Society and Culture

Some initial thoughts on the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report

The Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has attracted predictable controversy. Some are hailing it as an important new, more positive, direction in policy towards ethnic minorities, while others condemn it as “whitewashing” the country’s record and “gaslighting” equality campaigners.

I suspect many of the most vociferous on both sides of the argument have not read the 260-page report. I have had a quick read of it. I shall be going back over it in months to come: there is a lot to digest.

One of the things which the report does is reject the simplistic notion of “white privilege”, which online activists use to silence dissent from radical criticisms of our society. This riposte is well overdue: it is difficult to see that many poor white families – which in absolute terms outnumber poor minority families – are privileged in any meaningful way.

However, I certainly recognise that older, Oxbridge-educated white male Professors like myself do lead a rather privileged life, and to that extent cannot fully understand the experience and emotions of those less advantaged. So rather than express a view about the overall conclusions of the project I confine myself here to some thoughts about the way in which they have gone about it, from the point of view of an economist.

The Commission has been successful in producing a report in an astonishingly short period of time, a report covering topics from pay to health to education to crime. It brings together a range of statistics which demonstrate quite clearly something which economists have been emphasising for some time – the inadequacy of the “BAME” category, which hides an enormous diversity of experience.

Some ethnicities perform markedly better in education and the labour market than whites, while others perform much worse. If racism is seen as the determining factor, it seems remarkably selective – with those of Black African heritage doing much better than those with a Caribbean heritage. And within the “white” category, some groups such as Roma and Irish travellers do worse than more visible minorities.

This brings out a general point which economists have long understood – that labour market and other outcomes are self-evidently the outcome of a complex range of factors. If you take any distinct groups of individuals – women and men, those who are tall compared with those who are short, those with blue eyes and those with green eyes, football fans and rugby fans, Big-endians and Little-endians – there will be differences in outcomes. Ethnic differences, though hugely important politically, are just one such set of differences.

They can be explained by a variety of factors. Economists using multiple regression techniques try to separate out the influence of these separate factors. In such modelling, the effects of discrimination emerge as a residual. In the case of some ethnicities this residual may be disturbingly high, but this may simply reflect incomplete information on causative factors.

For example, the Commission suggests that socioeconomic factors such as class may be more important in ethnic group outcomes than is often recognised: many economists might go along with this. This will in turn reflect the geographical dispersion of the population and of economic activity. Disadvantaged ethnic minorities – and for that matter, disadvantaged white people – are not randomly distributed across Britain, but are concentrated in particular areas where housing quality, educational provision and job opportunities reinforce inequality.

Incidentally, geographical differences are one reason why the Commission is cool on the idea of extending compulsory pay gap reporting from gender to ethnic differences. Whereas on average firms employ roughly 50% men and 50% women across the country, it is pointed out that in the Lake District, for instance, 98% of the population is white. An organisation employing 300 people could expect to have six workers from ethnic minorities (and probably different ethnic groups at that). Nothing useful could be concluded from pay comparisons.

More controversially, the Commission looks at cultural factors such as family structure and family stability as factors in disadvantage. Commission Chair Tony Sewell has long made the claim that the absence of resident fathers has a negative impact on the school performance of Black Caribbean boys and is associated with increased likelihood of joining street gangs. He has been criticised for this again in the wake of the Report’s publication. As an economist I am always slightly suspicious of claims about culture and more inclined to look at incentive patterns. How far, for instance, do family fissures reflect economic costs and benefits?

Sewell has also been attacked for the assertion that Britain should be seen as “a model for other white-majority countries”. This view can certainly be contested, but it is demonstrably true in one sense – the availability of high-quality data on outcomes for different ethnicities.

I was surprised, attending a conference in the Netherlands a few years back, to see how poor the data were in most other European countries – notably in France, where Republican ideals saw all citizens as equal, and therefore data should not be collected on ethnicity. There have been improvements across the EU in collection of ethnicity data, but the UK’s Office for National Statistics still leads the field in the range and quality of information on the dizzying variety of ethnicities which makes up our complex society.

One other issue where the Commission’s Report has attracted hostility, is its rejection of the concept of “institutional racism”, a concept which has been widely employed in Britain since the Macpherson Report on Stephen Lawrence’s murder.

Again, this is something which economists might sympathise with. Brought up as we are on methodological individualism, the idea that reified institutions have some significance over and above the individuals who inhabit them from time to time, is outside our normal thinking. It is a Durkheimian idea at best, a Marxian idea at worst. It is certainly something outside Popperian falsifiability. But I suppose this is privilege talking again.

Whatever you think of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, its report has certainly opened up a debate in an area which has long suffered from too narrow a focus, and in the light of the Black Lives Matter agitation looked to be dominating Establishment thinking to a worrying degree. Whether the Commission’s findings are accepted or not, it is an analysis which we will be discussing for quite a while.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

4 thoughts on “Some initial thoughts on the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report”

  1. Posted 01/04/2021 at 17:23 | Permalink

    I need a dictionary for that last paragraph.

  2. Posted 04/04/2021 at 08:46 | Permalink

    Tim, I presume you mean the penultimate paragraph. I’m sorry, it is a mouthful.

    What I’m trying to get at is that concepts like ‘institutional racism’ are ultimately drawn from sociology. The assumption, which can be traced back to Emile Durkheim in the 19th century, is that you can make generalisations about society and institutions which constitute ‘social facts’. These ‘facts’ cannot be derived from individuals’ own perceptions but lie above them. In a rather different way, Karl Marx uses the idea of ‘class’ to make generalisations about groups of people (and about how history moves).

    This isn’t the way economists tend to think, as they start from analysing individuals’ choices in response to changes in incentives. This may be wrong, sure, but it is different from the thinking which lies behind the idea of institutional racism (or institutional misogyny or institutional transphobia or whatever).

  3. Posted 04/04/2021 at 10:53 | Permalink

    I knew the names that Professor Shackleton referenced but certainly couldn’t immediately locate where in each of their respective philosophers the link would be between the report and the philosophies. As an aside my family and I were living south of the Thames when Karl Popper passed away in 1994 and I was surprised to learn that he had been living in Croydon. For a quick summary of his life and philosophy here is a link to the Wikipedia article about him.

  4. Posted 04/04/2021 at 19:13 | Permalink

    It looks like Sewell has been attacked for an assertion he didn’t make. From the report:
    “. .the success of much of the ethnic minority population in education and, to a lesser extent, the economy, should be regarded as a model for other White-majority countries”.
    This is a claim mainly about education, but some have leaped on it to say it is a claim about Britain as a whole and therefore it’s a broad brush erasing of their argument that all British institutions are being racist. Some people just will not or can not read.

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