Several years ago, I spoke to an interfaith harmony campaigner who told me she sometimes received a question from Muslim and Jewish societies at UK universities. How could they improve relations between their two sets of members? She said she told them not to focus on their disagreements, invariably over Israel and the Palestinians, but to set up a joint project. They could help the homeless in their university town, or tutor disadvantaged children. A common purpose, the pooling of their talents and a shared sense of achievement would create the bonds that would allow them to begin addressing their differences.
I have been remembering her story in the months since the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, both of which heralded an increase in racial and xenophobic attacks. In England and Wales, police recorded a 41 per cent rise in “racially or religiously aggravated” offences in July last year, the month after the referendum, compared with the same month in 2015.
Although centrally collected US official figures are not available, police in New York and campaigners nationwide reported an increase in attacks after the US poll. In the UK, The Times last month reported that racist attacks on National Health Service workers had more than doubled. One patient had asked Hari Shanmugaratnam, a doctor at a Birmingham hospital, whether he would be leaving the country after Brexit. Another had told him: “I don’t want to be treated by an immigrant doctor.”
What, other than signing online petitions or marching in the streets, can people do about these outbreaks? They can concentrate on getting on with each other, particularly at work. It is in the workplace, especially in large, anonymous cities, that people are most likely to encounter someone of a different colour, religion or national background to their own — and that is true whether they work in a supermarket, restaurant, start-up or investment bank.
What is striking to any NHS patient is the way doctors and nurses from so many different places — according to 2013 figures, 14 per cent of clinical staff and 26 per cent of doctors were not British — work together.
As the interfaith harmony campaigner understood, daily familiarity and the need to get a job done are powerful solvents of difference. It is not just work that makes people feel less strange to each other; it is also living through colleagues’ life events — weddings, babies, illness, bereavement.
I do not want to diminish the problems of racial bullying or offensive remarks posing as “banter” in workplaces. There are also many companies where women or ethnic minorities struggle to get to the top. But there are strong countervailing pressures pushing companies towards meritocratic, non-discriminatory hiring and promotion.
A significant push to end apartheid in South Africa came from business leaders realising that an increasingly sophisticated economy required not just access to world capital and consumer markets, which were restricted by sanctions, but also to more skilled workers. By the late 1980s there were not enough white ones. South African companies knew they needed to recruit from the entire population, who all needed to be better trained and educated.
Similarly, companies that aspire to top LGBT-friendly corporate rankings, including the Financial Times, want to be seen as places that the most talented gay employees hope to work. Why would ambitious companies want to exclude them?
The same reasoning motivated the companies, including Airbnb, Apple and Facebook, that supported court action against President Trump’s executive order banning arrivals from seven mainly Muslim countries. “The order makes it more difficult and expensive for US companies to recruit, hire and retain some of the world’s best employees,” the employers said.
Not all companies, fearing the president’s tweets, feel they can take him on, just as some UK employers thought it was better not to express open support for the Remain campaign during the referendum on EU membership.
But that does not mean they need to be passive. British companies should be helping their EU employees complete their arduous forms to remain in the UK.All companies in the US and the UK should be taking legal advice on how to carry on hiring the best, whatever their background. And in ugly times, everyone at work should carry on affirming their daily decency.
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