“That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.”
These were among Theresa May’s earliest words as Prime Minister, made outside Downing Street after her return from Buckingham Palace. At the time, they were cheered almost unanimously. Later, doubts set it.
Why? After all, they look like common sense. If you are born poor you are indeed likely to die earlier than if born rich. The disparity tugs at the sleeve of our elemental sense of justice.
But there is a problem – not so much with May’s examples as with where their logic can lead you. Put simply, not every disadvantage is necessarily driven by injustice. The Commons debated an example yesterday.
Kemi Badenoch is the Equalities Minister. In 2017, she made a sensational speech at that year’s Conservative conference (introducing May herself, as it happens).
In it, she told her story. Of how she was born in Britain, grew up in Nigeria, arrived here at 16 with just £100 in her pocket and sits now as MP for Saffron Walden.
Badenoch has been toiling away in the Commons and rather less visible since then. And so it is that yesterday she led for the Government in response to an urgent question about Coronavirus disparities.
“The review also confirmed that being black or from a minority ethnic background is a risk factor,” she told the House, referring to the Public Health England report that provoked the question.
She went on to set out her ground. “That racial disparity has been shown to hold even after accounting for the effect of age, deprivation [our italic], region and sex”, she told the House.
In other words, as David Goodhart explained recently when writing about the matter on this site, the difference is not simply caused by what he called social-demographic factors – such as some groups being relatively poor.
There are two other factors at play as well: cultural factors (“the fact that minorities are more likely to live in multi-generational households and take part in collective religious rituals”)…
…And genetic factors (“the fact that some minorities are significantly more likely to suffer from diabetes, hypertension and heart disease”).
So by way of a wider example, the NHS confirms that “sickle cell disease is particularly common in people with an African or Caribbean family background”.
Having dug in solidly, Badenoch was well placed to hit back at posturing – as she splendidly did in the case of a white SNP MP who conflated black people with recent immigrants.
Why do we mention the colour of Alison Thewliss, the Parliamentarian in question? Because Badenoch herself introduced the general theme at the very beginning of her statement.
“As a black woman and the Equalities Minister, it would be odd if I did not comment on the recent events in the US and protests in London yesterday,” she said.
She went on to state the obvious: that the killing of George Floyd was brutal (the video shows Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck long after the latter had clearly lost consciousness) and that “during these moments of heightened racial tension, we must not pander to anyone who seeks to inflame those tensions”.
Some won’t like what they will see as identity politics from Badenoch. Which gets one into a back-and-forth argument. On the one hand, that discourse, whereby people claim virtue from their identity, is undoubtedly an evil. Its path leads to the triumph of communalist politics and the breakup of liberal democracy.
On the other hand, speaking from experience has a compulsion about it that speaking without experience doesn’t. So a Yorkshire MP talking about floods in Yorkshire, for example, will be listened to more closely than a Lancashire MP talking about floods in Yorkshire (and vice-versa).
Few readers of this site would protest if a white working class Tory MPs, freshly elected in a former Red Wall seat, exalted his background while criticising a white middle class Labour opponent – or one of any colour, come to think of it. Anyway, it seems to us that Badenoch was speaking from experience yesterday.
It is noticeable that very few of her black Conservative colleagues do the same. Adam Afriyie, Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly, Bim Afolami, Helen Grant, Darren Henry – all tend to steer clear of emphasising their ethnicity.
We can’t speak for any of them, of course, but this seems to be conservatism in action. What matters most should be that one is British, not of a particular background. All are putting into practice this sensible principle.
None the less, the Party is unsure about the politics of equality. As we have seen in the case of trans (where Liz Truss, after long institutional hesitation, is finally showing intellectual grip).
So for example, Matt Hancock declared that “black lives matter” during a recent press conference. Was he right to do so? (Downing Street thinks not.)
The long and short of it is that the Party has got itself into a muddle about equality ever since the New Labour legislation that sets the framework for it, and Tony Blair’s blurring of equality of opportunity and outcome.
The Tory approach should be to worry about inequalities of outcome only when these are unfairly gained. For there can be no free society without unequal outcomes.
What should matter most is building equality of opportunity, in so far as those cultural and genetic factors allow. That means action to strengthen the three biggest shapers of life chances: families, schools and work.
Sometimes, there must be policies for particular groups and places. To pick two almost at random, government must address those black deaths in police custody and (very differently) the particular problems of seaside towns.
But on the whole, public policy is most effective when it is colour blind – like the bigger family tax allowances we don’t have, the free schools that we do, and the workplace support plans that should replace furlough.
Finally, in writing in the headline of this piece that race and justice is more than a black and white issue, we are speaking not just illustratively, but literally.
For there are differences within ethnic minority groups themselves. It is simply wrong to lump them all together as an undifferentiated mass.
To close with an example: the Public Health England report says that people of Bangladeshi heritage have a higher death rate from the virus than those of Pakistani heritage, compared to the white majority.
Could it seriously be argued that the white majority somehow discriminates more against the former than the latter? Or, more broadly, that its own members are not sometimes at risk? (See Rotherham.)
In any event, it’s a good thing that ethnic minority Tory MPs tend to steer clear of identity politics. And that in Badenoch, the Party has a front-bencher who understands it, and can play off the front foot.