You can’t solve inequality through positive discrimination

Samantha Smith

June 10, 2021

Ethnic minorities have been underrepresented in areas of the workforce for many decades, including in professions like nursing, education and medicine.

In the police force, the difference is stark: white people make up 92.7 per cent of police officers nationwide and 84.5 per cent of officers in the Metropolitan Police as of March 2020. This has led to calls to recruit more officers from different ethnic backgrounds. But how do we encourage greater diversity in the police?

The Commissioner of the Met Police, Dame Cressida Dick, recently proposed the introduction of a policy of “positive discrimination” in the force which would see preference given to ethnic minority candidates over white candidates with the same qualifications during the employment process.

This isn’t the first time that positive discrimination policies have been adopted in the UK, especially in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. We have seen job advertisements seeking specifically BAME candidates, scholarships promoted by the Mayor of London that are only available to people of colour, and Labour’s women-only shortlists for the 2019 General Election.

Such schemes are always controversial, and I would argue wholly ineffective in targeting race discrimination.

Being mixed race myself, I have often found myself at the brunt of racial abuse and discrimination. Kids in the playground would call me names, including “brownie”, make cruel jokes about my heritage and skin colour and say that my family and I should “go back to where we came from”. I grew used to being the only person of colour in a room and developed a thick skin when it came to issues of race.

However, I never once thought that the colour of my skin would prevent me from achieving success. I remember my mother – who emigrated to the UK from a third-world country in the 1990s and has faced a lion’s share of racism in her time – telling me to always be the most qualified person in the room. She never let herself be defined by the colour of her skin and believed that she should only receive opportunities based on her suitability for the position and the content of her character. Thus, she instilled in me the same values.

I cannot support Dame Cressida’s proposal because, at the end of the day, positive discrimination is still discrimination. Where such policies have been proposed, they have almost always given rise to heated debate, pitting actual or prospective beneficiaries against those who are disadvantaged by the policies. They do nothing to ease our already fractured racial tensions. Even more dangerous, though, is the way that positive discrimination portrays the prospects of people of colour.

By giving preference to ethnic minorities for the sole fact of their race, it suggests that they are unable to succeed off their own merit. This devalues the individual success of individuals within these communities and fosters a culture of division, where one group is penalised and another favoured for characteristics outside of their control.

I do agree that there is work to be done to improve prospects for people of colour. However, this process cannot begin with employment.

We must work to raise aspirations in communities with traditionally low attainment, improve attitudes in education to ensure all children have a fair and equal opportunity in life and, crucially, move away from the mentality that success is pre-determined by gender, race or any other ascribed attribute.

As another one of my mother’s sayings goes: two wrongs don’t make a right. You can’t solve inequality by introducing a different form of inequality. To truly enact positive change in society, we must come up with constructive long-term solutions that aren’t designed to benefit one group at the expense of another.


Written by Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith is a student and political commentator from Shropshire, West Midlands.

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