Extremism – at both political extremes

Articles in the Times last Saturday and this Monday took us to task for being so down on President Trump and his supporters.  The writers, Matthew Parris and Clare Foges, say that even though (of course) they personally dislike him, someone needed to stand tall on the world stage and look after the international interests of the USA.

At home, though he whipped up outrage over immigration – that beautiful wall, still only partly built. He quite absurdly encouraged his followers to believe that coal and oil were the fuels of the future and pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, so denying the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion. He criticised the WHO for having failed to point the finger at China, pulled out of the organisation - and then let the virus run rampant in his own country, again ignoring the science and advising us to drink bleach.

He has denigrated all of America’s institutions, including the fourth estate with his rallying cry of ‘Fake News’. And he has done his bit to overturn the rule of law with obviously partisan appointments to the Supreme Court. He has lied and lied and lied again. Some commentators have counted 22,000 lies. So then I’m a bit puzzled as to what we should praise Mr Trump for.

Rant now over.

The point they are really trying to make though is that he was able to tap into a significant part of the population which feels ignored by more traditional politicians. For Hilary Clinton to have called his supporters ‘deplorables’ was not perhaps the best example of bridge-building.  And although they may know in their hearts that Mr Trump represented all that is worst in the capitalist system, at least they will think that he was improving their lot, that he was on their side, even if it was only a by-product of enriching himself and his cronies.  Commentators say that they particularly disliked being preached to by lefty liberals telling them that they were unintelligent pawns of the Trump ideology. Many on the left, in the name of being racially aware, and so ‘woke’, have tried to impose their moral values on everyone-else. Trump can properly be described as anti-woke.

It is difficult to see, however, what benefit comes from the whole concept of being ‘woke’. It is difficult even to find a useful definition of the word. It is defined on-line as being ‘awake to sensitive social issues, such as racism’. But obviously there is a vast range of social issues and an equally vast range of opinions as to how to address them. Those promoting the idea of ‘woke’, however, say not only that we should be aware of these issues, but also accept their nostrums for dealing with them. Central to being ‘woke’ is the assertion that white supremacy is at the heart of our social ills. It was something to be attacked in all its forms, including the vote-losing concept of de-funding the white supremacist police, in the name of ‘Black Lives Matter’.

But here we come to another writer for the Times, Sir Trevor Phillips, the first chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHCR). In 1950 his parents emigrated from what was then British Guiana. They were not rich. You may think that he would be against white supremacy. Instead, he regards it as at best an irrelevance in trying to deal with social inequality. In his latest article he refers to an influential website in American academic circles. It gives this definition of white supremacy:

“The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group and because they promote white supremacy thinking and behavior. We all live in a white supremacy culture, so these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – white people and People of Color. Therefore, the attitudes and behaviors described here can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or People of Color-led or predominantly People of Color. For a more detailed description of these characteristics and their antidotes, click here or download the file below.
The list of white supremacy characteristics includes: perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quantity over quality, worship of the written word, belief in only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, belief that I’m the only one (who can do this ‘right’), the belief that progress is bigger and more, a belief in objectivity, and claiming a right to comfort.”
Now it seems pretty obvious to Trevor Phillips (and to me) that if a belief in objectivity is one of the marks of white supremacy, and so to be rejected, then we have truly entered the land of make-believe. And a sense of urgency? Please! Many of the more detailed descriptions of ‘supremacist behaviour’ given in the fuller version are simply obvious examples of poor management practice which we would all criticise. And if, as they say, we all act as if we were white supremacists, regardless of colour, how does that give the white man an advantage?

From the accompanying podcast we now also know that BAME is no longer apparently an acceptable acronym for those affected by white supremacy.  It is now BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour). But in Europe surely the white population as a whole should be considered to be ‘Indigenous’, unless of course there are any remaining Neanderthals. Certainly the Welsh must be regarded as indigenous. In other words, in trying to exclude ‘white’ people from those affected by white supremacy we have to go through absurd contortions.

What Trevor Phillips wants us to understand is that it takes us nowhere simply to assert that white supremacy causes economic inequality which in turn correlates with educational disadvantage. What is needed is research into the actual reasons why economic inequality produces educational disadvantage. We all know that it can blight the life chances of so many of all ethnic origins, including poor white boys.

He asks why it is though that certain minority groups in the UK having similar financial backgrounds do not demonstrate anything like the same under-performance at school as others, and so ultimately do not suffer the health and financial disadvantages complained of to the same extent. Educational attainment at 16 is measured by a points score over eight GCSEs. Last year white children on free school meals averaged a score of only 31.6, representing a poverty penalty of 35 per cent compared with better-off whites. Poorer children from Chinese, Bangladeshi and Indian backgrounds had penalties of only 10.8 per cent, 11.5 per cent and 18.4 per cent respectively. In fact, no immigrant group showed a penalty greater than 20 per cent, except for Caribbean blacks, principally because of the scores of their boys.

So what are these other groups doing that helps them to beat the odds? One view is that it is the influence of “tiger moms”. But while Chinese children do more homework - 10.3 hours a week compared with the average of 6.8 hours - there is no evidence of excessive parental pressure. Asian parents are in fact far less likely than other minority parents to check their children’s homework. Given that they are typically poorer and work longer hours than most, they probably don’t have the time. But whatever they are doing it is steadily dragging their communities out of first-generation immigrant poverty. Last year Chinese and Indian-heritage Britons took home higher pay than white people, earning 23.1 per cent and 15.5 per cent more per hour respectively.

For the sake of poor children we should be finding out what certain communities are doing that others are not. There is a suggestion that it correlates with the incidence of single parent families. Yet, in his years at the commission, Phillips tells us that he found it impossible to persuade research groups to undertake such work.. They feared being denounced by activists who would object to any investigation of ethnic disparity that did not conclude that the answer was “structural racism”.

So then, it seems that we are in quite a mess in trying to decide who to blame for our various troubles. The attempt to explain disadvantage through white supremacy is simplistic in the extreme. It requires playing with increasingly arcane descriptions of race to persuade ourselves that race is in fact the key concept.  Rather than the confused thinking entailed in being woke, what is needed is actual data to enable us learn what changes can be made to help groups not able to live their best lives.

Paul Buckingham

10 November 2020

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