The murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22nd April, 1993, in Eltham, South London and the subsequent findings of Sir William Macpherson's Inquiry are defining moments in British Race Relations. 10 years after the Macpherson Report, an Ipsos Mori Survey conducted for the Equality & Human Rights Commission showed that British people were becoming increasingly at ease with racial diversity but still lacked faith in UK institutions to represent or treat all groups fairly. According to the report, about half (49%) of the general public were optimistic that Britain would be a more tolerant society within ten years. 

The British Futures Report similarly, indicated that levels of discrimination in the UK had fallen between the period 1993 to 2013. The results of the poll showed that 40 per cent of ethnic minority Britons perceived racism as having reduced over 20 years; 26 per cent that it was broadly similar; and 15 per cent that things had got worse. White Britons were mildly more optimistic: 19 per cent said racism had got worse, and 52 per cent that it had fallen. The journalist and race equality activist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued at the time that the findings of British Futures poll merely reflected denial in a country that had grown "impatient with racial complaints." A view that may have some merit.

British society today, is characterised by contemporary norms of egalitarianism which discourage not only the expression but also the personal acknowledgement of bias. Prejudices, which may not be expressed openly, are therefore often expressed in more subtle yet equally pernicious ways (Pettigrew & Meertens 1995). This type of behaviour is known as 'aversive racism', which is distinct from the traditional, more blatant, in-your-face behaviour known as 'dominative racism'.

Kovel (1970, White Racism: A Psychohistory) was the first to distinguish between aversive and dominative racism. When he described dominative racism as reflecting the traditional, overt form, probably best exemplified by the "No Blacks, No Irish and No Dogs" posters of the 1960s or the racist monkey chants heard on saturday afternoon's at many of the football terraces in the UK during the 1970s and 80s.

Aversive racists on the other hand, are individuals who probably sympathise with victims of past injustice, support principles of racial equality, and genuinely regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time harbour conflicting, often unconscious, negative feelings and beliefs about people from ethnic minority groups which present themselves in more avoidant reactions of discomfort, anxiety and fear.

Aversive racists typically, will not act inappropriately, in situations when discrimination would be obvious to others and to themselves. In situations where the normative response is clear (i.e. where right and wrong are clearly defined), the 'Aversive racism theorem' postulates that aversive racists will not discriminate against ethnic minorities. However the unconscious feelings and beliefs that they harbour will often result in discriminatory behaviour in situations where the normative structure is weak; or where guidelines for appropriate behaviour are unclear and/or ambiguous; when the basis for social judgement is vague; or when one's actions can be justified or rationalised based on some factor, other than race and ethnicity.

Support for the 'Aversive racism theorem' is extensive and spans a range of experimental paradigms and participant populations, including helping and non-helping behaviours, selection decisions in employment, interpersonal judgements and policy and legal decisions.

In selection decisions in employment for example, the experiments conducted confirm that when a candidate's credentials clearly qualified him or her for the position (i.e. they presented very strong qualifications) or the credentials clearly were not appropriate (weak qualifications), no discrimination was evident against the ethnic minority candidate. However, when a candidate's qualifications for the position were less obvious and the appropriate decision was more ambiguous (i.e. they presented moderate qualifications), white decision-makers recommended ethnic minority candidates significantly less often than they did white candidates with exactly the same credentials.

In the area of legal decisions, an experiment conducted in the UK in 2005, confirmed that exposure to potentially incriminating evidence deemed inadmissable by the court increased perceptions that the Black, but not White, defendant was guilty of the crime. Furthermore when probed about their decisions, participants' reported that they believed that the inadmissable evidence had less effect on their decisions, when the defendant was Black than when the defendant was White, suggesting the unconscious and unintentional nature of their bias.

Let's take a look at some of the the outcomes for ethnic minorities in the UK. The Labour Force Survey, 2007 data showed a 16 point gap between the chances of ethnic minority workers having a job and those of the white workforce, and for those who were in work, a larger proportion of BAME workers were concentrated in low paid jobs.

A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2007 stated that around two-fifths of people from ethnic minorities lived in income poverty, twice the rate for white people. Another report by the London School of Economics for the Government Equalities Office, titled 'An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK' stated that "When employed, nearly all other groups had hourly pay which was less than white British men"...''Women from nearly all ethno-religious backgrounds had pay between a quarter and a third less than a white British Christian man with the same qualifications, age and occupation.

A study commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions collected factual evidence testing the assertion that discrimination was a significant factor affecting labour market outcomes for members of ethnic minorities. The study involved a field experiment in which matched pairs of job applications were submitted, in response to job advertisements in the public and private sectors in seven British cities, with ethnic identity being conveyed using names widely associated with ethnic groups. The results found that ethnic minorities had to send 16 applications for one successful outcome (call-back for interview) compared to nine for white applicants. 

The difference between the public and private sectors was even more shocking, showing that 4% of public sector employers were likely to have discriminated on the grounds of race compared with 35% of private sector employers.

Could it be at all conceivable, that the intractable nature of these disparities have something to do with aversive racism? Discrimination is certainly at play, but appears to be all but invisible when viewed using the traditional lens. Whereas, blatant expressions of prejudice such as hate crimes, are readily identifiable and are clearly proscribed by social and legal sanctions, this 'thoroughly modern racism' has gone largely undetected and unchallenged and as a result is likely to persist. The good news however, is that very often, when made aware of the impact of aversive behaviour, most employers are not only genuinely mortified that they may have unwittingly discriminated against ethnic minority individuals, but more importantly, are keen to work constructively to eliminate this form of bias from their people selection processes in the future.

About the author

Glanviile Einstein Williams, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist