The Jewish Chronicle
Daniel Finkelstein: Jews, race and equality
The claim that Britain is making progress on reducing racism would not be so clear-cut if our experience had been considered, given how troubling the past decade has been for us
YES, BUT is it good for the Jews? My mother’s favourite joke question came to me unbidden last week when controversy arose about a new report on race and equality. On the morning of the publication of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’s findings, newspapers were full of optimism about the progress this country had made in reducing racism, of how well it compared to other countries in Europe and of how the commissioners had not found the country to be institutionally racist.
This was a story they were meant to print, after briefings the night before. And the next day, inevitably, came a backlash. The Commission was accused of denying the obvious facts of racial discrimination and of trying to see the bright side of things, such as slavery, which very definitely do not have the remotest bright side. Neither of these was a full reflection of the report’s content. But then such debates rarely are. And if opponents are going to be criticised for denouncing the report before they had read it, then the commission must accept criticism for promoting a partial view of its findings before anyone had a chance to read it. Both of these things were unfortunate. So how did I respond, reading it as a Jew? Central to the report’s analysis is that the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) is unhelpful. It disguises the fact that different groups covered by that term have different problems.
The Commission also points to instances where, say, Britons of black African descent and those of black Caribbean descent achieve different outcomes. They question whether racism can, in these circumstances, be the sole explanation of the outcome for either group.
The impact on the Jewish reader is immediate. The experience of all sorts of ethnic minorities are examined, but not Jews. What can be the argument for this? That Jews aren’t an ethnic group? I think that is hardly tenable. That Jews aren’t a minority? Or that Jews don’t face racism? A ludicrous idea.
The experience Jews have of racism is different from that of some other groups, and I suppose our exclusion is explicable if the term BAME is being used effectively to capture the progress of all people of colour. But the entire argument of the report is that such grouping is unhelpful. The basis of the Commission’s analysis is that all groups experience racism differently.
That being the case, what is the reason for leaving out Jews? Including Jews would strengthen some of the report’s conclusions and weaken others. First I think it would strengthen the report’s conclusion that this country is one of the best places for ethnic minority groups to live and is doing comparatively well at reducing racism.
Second, it would introduce an asterisk and a footnote to the claim that we are making progress on reducing racism. I think this is undeniably true for almost all ethnic minorities. And I am amazed that so many anti-racist campaigners have felt affronted by this idea. If we hadn’t been improving, it would mean that everything anti-racism campaigners had done for the last 50 years would have been a failure. Not only is that clearly untrue but it baffles me that anyone would wish to claim it was.
However, the asterisk would be necessary to capture the Jewish experience. Most of us, I believe, sense that there is less racism in Britain against Jews now than there were 50 years ago. But many of us would feel that there was more racism against Jews than 10 years ago.
But the impact of including Jews would be more than a footnote.
The report does not deny racism in Britain, but its emphasis was rather different from that of the majority discourse among ethnic groups. In places, that made me feel uncomfortable. I thought it was too dismissive of the impact that discrimination had.
In particular, it gave too little emphasis (not none, but too little) to the direct experience of prejudice where it couldn’t statistically be shown beyond question to produce some material disadvantage. Jews know what it feels like to be told by non-Jews, and even by other Jews, that what we are experiencing is not really what we are experiencing. I think our inclusion might have helped the report get its emphasis right.
I think our inclusion might have helped the report get its emphasis right’