Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice
A generation ago, virtually all ethnic minority groups in the UK were more disadvantaged than the White British population, by almost any measure. Today, disadvantage is no longer black and white.
Too often, we have viewed ethnic minorities through lumping everyone who is non-white into a crude “BAME” category, grouping their experiences as if there are no meaningful differences between them. It is time to get rid of this useless “BAME vs. White” approach and dig a little deeper into the facts.
Outcomes for virtually all ethnic minority groups have been on a positive trajectory over the last few decades. Many ethnic minority groups are now performing better in education and the labour market than the White British group.
Before we tipped our economy upside down, official earnings data showed that young people from Black African and Bangladeshi backgrounds no longer had lower earnings than their White British counterparts. This is most likely because African and Bangladeshi children are outperforming the national average in bagging good GCSE grades.
When it comes to the home life that sets the template for adulthood, there are vast disparities in family structures across ethnic groups. Only 10 per cent of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are headed up by a single parent; for Caribbean households with children the figure is nearly half. We shouldn’t be surprised that children’s outcomes are so varied when the homes they return to each day are so different.
None of this is intended to suggest we take a pollyannaish approach to ethnicity – there are real problems we need to tackle. But if we want to take them on properly we need to dig a little deeper into what is going on between and within ethnic groups with very different backgrounds, cultural expectations and experiences of the world around them.
The gaps are not just between White Brits and ethnic minority groups. There are huge gaps within broad ethnic minority groups too. For instance, Indian people of working age in 2018 succeeded in closing the employment gap between themselves and the White British population, and now earn more than White British workers, on average. Meanwhile, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people have consistently had the highest unemployment rates – more than double that of the Indian population – and have some of the poorest earnings.
The differences between Black Caribbean and Black African individuals are also stark. Black African GCSE students achieve higher than average in school, whilst their Caribbean peers have some of the poorest attainment rates. Disadvantaged African students perform better, not worse, than more advantaged Caribbean students.
Simply reporting “Asian or “Black” outcomes is deeply unhelpful – let alone reporting “BAME” outcomes. You won’t hear that in the news too often, let alone reports from bureaucrats who love to lump people into groups.
It might be tempting to just blame this on “poverty” or some imagined “structural disadvantage” but the fact is some groups seem to beat the odds. Poorer Indian students (those eligible for free school meals) achieve just as highly as relatively wealthier White British students in their GCSEs. Similarly, disadvantaged Black African students achieve better GCSE results than their more advantaged Black Caribbean peers.
At the CSJ, we have always tackled the most difficult social issues head on. All the above statistics come from our newly published report, Facing the facts: ethnicity and disadvantage in Britain. We need to improve the way we understand ethnic differences by binning the nonsense term “BAME” and instead turn our attention to tackling poverty at its root causes, making sure we get those out of work into a job, preventing families from breaking apart and making education an escape route from a poorer future. The Prime Minister is tip-toeing into this area with a new commission but more ambitious action is needed.
There’s a lot to be really proud of in our country and in many ways we are a hugely successful multi-ethnic democracy. We don’t need a crude approach to ethnicity anymore than we need it in tackling poverty. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has been a catalyst for re-examining how ethnicity affects “life chances”, but it is being held back a lack of nuance.
Governments love to say they are led by the evidence, it’s time to look at the evidence on ethnicity in plotting a better future for families growing up in our poorest areas. The first step is get rid of the pointless phrase “BAME” and get a lot more interested in the lives of real people, which will show up in the data when you look carefully.