By Sonia Warner
Like many, yesterday I was so encouraged to hear President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, particularly his statements on tackling racial justice and systemic racism in the US. He was flanked by his Vice President Kamala Harris, a black woman of mixed heritage, with a strong belief in social justice. The combination of these two individuals opened up possibilities for promoting racial justice in my own mind, never before felt. They understand that it is not possible to dodge the bullet of delivering more on racial justice as part of the healing process of a nation so fractured, but yet so ambitious and inspiring in its tenacity and strength. Rational minded Americans know prosperity will come from their ability to unite against those who threaten to erode their hard-won democracy. It was a proud moment globally…
Delivering racial justice will be a major challenge, because so many have been harmed so deeply by racial discrimination and have lost hope in the possibility of a viable solution. I believe this is an essential part of any social contract and central to the democratic ideals we commit to. I know from my experience of working in developing countries that sustaining a stable and peaceful existence means tackling all social injustices. Racial discrimination continues to destroy black lives in Western societies. A first critical step is building systems and processes which people can have trust and confidence in. The Biden Administration is certainly on the right track and I hope they inspire global leadership on this issue. By recognising the Critical Race Theory, we can better understand the complexity of this problem, particularly how conscious and unconscious bias manifests to the detriment of black lives. Biden’s vision on racial justice creates an important platform for those with zero tolerance on racism to mobilise globally, particularly if weak responses are coming from the governments in our own countries.
It is necessary to continuously remind ourselves that racial discrimination is unlawful under The Equality Act (2010). However, access to justice for victims is challenging for numerous reasons, foremost affording good legal representation. Unfortunately, many victims who develop the courage to fight, fall at this first hurdle. I understand that only around 10% of racial discrimination cases heard by Employment Tribunals in the UK are successful. Again, the reasons are complex, but potentially this means that 90% of victims fail to gain racial justice through the courts. But there are also other means, including greater use of the media, including social media platforms, to gain voice on this issue.
Organisations should develop stronger systems that protect staff if they deem themselves credible employers. All staff should feel safe and secure in their working environment. Staff who report racial discrimination should be provided with adequate protection because they are essentially reporting an unlawful act. Reporting systems and processes therefore need to be robust, transparent and accountable. Like any form of victimisation, racial discrimination thrives on unequal power relationships, with perpetrators acting with impunity. What we are looking at in most, if not all cases, is an abuse of power and position.
In any hierarchal structure, people should see those above setting the right example in terms of promoting positive values and behaviours. For example, the UK’s Civil Service Code promotes objectivity, impartiality, honesty and integrity. But what is the level of adherence? Equally, Civil Service Leadership is expected to be inspiring, confident and empowering, but how is this demonstrated in day-to-day interaction with black staff? In my view there appears to be an inability, even from a business perspective, to see racial discrimination as a harm and an injustice, posing serious reputational risk.
It is also evident that sanctions are not applied for acts of racial discrimination, as readily as for other serious offences in the workplace. It is impossible to deliver racial justice without stronger sanctions on perpetrators. I would recommend organisations publishing annual reports of cases reported and disciplinary action taken against perpetrators of racial discrimination. This should be done in the same way as submitting returns for any other form of wrong-doing (such as fraud) and would help to reassure staff that racial discrimination is taken seriously within their organisation.
New diversity and inclusion initiatives are often launched raising expectations of black staff that conditions may improve, but they do not, because the problem and the solution is seem as being with black staff, whilst white perpetrators distance themselves. For example, talent spotting opportunities for black staff are promoted in response to racial discrimination, whilst conscious and unconscious bias training is scrapped. Hopes for change are dashed as lived experiences are ignored. I believe that there is merit in analysing case studies and patterns of behaviour and communication if there is real seriousness in finding viable ways to tackle racial discrimination. The desired outcome of racial justice initiatives should be determined through more inclusive consultations with vulnerable groups. There should also be an external independent system for monitoring and evaluating progress.
The additional stress caused by racial discrimination, negatively impacts the physical, emotional and mental well-being of black people. Some of us are carrying additional health risks directly resulting from racial injustice. Medical conditions such as hypertension, anxiety and depression are increasingly prevalent in black people. I advise victims to gain a medical opinion on illnesses, particularly the extent to which they may relate directly or indirectly to racial discrimination in the workplace. Victims of racial discrimination should bear in mind the need to present strong evidence, not just medical but also from personal conversations with colleagues and friends about emotions and experiences. In other words, key to accessing racial justice is knowing how to narrate experiences of racial discrimination. Often senior white colleagues are not sensitive to the ways in which racial discrimination manifests and destroy black lives, particularly as a result of prolonged exposure.
Sadly, we have not found open and constructive ways to talk comfortably about race and racial discrimination, like we have about other protected characteristics under the UK’s Equality Act (2010). I feel that the level of discomfort remains high as discussions challenge the belief systems of some individuals who would prefer to leave their own prejudices and biases intact. Let us not forget that such individuals also benefit from the status quo. I believe black suppression and white privilege are two sides of the same coin. Finally, recognise that the problem is not that individuals have certain prejudices and biases…we all do as human beings. But rather, if these feeling and behaviours lead to discriminatory treatment of others in the workplace and society at large.