Scotland must address institutional racism openly and urgently – Professor Nasar Meer

Public bodies such as Police Scotland need to openly address claims of institutional racism, writes Professor Nasar Meer.

A Black Lives Matter protest outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Tackling racism has come a long way in Scotland since academic Martin MacEwen wondered if it was best characterised by “ignorance or apathy”. Progress has been made on a number of fronts, and yet even if his complaint today looks out of place, something of the charge remains.

Our new report, Taking Stock – Race Equality in Scotland, details how a third of black and Asian groups in Scotland consistently experience racial discrimination, and that a slightly higher number consider racial discrimination to be a widespread issue.

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The same research tells us that up to 60 per cent of people who say they experience this do not report it to any kind of authority, suggesting significant degrees of both low-level and more obvious experiences of racial discrimination are going under-detected.

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What we can be sure of is that racially motivated hate crime remains the most common hate crime in Scotland; that black and ethnic minorities are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, and that there is both a substantial “employment gap” and, for those in work, a “pay gap”, whereby white Scottish workers earn, on average, ten per cent more.

This is greater than the gender pay gap and key to understanding experience of in-work poverty amongst non-white Scottish groups (and it means a double whammy for black and ethnic minority women). How should we understand these and other examples in a country where the prevailing political rhetoric leans against racial inequalities?

Panic over claims about Police Scotland

In recent years the Scottish Government has shown a sincere commitment to mainstreaming race equality, in ways that go beyond the minimum required.

An illustration of this is the Race Equality Framework 2016, which set out the Scottish Government’s vision and strategy for race-equality over a 16-year period. This document reflects on the successes and limitations of prevailing race equality approaches in Scotland, and registers gaps in data and other kinds of practice-based knowledge that might hinder the delivery of effective race-equality strategies.

This is good and necessary work, but it must overcome obstacles in translating a vision into real social change.

For example, interviewees in our Taking Stock report say that “if you talk about institutional racism, people get scared and they withdraw”. Another interviewee illustrated this with the following story about a facilitation exercise: “One of our professional stakeholders was a very senior police officer who spoke at length about institutional racism and believed that Police Scotland was institutionally racist. We were not allowed to include a synopsis of it in the conference report because there was widespread panic in Government that that would hit the press and look terrible.”

The point is that if we cannot overcome the reticence in Scotland to speak publicly and candidly about institutional racism, and unless public bodies are comfortable with the fact that things may not look good in the short term, meaningful progress will be harder to achieve.

A ‘big tent’ national identity

This is not unique to Scotland, of course, but it is a reminder that achieving racial equality is about more than the technical features of public policy. It is connected to a wider story about the identity of contemporary Scotland. This may seem odd to those who feel that Scotland has achieved a broadly inclusive “big tent” national identity.

In this view, Scotland is comfortable with its multi-racial difference because it does not anchor itself in ideas of blood and soil. It is reflected in a trend amongst ethnic minorities in identifying themselves with the nation. Scottish-Pakistanis, for example, are twice as likely to identify themselves as Scottish than their counterparts in England are likely to identify as English (who otherwise overwhelmingly identify as British).

Does this revise how Scottish identity is imagined by the majority too? Not necessarily, it would seem. In a survey of attitudes of Scottish majorities, sociologists David McCrone and Frank Bechhofer highlighted a small but consistent “ethnic penalty” that associated being “Scottish” with “being white”, where being accepted as Scottish relied more on markers of accent and ancestry.

It’s important not to over-state the data but we should agree that Scotland cannot rely on the view that, in promoting itself as civic, it will secure a future in which ethnic and racial minorities are self-evidently included. Nation builders need to acknowledge ethnic hierarchies if they wish to pursue a genuinely pluralist project. To misquote the political historian Tom Nairn, Scottish politicians need to invite the masses into a future-oriented version of Scottish history.

It is striking that prominent reports and commissions concerned with social and constitutional reform in Scotland make little mention of race equality as distinct from a generic concern with “fairness”. This includes both the report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution and the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services in Scotland.

Root causes of racial inequality

One way to address this is to consider the extent to which race equality is being taken up across the policy process of different government departments in Scotland. Here we note that, in her race equality pathfinder, the independent race-equality framework advisor, Kaliani Lyle, concluded that “inclusive policy making is not yet embedded in the DNA of the Scottish Government or public bodies in Scotland”.

There are responsibilities here, too, for the race-equality sector outside government, including the need to build successful policy coalitions amongst themselves. It is clear that divisions and competition has undermined successful lobbying from equality groups in the past.

“If you go to the race movement and ask the same question, and you get 40 different things, of course people will start to gravitate away from you because you lack coherence,” one former minister told me. The reasons for this include genuine disagreement on the root causes of racial inequality in Scotland, and specifically the difference between people’s capacity and social structure, between education and training needs on the one hand, and institutional discrimination and racism on the other.

No less relevant is that there is here a real challenge for organisations that receive funding for a variety of matters associated, but perhaps not directly related to, race-equality policy work, to labour with agendas outside this remit.

Going forward and as our report shows, the only way to make meaningful progress on race equality is to work across sectors, government departments and stakeholders, and recognise that this continues to be the urgent challenge.

Nasar Meer is professor of race, identity and citizenship at the University of Edinburgh. Taking Stock – Race Equality in Scotland is published by the Runnymede Trust in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and University of Glasgow.

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