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Big data can deliver Britain from inherited racial injustice

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The government audit shows racism can be endemic even in the absence of racists

If Theresa May’s challenge to her own government on race equality does nothing else, it should take some of the terror out of talking about racial difference. Her government’s compendium of data about ethnic minorities’ experience across 130 public service areas, published this week, confronts us with a baffling puzzle: in a society demonstrably more open-minded than a generation ago, why do race and ethnicity remain such powerful pointers to an individual’s place in society?

You do not have to be a specialist in race relations to know that your doctor is more likely to be a Sikh than a Somali. Most of us can see that people from certain backgrounds — South Asians, Chinese — are more likely than others — African Caribbeans, Pakistani Muslims — to wind up as chief financial officers of big companies.

Sir John Parker, in a review that concluded this week, called out the paucity of non-white leaders in Britain’s top companies, confirming what most business leaders know: there are many available candidates but black and brown faces still do not turn up in the boardroom — except perhaps when they come to clean.

White Britons remain cautious about making such observations, for fear of being held personal responsible for racial inequalities. People of colour stay silent because nobody wants to sound like a grievance-monger. The race audit could be the best chance in years to break the silence.

Ministers have anticipated the charge of stirring up minority resentment by releasing a flood of data, some of which show that whites too can be at a disadvantage. White boys, for example, are far less likely to get in to a good university than the proverbial hijab-wearing Bangladeshi-heritage girl. By acknowledging that some differences might turn out to be intractable, Mrs May’s injunction that disparities should either be explained or eliminated could encourage a more open debate.

Some critics suggest that the audit will undermine minorities’ faith in public services. This underestimates the common sense of most people of colour. We do not live to complain about racism. On the contrary, we factor it into our daily lives, shrugging off discourtesies. But forbearance should not be confused with compliance. The data show that people of colour are right to have low expectations of their treatment by the healthcare system, the police or the courts. Their resentment should not be a surprise.

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