Racism and the council

No to racismThe 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.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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4 Comments on “Racism and the council”

  1. rogerkline Says:

    You have clearly thought about this issue but in stating “I don’t believe that local government is institutionally racist” I am afraid you are quite wrong.

    Macpherson’s defined institutional; racism as “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

    The comments from ethnic minoroity colleagues which surprise you are rooted in reality. Can I suggest you ask the following questions of your own and neighboroughing authorities?

    1. What pay grades are ethnic minority staff predominantly employed in?
    2. What are the differences in outcomes between applications, shortlisting and appointment between ethnic minority staff and white staff?
    3. What differences exist in whether ethnic minority staff are subjected to disciplinary procedures and the outcomes compared to white staff who are also subject to such procedures?

    You refer to the NHS case of Elliott Browne reported yesterday. When those questions are asked of his NHS Trrust employer, the answers were damning. Take a look yourself at http://www.cmft.nhs.uk/media/318002/workforce%20profile%20for%202010-11.pdf

    Unfortunately, not necessarily through conscious racism, but through unintended processes and stereotypes, ethnic minority staff are still systematically discrimnated against across public services.

    Matters have improved in some respects in the last 20 years – probably most notably amongst the police – but for all the policies and training in local government and the NHS, the reality is that one’s skin colour still decisively determines your chances of appointment, promotion, treatment and pay.

    Ethnic minority know this because it is lived as a daily experience.

    I am white by the way.

    Roger Kline

  2. […] We Love Local Government A blog looking sideways at life in local government « Racism and the council […]

  3. yh gj Says:

    not bad

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