Racism and the council
The conviction of the killers of Stephen Lawrence was big news last week and yet for some reason I could not get excited by it. I was happy for the family but just did not feel particularly connected to the story. Institutional racism and the 1990s seemed like a long time ago and not especially relevant to my consistently multi-cultural here and now.
I mentioned this to a few people at work, including some who, unlike me, are not middle aged white men and the response was quite surprising.
Comments such as this were not uncommon (and apologies for the fact that these are not proper quotes… I didn’t always have my pen with me!):
“Despite all the progress made it is sad but true that even if you (me, white man) and I (in this case a talented woman from an ethnic background) have exactly the same qualifications, skills and experience for a job; if we both applied you would get it.”
“Do you think it is a coincidence that the only ethnic female senior manager in the Authority is the one who receives the greatest stick?”
“You know, in my last role there was a guy in my team who refused to be managed by me simply because I wasn’t white.”
Geez, that made me think.
The last one especially shocked me the most as that goes beyond anything that I have ever experienced during my local government career.
However, the general tenor of my conversations made me think seriously about these issues.
Does local government, in my opinion often the most proactive of all institutions on these issues, suffer from the same problems, albeit not to the extent, as the police did in the 1990s? Are people like me simply being complacent when we consider these issues as forgotten depravities of the last century? Does yesterday’s employment case in Manchester suggest there is more racism lurking under the surface than I am really aware of? Or did I just speak to people who have had bad experiences?
I have been thinking about this more or less ever since and to be honest I simply don’t know the answer.
However, in the spirit of joining the debate here are some thoughts.
I don’t believe that local government is institutionally racist. In fact I would go as far as to say that much of local government has led the way on stamping out discrimination and ensuring that it is inclusive and fair, both internally and in shaping the local community. Local Government deserves its share of credit for much that has been done to tackle racism, especially in some of our big cities.
However, as with many big institutions the people at the top, and probably much of the middle, of local government are often very similar to each other. They have shared backgrounds (although they’re not ALL accountants or lawyers) and doubtless look for people like them when making decisions. This impacts the culture and attitude of councils (often only subtly) and the sort of people who do well there.
There are also a lot of people within local government who are conservative with a small c. These are people who don’t particularly like change (how else do you explain 30 years working for the same organisation?) no matter what it looks like. Add that to a culture which can be very slow to change and it is no surprise that there are places where people who are not your traditional white middle aged men are, unintentionally maybe, discriminated against.
This does not mean that the organisation is institutionally racist though.
Indeed, concerned about my complacency I had a chat with some colleagues in HR who told me that in our most recent staff survey there had been some comments from BME staff in one part of our council about career progression. The HR team have been developing schemes specifically to ensure that this is rectified and have started monitoring the progression across a range of BME staff. It was all taken in our stride and has been met with commitment from senior managers and relatively little fanfare.
The fact there is a problem is concerning. The fact that we are addressing it without debating the merits of whether it needs to be addressed is reassuring.
Councils are full of human beings and these humans can fear difference. The challenge we all face is to individually confront racism when we see it and organisationally to do what we can to ensure that is isn’t present, explicitly, implicitly or accidentally in anything we do.
I, for one, am going to try to be a little less complacent in the future.
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