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Monday 16 March 2015

Yes, UKIP, You ARE Being Racist

What is race ? Is it biologically real, a measurable, tangible quality, or is it purely a social construct - or a hugely exaggerated reaction to the pathetically insignificant physical and genetic differences between certain groups of people ? Does it even matter ?

Star Trek's answer was a clear "no" - even the differences between
different species are not relevant.
That latter question may seem strange. Clearly, in one sense it obviously does matter, because there is racial conflict. If race is not a real, biological difference, then surely that's all the more reason why racism is not only an evil thing, but a stupid and even more unjustified one as well. This is true, but also, perhaps, utterly irrelevant.

An alien visiting Earth for the first time might indeed conclude that there are different races. Certainly, people in Asia tend to look different from those in Africa or America.  But then, within each group there are massive variations, and the differences between the groups are relatively subtle. More importantly, would the alien conclude that the differences between the different races are anything more than superficial - is there anything to suggest that one race is more intelligent than another ?

In principle, this could be the case. After all, different species undoubtedly show different innate abilities. So, since we look slightly different from one another, perhaps the differences are more than skin deep. But equally, the reverse is also true : there's no particular reason to assume that the differences are anything more profound than hair or eye colour or toenail growth rate or nostril hair content or any of the million other small differences between individuals. They may very well tell you absolutely nothing about intellect.

If you ever need reminding just how great the differences between individuals of the same "race" can be, look no further than Eric Pickles and Scarlett Johansson - and then try telling me that skin colour or eye shape is some sort of important racial feature.
Let's assume for the sake of it that different races do exist and that some of them are more intelligent than others. Even in that absurdly unlikely case, racism would still be wrong. Assuming that because one more person is incapable of something because of what they look like is to ignore objective standardised testing and say "hell with it, even if you are an exception, I just don't care." It's exactly the same reason that laws discriminating against women don't make sense : if they can do a job to the same standard as a man*, then let them.

* I'm thinking here specifically of the armed forces, where the argument has been made that women aren't physically strong enough. This is daft. Simply make the strength requirement the same for men and women. I don't care if this excludes the majority of women : I care that women aren't automatically excluded, but are given the same chance as anyone else on the basis of merit.

This of course is an extreme and totally hypothetical scenario. In reality, whether races exist or not is a far more complicated question (see the links at the start of the post). However, that there aren't any intrinsic differences in intelligence or ability is now so well established I feel zero need to discuss them any further. And it's that fact which makes the question of whether races exist largely irrelevant - if they do, they certainly do not imply any predisposition towards different abilities, and individual variations completely overwhelm any racial bias.

But even if races do exist - and I'm not geneticist nor an anthropologist, so I can't tell you if they do or not - it's interesting to consider what people define as race. The Scots aren't generally considered to be a different race to, say, the English or the Welsh, even though they're considered to be different "peoples", whatever that means, and there are even visible differences in appearance.

These people aren't necessarily all Scottish, of course, but Scotland does have the highest proportion of redheads.
Regardless of whether races exist or not, how we define racism is of vital importance - even, perhaps especially, if race is purely a social construct. Everyone (sane) would accept that discriminating against someone on the basis of skin colour is racist. Hair colour, however, which is genetically determined, is simply not considered to be a defining racial feature*. And that alone tells you something about the absurdly subjective notion of race - regardless of whether it really exists genetically or not, the definitions society adopts are entirely arbitrary and totally unjustifiable. Society's notion of race is just plain ridiculous - even if race itself is somehow real, which it might very well not be, society's idea about it bears little or no resemblance to reality.

* Though it was once, of course, with astonishingly disastrous results. Which only further demonstrates that since our ideas of race change, they are highly subjective.

Now we come to UKIP's latest bright idea :

INTERVIEWER : So, in UKIP land, would there be a law against discrimination on the grounds of race or colour ?
FARAGE : No ! Well, you know, we are colour blind. We as a party are colour blind. 
INTERVIEWER : We have these laws for a reason, you know. Before we had these laws, people were discriminated in favour of their... families. And that led to, by the way, incompetence. Never mind the fairness question - people were employing people who couldn't do the job, just 'cause they looked like the employer.
FARAGE : If we'd sat here, 40 years ago, having this conversation, your point would probably have been valid. I don't think it is today. I really don't think it is today.

What. The. Frak.

Jesus H. Christ people. Removing this law because it's "irrelevant" ? Don't make me laugh. Even if I accepted that there is now so little racism in Britain that it's not relevant - and I don't - removing it sends a signal so clear that our hypothetical alien observers could easily see it from space. It's tough to imagine a more blatantly, manifestly racist policy.

Removing a law which says, "don't discriminate on the basis of colour" is identical to saying, "it's OK to discriminate on the basis of colour". They are one and the same. It is absolutely astonishing to me that people cannot grasp this incredibly simple fact. Nigel, until this point I've been willing to concede that perhaps you yourself aren't racist, despite the fact that many in your party clear are. But I can't give you any more benefit of the doubt -  this policy is objectively racist, even by the absurd standards by which society defines race. You may as well be holding up a big sign that says, "We're a big bunch of racists !".

Farage has said that his remarks were "wilfully misinterpreted" - which is clearly not true since the question was clear and unambiguous, as was his answer. Slightly more interestingly, he also said that he was talking about "nationality, not race." I'll return to that shortly.

One may legitimately wonder, perhaps, why when Gordon Brown proposed "British jobs for British workers", no-one proclaimed him as a racist, yet when Farage says much the same thing, people do assume he's being racist. Well, the above proposal to remove race discrimination laws pretty much answers that - it's the strongest manifestation yet of a series of rather unpleasant proposals that smack of racism, even if they aren't all so blatantly racist themselves. Brown never gave any hint that he found foreigners somehow distasteful; Farge does this as a matter of course. Context matters.

The idea that he was talking about "nationality, not race", is a bit more interesting. First, just to re-iterate, he wasn't - because those laws are specifically about race. There's what the question was unambiguously about. Secondly, as we've seen, society's definition of race is totally subjective. That means disentangling race and nationality is a very messy business - you can't assume that one implies the other, but equally, you can't automatically assume that it doesn't.

What about UKIP's idea to allow employers to favour British employees, then ? The argument has been made that this is not necessarily racist because the British themselves are a diverse bunch of races. That's true as far as it goes. But it misses the fundamental point : laws which favour one nation over another are xenophobic - and xenophobia is the handmaiden of racism*. Any law which says, "you're from another country, you are not entitled to the same rights as other people living here" is intrinsically xenophobic.

* Worst. Handmaiden. EVER.

That doesn't necessarily prohibit immigration controls, mind you, even very strong ones*. Even an absolute limit on the number of migrants allowed to settle per year isn't intrinsically xenophobic, provided it doesn't discriminate on the basis of country of origin. It's simple really : you do it on the basis of qualifications and/or whether prospective immigrants have found employment or not. Once you let them in, however, you have to treat everyone equally. That someone is from France and not Ghana doesn't mean you can treat them differently because "they're French, they're the same race so that's OK I'm not being racist by denying them basic rights".

* But migration is good for Britain. Studies have shown this time and time again : people are coming here to work, not for benefits. The idea of benefit tourism is a pure, scapegoating myth with little or no basis in fact.

Discrimination based on the country of origin may or may not be racist in the strictest sense. If race does exist genetically, then it may not be racist. If it doesn't, which seems likely, then it's absolutely the same as racism because in that case race is purely an artificial, social construct. But in either event, this misses the bigger, infinitely more important point : it's still discrimination. I don't really care what else you call it. It's still wrong.

It ought to be simple to have a debate about immigration without being racist : talk in terms of population numbers, for example. It's entirely a legitimate concern as to whether the UK has the resources to sustain a much larger population. But that's got absolutely frickin' nothing to do with the ethnic composition of that population or where they come from. That, by pointing fingers at specific groups of foreigners, is something Farge is fully at fault for.

Farage keeps saying things like having a "sensible, grown-up debate". Then he does things like implying that Romanians are criminals and saying that people should be allowed to be racist. Cameron keeps saying that we should discriminate on the basis of wealth, for crying out loud. That somehow a county's economic status has any bearing on the intelligence of its citizens.

I'm writing this from the Czech Republic, where the average salary is about half to one-third that of the UK. I work with people far more intelligent and qualified than me on a daily basis. I've taught numerous Puerto Rican students, a location which would, if it were an American state, be by far the poorest, and they were at least as competent as those in the UK. This whole idea of "wealthism" is a nonsense.

Cameron (standing, second from left) at least knows at lot about money, so I guess that makes him qualified to pronounce judgement on poor people.

There's only one right way to discriminate : merit. That can mean many things, from whether someone has the right skill set to do a job, which you can objectively test for, to the right cultural values to integrate into society - which is of course very much harder to quantify*. I believe in multiculturalism, but there are legitimate concerns over the extreme cases such as "honour" killings and religious extremism. I would be hypocritical if I said we shouldn't debate religion - but religion is an ideological set of beliefs and values, not a fundamentally irrelevant physical property of a person like their nose hair content or natural hair colour. It's far more directly relevant to whether we should grant a person access to our country or not than which country they're from.

* Recurring ideas to teach "British values" directly may be flawed and unworkable, but they're a damn sight better than allowing employers to favour British people over foreigners.

And let's not kid ourselves - the British people are just as capable of atrocities as those of other cultures too. No matter how tightly we manage immigration, it won't stop horrible things from happening. Rather, I think, the reverse is true. There's a danger that when you strongly oppose something, you become the very thing you oppose.  Hating intolerance often leads to a hateful intolerance. When we debate extremism - be it cultural or religious - we must tread very carefully.

But that's not to say we shouldn't debate at all. We should - and it won't be easy. Debating how far we should extend toleration is a tricky subject, but there's no need for such a debate to involve race or nationality. If you want to debate immigration, make it about the values of the people you propose to allow in or out, and how we integrate them into society. But neither their ethnic origin not their country of birth have any more relevance than their nostril hair content.


People who have the audacity to suggest that "racist bigoted lies" are being told about UKIP need to have their heads examined. The reason UKIP are often perceived as racist is because they themselves make the debate about race when it needn't be. They also turn  more or less every issue into one about immigration and the immigrants. This approach says, "No, we don't need to improve ourselves or our own systems of governance, we just need to stop these people from coming over here and ruining everything."

Making immigrants into scapegoats avoids having to deal with the real issues like austerity, education, and health. That's the bigger problem with UKIP -  diverting attention from the serious problems of our own making by blaming someone else.

I do not think immigration is the fundamental problem we should be prioritising right now. I think it's generally an asset, not a burden. I've benefited directly from the E.U.'s freedom of movement laws myself. Sure, benefit tourism isn't a good thing - but the evidence says that that's not really happening. By all means, put regulations in place to stop it. But UKIP's idea that we should get out of the E.U. and, far worse, simply throw away all that progress on preventing racial discrimination... well, yeah, those things are racist, actually.

The word "racism" may be used too often, or it may not. It doesn't really matter, because society's use of the word is pretty much entirely arbitrary. It may even be a wholly arbitrary concept. The point, however, is that discrimination on the basis of where someone is from is wrong. Arguing about the meaning of "race" won't change that simple, basic fact.

EDIT : Appendix

The topic of positive discrimination was raised in discussion. Since the interviewer's question was about negative discrimination, this is only tangential to the main subject. But it's quite interesting, and worth a brief postscript.

A law prohibiting negative discrimination is not the same as one that encourages or mandates positive discrimination (a.k.a. affirmative action). Saying, "don't discount this person from employment because of their race" is categorically different to saying, "hire more people of this ethnicity".  Now since the interviewer's question was about "a law against discrimination on the grounds of race", Farage was unequivocally suggesting that laws preventing negative discrimination be scrapped - a very different, far worse prospect than suggesting affirmative action be stopped or reduced.

Positive discrimination is in principle just as bad as negative discrimination, because it basically is negative discrimination in a cunning disguise. Saying, "give priority to this person because of their race" inevitably means that those of a different race lose out. If you hire someone because you need to employ a certain percentage of people from a specific group, that is hardly likely to lead to a meritocracy.

But context matters. Such an approach recognises that employers have chronic problems where they exclude those of a particular race, religion or gender - sometimes not even on a conscious level. In those cases - especially where the employment rate of women and minorities is close to zero - I believe that taking a more heavy-handed approach is the only way to make progress. If you don't start enforcing an intake of minorities, none will ever get hired - regardless of whether they have the abilities required or not. Generally speaking, an organisation which implies no women far more likely indicates sexism than a difference in gender skills. Sometimes, you've got to take a sledgehammer to people's attitudes - it's the only way they'll change.

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