John Humphrys - Discrimination : Time for a Rethink?

November 21, 2020, 8:00 AM UTC

The Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank set up by the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith back in 2004, has produced a report this week saying we need to ditch BAME.  It stands for  Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic  and it’s the term that has become standard in the way we talk about racial discrimination. The report, written by a group including Trevor Phillips, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says ‘BAME’ conceals more than it reveals about the state of discrimination in Britain today. It touches on a broader issue too: the way we think of other groups, such as those with minority sexual preferences, who get bundled up into a supposed ‘LGBT+’ community. It suggests that it distorts our view of what is actually going on in the society in which we live and promotes a victim culture which in some respects may be misleading and could lead to a backlash in which those who are genuinely discriminated against could be harmed. So is it time to rethink our notions of discrimination?

The CSJ’s report, Facing the Facts: Ethnicity and Disadvantage in Britain, puts the point succinctly. It says: ‘It is increasingly the case that some ethnic minority groups are outperforming white British individuals in some areas, while others fall woefully behind. There are also often larger socioeconomic disparities between Britain’s ethnic minority groups (eg between Asian and Black groups) and within them (eg between Black African and Black Caribbean groups) than there are between the ‘BAME’ and White population.’ In specific terms, it cites the fact that Indian, Bangladeshi and African students, on average, attain higher results at GCSE than White British students, and that White British students on free school meals attain worse GCSE results on average than all the ethnic minority groups. It uses similar data relating to employment and family life to show how inadequate and misleading ‘BAME’ can be when it comes to discrimination in Britain.

Yet we all go on using it as the lens through which we believe we are getting an accurate view of our world. Or do we?

‘BAME’ is not the sort of term most of us use in our normal discourse. Maybe that’s because our own experience suggests  it’s all more complex and messy than that. But it has become the shorthand of the mainstream media, of business, of academia and, of course, politicians. So it encourages the rest of us to regard the hugely diverse collection of black, Asian and other ethnic minority people who constitute 14% of the population of England and Wales as a sort of self-identifying lump.

Much the same could be said of the now ubiquitous term, ‘LGBT+’. It too creates the sense of a single collective identity where none really exists, let alone as a ‘community’. Talk to most gay men and lesbians and they will tell you that there is no real community - neither social nor political - and that the two groups largely live their lives apart from each other. Activists may claim that ‘LGBT+’ is their defining identity and they are a single, homogenous group but there is precious little evidence to support that claim.  

Gay men are interested in men and lesbians in women. Why would their worlds not be set apart from each other, except in the way that all our worlds overlap, through friendships?

Another very important reason why the term is a fiction  lies in the history of the very real persecution of homosexuals. It’s that gay men were persecuted in a way that lesbians never were. In modern times (after the repressive laws were introduced in the 1880s) it wasn’t homosexuality per se that was outlawed, but homosexual acts, defined as sodomy. This left lesbians out of the frame. Indeed it is disputable whether there has ever been even an age of consent for lesbianism – if only because it has never been on the legal radar. It is said that when Gladstone was explaining the new law to Queen Victoria, she refused to believe that lesbianism was even possible.

What this means is that the persecution of homosexuals was overwhelmingly of gay men (think Alan Turing) and that the struggle for liberation from such persecution was conducted overwhelmingly by gay men. This in itself ought to alert us to something anomalous in the concept of ‘LGBT+’.

A similar, if less clear-cut, case could be made about the history of black oppression and of the struggle of black people to overcome it. Martin Luther King’s crusade was very much on behalf of African Americans. And in Britain, although both black and Asian immigrants encountered vicious discrimination, there wasn’t much linking of arms between the two disadvantaged minorities in fighting it. So, again, ‘BAME’ does not seem to be a historically justified term.

Why, then, should we settle on these highly misleading group terms? One answer might be laziness, even indifference. We can’t be bothered to try to understand what is really going on in our complicated, diverse and often contradictory and paradoxical world, so instead we invent simple categories which we think tell us all we need to know about it and then move on to other things.

But there is another answer, which is that these terms emerge from a deliberate process that attempts to narrow our view of the world so that it is seen solely in political terms  -  and in very narrow political terms at that. On this view our world is nothing more nor less than a power struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.

This is the analysis offered by the writer Douglas Murray in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds: gender, race and identity. Murray (himself a gay man) argues that although there are still plenty of inequities in British society, especially with regard to racial minorities, the fundamental human rights battles have been largely won: specifically overcoming the vicious injustices done to gay men and immigrant black and brown families in the immediate post-war world. But for some political activists, he argues, winning isn’t the point: it’s having the battle that matters. The creation of terms like ‘BAME’ and ‘LGBT+’ is one way of continuing the fight, even of ramping it up.

He quotes the Australian political philosopher, Kenneth Minogue, of the LSE, who invented the notion of ‘St George in retirement’ syndrome. As Murray summarises it: ‘After slaying the dragon the brave warrior finds himself stalking the land looking for still more glorious fights. He needs his dragons. Eventually, after tiring himself out in pursuit of ever-smaller dragons he may eventually even be found swinging his sword at thin air, imagining it to contain dragons’. He also quotes the dictum of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late US Democrat senator, on the subject of human rights: that claims of human rights violations happen in exactly inverse proportion to the numbers of human rights violations in a country’.

Murray and others have seen a Marxist echo in all this. They regard the ‘construction’ of groups such as ‘BAME’ and ‘LGBT+’ as a means of forcing us all to see the world in the light of a new version of the eternal power battle between the  oppressor and the oppressed. In the writings of Marx the battle was between heartless capitalist bosses and  downtrodden workers. In the 21st century it is between ‘white privilege’ and the ’patriarchy’ on the one hand, and an assortment of oppressed minority groups on the other. Those groups might be defined, for instance,  by their race, their gender or  their sexual preference.

To some people, of course, this will all seem like nothing more than a ludicrous, right-wing conspiracy theory. There is still massive discrimination and inequality, they will argue, and there needs to be continuing political activism to fight it. It’s why minority groups, whether racial, or gay, or any number of other minority identities, need political organisation and therefore political identity.

That may indeed be the case. But what the CSJ report suggest is that in reality there is less common identity in these groups than there is difference within them. And that raises the question not just of whether we are being sold a false picture of how the world actually is but being asked to take sides in a political battle that is being ‘got up’.

You might think that an argument merely about labels is not one that most of us need bother about. But take a look at social media and you will see that many do.  The anger, intolerance and often sheer venom expressed suggest how dangerous this might all be. The danger lies not just in the passion of those determined to see the world in terms of an endless power struggle, but also that they may incite a backlash. We may get so fed up with being required to see one minority group after another as oppressed that we cease to care about even blatant cases of discrimination.

This takes us back to whether we should go on talking in terms of ‘BAME’, ‘LGBT+’ and the rest. It may not be cost-free. The BBC is so convinced of the validity of the  terms that a couple of years ago it created a new post, an LGBT correspondent. The man given the job said on his appointment: ‘I’m looking forward to being the mouthpiece for some marginalised groups but really allowing them to tell their own stories’.

Many journalists (like me) recoil at the notion of being a ‘mouthpiece’ for any group. It means being an advocate. It means taking sides. I believe passionately that viewers and listeners  look to journalists to provide dispassionate accounts of events.

And as for his talk of ‘marginalised groups’, many will think that gays have long since become part of the mainstream. Quite right too. The danger is that it reinforces the prejudices of those who have always been suspicious of “minorities” in their belief that they are getting special treatment.

The greater danger, perhaps, comes from those who are  just waiting to exploit such resentment. It could all lead to new waves of discrimination and persecution.

So do we need to rethink the ways we discuss discrimination? Let us know your views.