Some see BAME, an acronym to describe Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, as a means of articulating that feeling of commonality that “black” once denoted. It’s not. It’s an administrative, not a political, term.
People belong to many categories and categories overlap. African Caribbeans and Bangladeshis in Britain, for instance, are disproportionately working class, compared not just with white people but with other minority groups, such as Indians, Chinese and black Africans. But while discussion of the white population routinely takes class into account, discussions of minorities rarely do.
In France, the nation’s universalist ethos means that ethnic and religious data is rarely collected. The resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is valuable. In practice, though, many people are denied equal treatment and racism is deep seated, but the lack of data makes it difficult to gauge discriminatory practices.
In Britain, there has been much debate about the unequal impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities. Not so in France, largely because there’s little information in which to root a debate. But if lack of statistics is a problem, possessing data is no panacea. Decisions on what data to collect and how to interpret it may themselves mislead.
Take the question of street violence. Twenty years ago, the major issue of concern was not knife crime but street robbery. Then, as now, black people were over-represented in the statistics, leading to the claim that there is something about black culture leading to criminality.
The criminologists Marian FitzGerald, Jan Stockdale and Chris Hale analysed the data. They showed that street crime was much more likely in areas with a high population turnover and a combination of young people living in poverty alongside others who were both more affluent and trendy enough to own gadgets such as mobile phones. Young black people lived disproportionately in such areas. But where such areas included large numbers of poor white people, they, too, were involved in robberies.
The category “lives in an area of high population turnover with a mixture of poor people and affluent trendies” is not politically salient. “Black” is. So street robbery became associated with black people. The result is what FitzGerald calls “statistical racism”.
Black pupils are disproportionately excluded from school. Look more closely and you see the problem is in particular with those of Caribbean descent. Pupils of black African descent are less likely to be excluded than their white peers. Figures also show that pupils claiming free school meals (FSM) – a proxy for poverty – are three times more likely to be excluded than the average pupil; 40% of all school exclusions are of FSM pupils. School exclusion, then, is a major issue facing white working-class pupils, too, and class as well as race may play a role in the disproportionate exclusion of black pupils. But to say so is to invite the accusation that one is downplaying the significance of racism. And so, more nuanced accounts of discrimination are often ignored.