan for reducing two or three of those inequalities over the next two to three years. Third, ensure those independent departmental goals are connected with a strategy, as we know inequalities generate over the life course and cannot always be discretely addressed only in, say, schools or hospitals. Fourth, engage with experts and minority ethnic communities to understand their perspective on these issues, to ensure any interventions are appropriate, have democratic legitimacy and are likely to lead to success. Fifth, implement some of the scores recommendations those experts have suggested, including monitoring ethnicity pay gaps, employment targets, greater powers for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, more investment in mental health, providing more truly affordable housing, and more objective teaching of Britain's history.

There's a lot Theresa May can do. In addition to the above, she can also ensure all budgets and policies are subject to an equality impact assessment. On Tuesday, we are launching a report jointly with the Women's Budget Group into the impact of austerity on ethnic minority women since 2010. It will show that everyday decisions in government can increase racial unfairness. If treasury ministers and civil servants are more aware of the impact of budgets on groups who are already disadvantaged they can do something about it.

Even mildly prejudicial attitudes can have far-reaching effects. The government cannot simply throw its hands up and do nothing. We look forward to reading the government's careful but decisive plans for its next steps to ensure a fairer Britain, where a person's race isn't a barrier to their opportunities and outcomes.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust. He tweets at @omaromalleykhan