Why positive discrimination is a positively stupid idea

Imagine it is the late 1950s, early ’60s. Martin Luther King Jnr is pondering on his latest speech as he strives for equal rights for all Americans.

“I have a dream. And in that dream, I am faced by a lone gunman, and the gun is really big and is pointed at my head. I’ve got no chance. Yet somehow I manage to turn things around and suddenly I am holding the gun. I slowly squeeze the trigger and… BLAM!! I’ve shot a hole in my foot.” No, that doesn’t make sense. Try again.

“I have a dream. And in that dream people ignore my qualifications and my achievements and give me a job just because of the colour of my skin.” Hmmm. That doesn’t seem right either.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the US was racist. Over there, they still had segregation. Looking back to the UK at the same time, you could be forgiven for thinking things were a lot different.

But the truth was that behind the later nickname of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ lay some serious hardcore racist attitudes, where the signs of the times were not paisley shirts and psychedelia, but ‘no blacks’, ‘no Irish’ and ‘no pregnant women’ – our open and welcoming society really pulling out all the stops to help people to fit in.

After King had made his famous speech, and two years before his assassination, the UK was sensible enough to introduce the Race Relations Act (RRA), which made discrimination on the grounds of colour or race illegal. But it would be decades before it had much impact.

Police action

Yet fast forward more than half a century, and both the above ‘dreams’ are gaining credence with the confused souls at the Association of Chief Police Officers, the head of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, Trevor Phillips, and, most recently – albeit in a non-committal and not-entirely-convinced way – the HR director of the Metropolitan Police, Martin Tiplady.

They are all calling for positive discrimination to get more non-white people into the country’s police force. A laudable aim, but perhaps not the best use of police time. In fact, it was not until 2001 that public bodies were obliged to implement policies to ensure the equal treatment of all people. Quite why the public sector was excused is not entirely obvious, but the Police Service is clearly a special case.

The truth is, most people want an easy life and being a police officer is too much like hard work it’s a ‘morally and ethically difficult’ job. And if book, TV and film portrayals of the police are to be believed, it could also be construed as legalised sado-masochism: join the police and get the chance to beat up tax-paying citizens and get away with it. Oh, and everyone will hate you. Top career move.

Why would anyone choose such a path? And more specifically, why would anyone from an ethnic minority background want to join an organisation that was branded as institutionally racist only four years ago?

Yet they do. However, the numbers joining are not growing fast enough for the statisticians. And that’s why positive discrimination has raised its ugly head.

Who’s being racist?

But let’s just remind ourselves what the RRA actually says: ‘Direct racial discrimination occurs when you are able to show that you have been treated less favourably on racial grounds than others in similar circumstances.’

It couldn’t be more clear-cut.

The Police Service has been criticised for being institutionally racist, but things are improving. The whole country was institutionally racist only 50 years ago, but things are improving. Giving ourselves a legal loophole through which we can jump if we want to promote people in an unfair and racist way – and that is what positive discrimination is – does nobody any favours, breeds resentment, and leaves the ‘lucky recipient’ feeling somehow devalued because they didn’t get the job on merit.

Sure, there will still be racism in the police force. But as long as we don’t take the catastrophic route of introducing positive discrimination, it will gradually become an irrelevance.

Then the real barrier to non-whites joining the ranks of the boys and girls in blue will be exposed for all to see – lack of education and poverty.

Poverty breeds anger, and lack of education breeds resentment. You don’t have to be non-white to understand that. And the last thing we need is a big stick for the racists to wield by opting for positive discrimination.

So what did King actually say in 1963? “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Enough said.


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