Not-so-positive discrimination

The UK government’s plan to monitor the number of black and Asian people employed by private companies is an affront to meritocracy, universalism and genuine equality.

The UK government is considering denying multimillion-pound contracts to companies that fail to employ enough black and Asian workers, it emerged this week. The Department of Work and Pensions confirmed that three pilot schemes have been approved which will see companies questioned on their workforce diversity before the government decides on the winning bid.

As in race-torn America in the Sixties and Seventies, the idea of ‘affirmative action’ – or positive discrimination – is being put forward as social policy. At a time when culture always appears to be the solution to New Labour’s bugbear, ‘social exclusion’, it’s rather surprising to see economic issues being raised at all. It is all the more surprising when there aren’t any campaigns from ethnic minorities demanding preferential treatment for jobs in Britain.

The idea to monitor companies seeking big government contracts was first proposed by an organisation called the Ethnic Minority Advisory Group (Emag). As an indication of how unrepresentative these ‘governmental advisers’ appear to be, Emag was only launched last month. Already their recommendations for ‘affirmative measures’ – to bring black and minority ethnic employment rates in line with the national population rate - have been backed all the way by powerful sections of the state and government, such as Jobcentre Plus, the Identity and Passport Agency and the Department for Education and Skills.

Under these plans, firms could be asked to provide figures showing the numbers of black and Asian employees on their payroll. This would then be compared with the proportion of people living in a surrounding area. But how feasible are such initiatives? The idea of job quotas based on physical appearance, rather than on skills and experience, goes against how the labour market operates. For example, is it possible to ensure that ‘correct’ percentages of ethnic minorities in a company correlates with allocation of job roles? Would particular sectors that have higher percentages of black and Asian employees, such as the London Underground or the postal service, be replacing them with, say, Chinese or Polish workers? Will Premiership football teams be forced to sign Asian footballers in order to fit in with the national rate of employment elsewhere?

There is no doubt that some companies in the UK discriminate against job applicants on racial grounds. But it’s also true to say that PR-savvy companies, such as, say, the Halifax building society, will promote their ‘multicultural’ workforce as a selling point, a signifier that a staid company isn’t quite as conservative or behind-the-times as you thought. Besides, when there are clear cases of racial or sexual discrimination, there is already existing legislation in place to deal with it. So apart from introducing even more bureaucratic red tape for private companies, what will these proposals actually achieve?

First of all, the ‘affirmative action’ proposals are less about tackling racial discrimination per se than they are a mechanism to bring the private sector within government control. This doesn’t mean a return to state-owned or state-run industries as such; rather the interference will attempt to bring public sector etiquette and codes of conduct into the private sector. As pointed out previously on spiked, the atomised character of British society compels the political class to use bureaucratic mechanisms to compensate for the weakening of social ties and social institutions. In the past, the existence of active trade unions provided mediating links between Whitehall and the world of work. Now, at a time when even union officials don’t have much connection with workplaces, the political class feels its sense of isolation even more acutely – especially in relation to the private sector.

In this context, official ‘anti-racism’ and ‘diversity’ quotas provide the political justification for strong-armed points of connection at every level in British society. As racism is now the equivalent of original sin, no individual, no institution and certainly no private company can afford to be tarred with the racist brush. In an insightful episode of The Office, employees who wanted to put David Brent on the back foot implied he was racist due to the lack of black and Asian faces at Wernham Hogg. In the real world, it seems the government wants to do the same with private companies. So while hardboiled businesspeople may publicly baulk at the government’s race quotas, the pressures to conform will undoubtedly give way.

Even without the contemporary use of ‘affirmative action’, such measures have always been bad news – particularly for racial minorities. During anti-racist struggles in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties, it was equality rather than ‘special treatment’ that campaigners fought for. To accept notions of ‘positive discrimination’ was to accept that blacks and Asians didn’t really have the aptitude to hold down skilled jobs and thus needed the patronage of white do-gooders. In America, no matter how many black lawyers and doctors could be recruited, such policies only reinforced ideas of innate superiority and inferiority through the backdoor. The American comedian Larry David played on this duality in Curb Your Enthusiasm, when he jested that he didn’t trust a black doctor’s opinion because of ‘the whole affirmative action thing’. David was making a joke, but the serious point was that affirmative action enforces rather than overcomes notions of unequal racial abilities.

In today’s climate, though, it’s a different matter. While there is no longer an old racial hierarchy to maintain, the promotion of affirmative action will inevitably exacerbate all kinds of tensions and divisions in British society. It will arouse suspicions that black and Asian workers are only employed to ‘keep the quotas up’, while any such mutterings will be used by officials as examples of ‘racism in Britain’s workforce’, and thus used to justify even more diversity-training days. So while affirmative action creates new divisions and nurtures new grievances, it also invites officialdom to act as benign referees between the potentially warring factions.

Affirmative action is problematic on a bigger scale, too. It systematically attacks a key tenet of modernity: universalism. Whereas in tradition-based societies individuals were judged on particularistic criteria, such as family background and family networks, the expansion of a social division of labour meant that only a universal standard could effectively allocate employment roles and positions. For the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, such a meritocratic system was a sign of modernity’s historically progressive character. Of course, the maintenance of class privilege and racial discrimination called into question such claims of equality and meritocracy. Nevertheless the solution was always to argue for consistent universal treatment - for equality, not difference.

Forcing private contractors to monitor ethnic quotas will be an affront to meritocracy, universalism and, above all, genuine equality. Far from affirmative action being one of those ‘well-meaning but misguided’ attempts at racial integration, in this instance it will not only fuel tensions and foster divisions, but also legitimise even more official control of workplaces every inch of the way.


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