“I remember that I’m invisible and walk so softly so as not to awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man –
It is not what we see that really matters; it is what we can’t or don’t. Gaps in our vision and understanding obscure things from us, creating blinkers and blind spots. Unread articles; buried press releases; stories not told; events not seen; misunderstood words and conversations; and the many different sides to each story.
Harder still is determining people’s true motives and feelings – the ones they suppress deep inside. The effect of a slow and steady decay on someone’s confidence, not to mention their hopes and dreams, is so faint as to be almost undetectable. Just like a weather-battered coast, everything may look fine until the ground gives way.
There are some profound lessons here for how we, the white privileged, view ‘others’ and have unconsciously institutionalised racism. And while the shape and balance of our economy may have changed drastically over the last two hundred years or so, what if the system we have replaced slavery with represents little more than a modern mutation conceived and built to acquiesce the liberal mind?
What if racism is simply dressing up in new guises, continuing to pervade society through employers’ prejudice, economic inequality and algorithmic bigotry, just to name a few examples? What if, in our modern “configuration”, we have created a system where all of this is barely perceptible to the naked eye? A lopsided meritocratic playing field where the responsibility of failure is happily placed on the individual rather than the biased system?
These are questions and musings, not definitive statements. However, they should provide some context as to why I became irked to the point of obsession with the ‘last plantation’ phrase from my previous piece, A letter to a friend. The idea that the US Department of Agriculture still represents a form of plantation is a powerful, stirring and evocative metaphor. Yet for all its inadvertent positivity, it is surely wrong. ‘Last’ infers a level of prediction beyond us. ‘Invisible’ seems more fitting a label.
People either refuse to believe white privilege exists, or are so unaware of their own mental vulnerabilities that the slippery link between our thoughts and actions goes completely unnoticed. The overlapping nature of class, privilege, race and caste unhelpfully creates enough space for doubt, enough grey area, and enough confusion for people with vested interests to protect the status quo. They tend to do so by either downplaying the extent of the issue or by overplaying progress. There are of course lies, damned lies and cherry-picked statistics; anything can be supported with the right data set, enough time and some wilful ignorance.
We have progressed; this cannot be disputed. Colonisation, slavery, lynching and forced segregation are all horrors of a bygone age (in most parts of the world) and mark legal progress in righting the wrongs perpetrated against the Black community. Further, until recently, overt racism seemed to be socially abhorrent in the vast majority of communities. However, one could argue this equates to the low-hanging fruit of racism.
By no means meant to insult the blood, sweat, tears and courage it has taken from so many inspiring individuals to achieve such feats, but a very different task lies ahead. Racism’s shadier, slippery and less tangible side presents a particularly challenging foe.
Small print may not be invisible, but for the scant attention we pay to it, it may as well be. For example, the thirteenth amendment to the US constitution abolished slave labour but left a loophole in for criminals, paving the way for industrialised and exploitative convict leasing. Given the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white men is currently one in 17 versus one in three for Black men, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this clause has been exploited over the years.113th (documentary film), Netflix. 2016
In part, this is because the symbolic progress made by the civil rights movement in the 1960s was later undermined by Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs2The presidency of Ronald Reagan saw an expansion in the federal focus of preventing drug abuse and for prosecuting offenders. In the first term of the presidency Ronald Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which expanded penalties towards possession of cannabis, established a federal system of mandatory minimum sentences, and established procedures for civil asset forfeiture. From 1980 to 1984 the federal annual budget of the FBI’s drug enforcement units went from 8 million to 95 million.” See War on drugs, Wikipedia., Clinton’s 1994 crime bill3Bill Clinton regrets ‘three strikes’ bill, BBC, 16 July 2015, and ‘stand your ground’ laws – all of which disproportionately targeted Black males. Clinton himself later admitted that mandatory minimum sentences and the three strikes rule associated with his bill were too harsh and caused unnecessary and unintended discrimination. A similar pattern evolved in the UK, culminating (so far) in a generally ‘hostile environment’ and the Windrush scandal.4The hostile environment is indefensible. Now we know it’s unlawful too., The Guardian, 25 November 2020
If we only change laws but not minds, we will continue to exclude minority groups and use self-fulfilling tautology to justify our logic. Henry W. Grady’s notion of ‘separate but equal’ in the 1880s is a perfect example of twisted mental gymnastics. Worse still, the battered and weary end up internalising this negativity, suffocating their human potential. When you disadvantage – or ‘stamp’, as Ibram X. Kendi5Stamped from the beginning: A definitive history of racist ideas in America. Ibram X. Kendi. 2016. puts it – minority groups from the outset, it should be no surprise when they lag behind in the race.
Decolonising the mind: Fighting invisible enemies and wildfires
We know so little about how our minds really work that we cannot ever rest comfortably in the knowledge we have stamped racism out. It should be seen, as activist Angela Davis reminds us, as a “constant struggle”.
In this sense racism feels eerily similar to terrorism. Just like a cancer, they both regenerate in new forms and refuse to die out. By morphing to meet the mood of the day, racism manages to pass a bare minimum bar of social acceptance. As author and campaigner Michelle Alexander describes in her book ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’, “the cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.” She goes on to lament: “the genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary.”
The behavioural influence of peer pressure should not escape our attention. It is perhaps most vividly exposed by the absurd practice of generational judgement; that we, somehow, would have magically behaved better than those who came before us. Poppycock. The overwhelming majority of us would have put our own interests first, at the very least bearing silent witness to the atrocities of colonisation and slavery. Though hard to admit, very few of us would have had the moral backbone to rail against the prevailing norms of the day. Indeed, merely acknowledging past mistakes can cause controversy nowadays. The vehement disagreement to French President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to recognise the colonisation of Algeria as a crime against humanity and resistance to revisiting historical figures in both the US and the EU for their “questionable” actions or opinions, both serve as cases in point.
Such behaviour, good and bad, can spread like wildfire through communities and countries. At worst hatred, and at best scepticism, has been passed down through the years. But how can you put out a fire that you can’t (or refuse to) see?
Our environments and upbringings mould us, and make breaking through the previous generations’ conventional beliefs and behaviours an exception, not a norm.6Daniel Goleman makes a strong point in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ Yet when tipping points are reached, as with smoking and views on homosexuality, consensus can swing like a pendulum, correcting the course of public opinion and acting as a force for progression as people speak out.
Invisible hands, scars and consciences
Most economists, until recently, have only been interested in one part of the worker’s value equation: their output or productivity. Once identified, the figure can be slotted into a spreadsheet and aggregated up to help track and measure economic activity and progress. In this sense, economists have been blind to colour; disinterested in social outcomes like racial equality and singularly focused on the price mechanism of value.
Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow recognised this oversight and in a 1971 paper he said: “The black steel worker may be thought of as producing blackness as well as steel, both evaluated in the market. We are singling out the former as a special subject for analysis because somehow we think it appropriate for the steel industry to produce steel and not for it to produce a black or white work force.”7The Theory of Discrimination, 1971. Kenneth Arrow.
This was a bold realisation for an economist, and one no doubt influenced by the brave voices speaking out against racial injustice in the 1960s. Yet even the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, understood that invisible hands were by definition conscienceless. He recognised the significant need for an organising agent (i.e. a government) to correct the sub-optimal social outcomes created by a relentless pursuit of self-interest.8It is instructive that his co-opted ‘invisible hand’ term only features once in his seminal book The Wealth of Nations. It is also instructive that his first book was called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith understood the intimate linkage between people, the market and society.
By (largely9 It is unfair to tarnish the whole profession with the same brush. A few pioneering and creative individuals (such as Kenneth Arrow, John Maynard Keynes, Gary Becker, Joseph Stiglitz, Raghuram Rajan, Mariana Mazzucato, Kate Raworth – to name a few) have fought hard to incorporate the harder, less tangible aspects of social policy. Inequality breeds economic instability.) ignoring such moral market failures, the economics profession has cast a long shadow over society. The discipline does not operate in a vacuum and its limited world view has far-reaching consequences. In trying to reduce us all to predictable atoms, it has lost sight of its true goal: to help societies flourish and thrive. People, not markets, have consciences and social responsibility therefore lies squarely with us. The current infusion of ethics into economics and business is a welcome step in the right direction; let’s hope it is genuine and not platitudinal.
Today’s racism is also invisible in the sense that the scars and wounds it inflicts tend to be diffused. This is perhaps racism’s greatest trick. If the surface area tension of each indiscretion is small enough nobody, except those on the receiving end, will surely notice.
Cheap, disposable labour epitomised by the gig economy10A gig economy is a free and global market where companies and contractors (independent workers) set short-term and on-demand professional relationships that are meant to be flexible and skill-based. However, the gig economy is used more and more as a means of cheap labour. For more information: https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2020/01/03/Gig-Economy-Algorithms/ and poor employment rights (sick pay, pension provision, training, and so on) is one example. Smartphones and app platforms that anonymise and desensitise transactions – a huge basis for day-to-day interaction – are another.
The economy is also diffused in other ways, making it harder to pinpoint the moment of harm, let alone the perpetrator(s). Few of us see the inner-workings of the algorithms that rule our lives. From search engine results to AirBnB stays, credit scores to housing applications, the hidden biases they either create or support are imperceptible.11Some Airbnb hosts discriminate on the basis of race, rental study says, The Harvard Gazette, December 21, 201512Removing Racial Bias From Credit Scores Isn’t Possible, Slate Magazine, October 11, 2019
Wage bargaining also works best from a position of strength, perpetuating starting point divides. The public ownership of companies not only exacerbates wealth inequality, but also skews shareholder influence and who gets a say in corporate decisions and values. Economics really does matter.
As we, the white privileged, go about our unencumbered daily lives (for many, at least), we fail to spot the millions of pin-prick actions that sum together to inflict great injustice against minority groups. To throw the economics profession’s beloved ‘ceteris paribus’ phrase back in their face: other things are rarely equal; not even close. We cannot caveat away these ‘wicked’ variables just to make our equations neat and tidy. It seems that as our economies become more and more complex, so do their proverbial plantations. Key workers deserve more than a clap.13This is a reference to the evening claps that took place for the front-line workers during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK.
The leadership and data deficit
The economic diversity deficit also smacks of a failure of leadership. From McKinsey14 Problems amid progress: Improving lives and livelihoods for ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom, McKinsey, October 15, 2020 to the Harvard Business Review15How diversity can drive innovation, Harvard Business Review, 2013., numerous studies have proven that greater diversity leads to improved organisational effectiveness, resilience and innovation.
Though some progress is being made in the UK (according to Mckinsey), the opportunity cost to organisations of not properly embracing equality of opportunity is still huge.16 Problems amid progress: Improving lives and livelihoods for ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom, McKinsey, October 15, 2020 The UK government published a Race in the Workplace report in 2017 which set out a range of actions aimed at improving employment and career prospects for Black and minority ethnic workers. The report argued that £24 billion could be added to the UK’s economy each year if equal participation and progression across all ethnicities were to be made.17Ethnicity pay gap as high as 20 per cent for some groups, People Management, July 10, 2019
One massive challenge is data, particularly at the corporate level. This breaks down into two parts. The first issue is collecting it. Beyond the C-suite, getting an accurate picture of what is going on is very difficult and differing national laws around data collection compounds things. The UK allows it so long as it is not used to discriminate against minority groups. France, on the other hand, outright bans its collection.
In order for progress to be made, and voluntary data collection to be successful, we will need to build back the trust of minority communities to ensure they are comfortable handing over their data to companies who will handle it in the right way, i.e. to help, not hinder them. Only once enough data is collected can we tackle the second challenge; accurately assessing ethnicity pay gaps.
Beyond data, some encouraging amendments are being made to HR policy and hiring practices. Each industry will be at a different maturity stage but the hardest kink to resolve will be the invisible racial career ceiling. Ensuring equality of progression through organisations will require inspiring leadership role models and inclusive cultures; just onboarding ethnic minority employees is not enough. Mentoring and reverse mentoring initiatives should also be introduced to encourage change.
Opening up our educational syllabuses represents an easy win. The young are impressionistic and to not do so would be irresponsible, creating lasting biases that will trickle down through generations – just as they did for ours.
There is also a grave misconception that colour-blindness is the endgame goal with racial equality, purported by people who say ‘I don’t see colour’ and ‘I treat everyone the same’. Instead, we should embrace and celebrate cultural differences and start teaching this mindset at schools – all the while reminding kids that our DNA structure is fundamentally the same. Some encouraging pilot programs exist, yet it is dispiriting to see resistance to syllabus change in the US and UK.
The government’s role is significant in other ways, too. Government should be setting the example and discriminatory racial profiling by the police is the opposite of what we need. And while complex and hard to prove, they are duty-bound to make sure their behaviour is of the highest ethical and moral standard. Transparent and independent audits will continue to be key.
Expressive force: The power of norms, nudges and non-negotiables
Oppressed minorities, in particular the Black community, know a lot about excessive force as US ‘stand your ground’ laws have been repeatedly abused to tragic effect. In retaliation, the expression of force through peaceful protest should not be underestimated.
The Black Lives Matter movement is the most vocal current example, but other quieter and complementary avenues exist. Expression can be exercised through non-negotiable laws and ‘norm entrepreneurs’ capable of shifting the mood of the masses, as well as through transparent and informational nudges.
Earlier I said “If we only change laws but not our minds, we will continue to exclude minority groups and use self-fulfilling tautology to justify our logic.” This only tells part of the story. It implies a linear one-dimensional relationship when the interplay between the law and individual behaviour is far more complex. It also ignores the influence of others on our actions. We need policy, legislation and peer pressure to pull in the same direction.
In a way, it is not that dissimilar to the chicken or the egg conundrum. Which came first, the Civil Rights Act or the moral consensus for equality? You can make an equally good case for either but the important point is that they both happened, a tipping point was reached, and they ended up reinforcing one another. The bad news, as is now becoming clear, is that symbolic progress in fighting conscious and visible racism provided air cover for more unconscious and subversive forms to fester. Thankfully, enough people now seem to have woken up to the fact and are motivated to create change; another tipping point could be just around the corner.
To this end, the EU’s Anti-racism Action Plan published in September 2020 represents a significant statement of intent. Indeed, President Ursula von der Leyen has stressed that “we may have different beliefs, we may belong to different minority groups but we have to make sure we listen to each other, learn from each other and embrace this diversity.”18A Union of equality: EU anti-racism action plan 2020-2025, European Commission, 18.9.2020
Over the last two decades, the EU’s Racial Equality Directive has provided a baseline of protection against racial discrimination. Specifically, it forbids direct and indirect discrimination in employment and occupation, education, social protection (including healthcare), as well as the supply of goods and services (including housing). Under Von der Leyen’s leadership, a report this year will look to strengthen and update EU legislation, tackling the rise of online discrimination (including hate speech) and ensuring oversight by independent of equality bodies.
But because so much of racism today is invisible and unconscious there are limits to what can be overtly legislated against. This is why the ‘expressive’ form of the law is so important. The mere existence of racial discrimination laws can speak volumes, acting as a claxon call to ward off unsavoury behaviour and influence social norms.
Whether they realise it or not, public figures have a role to play in shaping social opinion. Lawyer and behavioural economist Cass Sunstein calls these influencers ‘norm entrepreneurs’. Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg are two perfect, but polar opposite, examples. Given that the forces of social conformity run both ways, outspoken leaders can shift perceptions enough to help reinforce positive and open-minded behaviour.
The subsequent cascading effect can spread like wildfire as nobody knows if theirs will prove to be the marginal voice that truly tips the scale; obliging us all to do our bit. Neighbours should feel guilty if their neighbourhood lacks diversity, managers should question their biases if their teams lack it, and consumers should vote with their feet if companies do not live up to their moral and ethical responsibilities.
Corporate ethics and nudges
That last example warrants more attention. One only need look at how the industrial revolution, and in particular Henry Ford, influenced our working week and sleep patterns, to realise the social clout of business.
To help nudge consumers and investors towards forward-thinking companies and away from the laggards, we need transparency, data and informational cues. Institutions like the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) play a critical role in providing such a clear-eyed view, shining a light on companies with progressive attitudes and impressive human rights records – and vice versa. The ripple effects can be huge. As Louis Brandeis, the American Supreme Court Justice, once said; “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”.
To further bolster the positive ecosystem coalescing around these issues, the EU Commission is planning to create a social taxonomy, copying the blueprint it used for the green taxonomy released last year. With so many investment products springing up to try and capitalise on people’s pent-up demand to do some good with their money, the green taxonomy was created to help clear up the confusion caused by overexcited marketing functions.19This refers to the greenwashing of investment products where marketing claims are not backed up by evidence. It can be summed up by the phrase ‘we’re all ESG investors now’. Greenwashing is also rife in other industries. The language we use, or misuse, is a vital form of expression and a consistent taxonomy should ensure consistency of meaning and avoid misunderstandings.
However, drafting the social taxonomy will be much more difficult. Some factors are relatively obvious – such as publishing ethnicity pay gap data and ensuring hiring practices are transparent.
But this article is about silent, barely traceable racial discrimination. Creating clear definitions, categories and boundaries to help mitigate these will be a nightmare and there is a serious limit to how much they can achieve. The policy wonks will need to come at the challenge with a dose of realism, understanding that, while many factors will be hard to pin down, there will be proxy measurements that help identify the good from the bad and the ugly.
Professional investors deal with ambiguity all the time. Experienced in coping with nuance, and trained to look beyond the balance sheets and profit statements of companies, they understand the importance of company culture and governance. By asking challenging questions of management, it quickly becomes clear who is committed to racial equality and who is merely blagging it.
To better appreciate organisational culture, we should push for public employee surveys and take note of more informal employee feedback sources like Glassdoor (all the while appreciating its one-sided limitations). The biggest warning signs to look out for relate to monoculture – where diversity of thought is embraced at the hiring stage only for it to be suffocated by rigid, exclusive and elitist behavioural cliques.20We use cultural cues and codes without thinking as part of our everyday interactions. Yet by relying on them in the workplace to build and solidify relationships we exploit an unfair advantage over those from different, less privileged backgrounds. Our affinities effectively create unconscious networking advantages.
The taxonomy authors will also have to deal with industry nuances as no two are the same. And, while human and employment rights will read across, ensuring sturdy moral values are reflected throughout corporate value chains – from suppliers through to customers – will be key. The recent furore over Sainsbury’s Christmas advert which featured a Black family provides a clear example of a company with a solid ethical backbone. In the face of a barrage of abuse, the UK company held firm to its values and continued to air it.
All this would be a starting point. To make the EU’s social taxonomy fully inclusive and effective, serious consultation from minority groups will be required to ensure the full gambit of potential discriminatory banana skins are covered. Privileged white authors like me will have blind spots.
If real progress is to be made though, a much deeper understanding of how change really happens – of how norms, nudges and non-negotiables interact – is required.
The gaps between memory and record; rediscovering our magic pens
Julian Barnes once described history as “the gaps left between memory and record”. In the murky area between what gets recorded and what gets missed lies a grey, fuzzy world which, for all its elusiveness, is no less real.
The Invisible Plantation is effectively the gap between what white folk say and what we do. And, as we have seen, what counts cannot always be neatly counted. Written by the winners or the privileged, history creates a misleading and dangerous certainty, one which often does not account for those on the margins of society.
But these days we have no excuse. The hypocrisy and double-standards of the respective official responses to Black Lives Matter and recent US election protests are a case in point. The tweets, pictures and videos are there for all to see.
These issues are not, and have never been, invisible; they have merely been hidden in plain sight. But instead of piecing together the breadcrumb trail of evidence, we have chosen to look the other way and plead ignorance – busying ourselves with sport, shopping and other forms of entertainment. It is attention deficit en masse. Apparently our respective ‘pools of worry’ can only bear so much.
Many will remember those magic invisible ink pens from our childhoods. It is time to dust them off and start scribbling. We will uncover an array of stories, whose contours, traces and indents have been there all along just waiting for us to muster the presence of mind and courage to look. Much of what we find will be uncomfortable.
On reading them, my hope is we will be converted into way stations and refuge harbours for those seeking an equal society. Through our words, our voices and our actions we can help to tip the scales in the favour of the oppressed. And by piping calming and uplifting gospel-like chords through social media, we might be able to drown out the discordant and divisive hate speech. For a time, this could require us to be twice as nice21People of Color Learn at a Young Age That They Must Be Twice as Good. Now White People Need to Be Twice as Kind, TIME, Savala Trepczynski, August 17, 2020. and even adopt some positive discrimination to help balance the books.
If music be the food of love, play on
If the consequences caused by the arbitrary hierarchies of our biological lottery are still unrecognisable, then perhaps we could try another tack. After all, when one sense fails us, the others should heighten to compensate.
Music is innately connected to race and culture. Arguably the most fundamental of human expressions, it manages to convey what words alone cannot make sense of. It can lift the soul, bring joy and soothe pain.
These times are hard
And it’s harder to heal
When where you were born
Decides what you fear
It’s time to be a brother
Not my father’s son
I was born to be a bigot
But that don’t mean that I am one
I put my boots on just the same
And when the day is done
I pray ….
For you, my son
How can I keep my mind open
If my eyes are closed
It’s hard to hide the hate
When there is no love to show
How can I nail a man up
For the color of his skin
Knock him down, make him pay
For my father’s sin
I am starting to see
Ordinary Elephant, the band who wrote these words, neatly sum up where we find ourselves today. The tools and terms of employment may have changed but the toil and division of labour remain eerily similar. In the metaphorical sense, slave has become servant. But easing consciences is not the same as easing the burden of others and I fear we have merely replaced one form of plantation with another, less visible one.
The encouraging thing is people can and do change. Science is only now proving what thinkers and writers have known since the year dot: our brains are malleable. Our beliefs and behaviours can therefore evolve and grow. And though not all our scars are visible, they can all heal. So long as we open our hearts and minds to let them, that is.
Despite the stirring power of Ordinary Elephant’s lyrics, it seems wrong to leave the last musical word to a white voice. Instead, we could turn to a traditional song, adopted by the civil rights movement in the 1960s: Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me around.
Quite. It is us, the white privileged, who need to turn around and take a long hard look at who we are leaving behind.
This article focuses primarily on the US and UK experiences of racism. This partly reflects my knowledge bias. However, it is also fitting because the US currently serves as the epicentre of the Black Lives Matter movement and the UK’s colonial role in US history and slavery place us smack bang in the middle of the issue. Europeans, with their own experience and context, can hopefully learn from the successes and failures on both sides of the Atlantic. All forms of racism come from the same place: an uncomfortable and innate fear of ‘others’.
It should also be made clear that no one group of people have a monopoly on racism – atrocities in Burma, China, India and elsewhere should serve as reminders of this. The reason white privilege needs to be recognised, discussed, debated and addressed is because of dominance and vested interests. When one group of people hold sway over others then we must demand that they are both held accountable and ensure they behave in non-discriminatory ways – however conscious or unconscious, it is outcome and not intent that matters most. This is a lofty ideal, but to not at least try to achieve racial equality and fairness is ultimately inhumane.