Ethnic labels — Middle Eastern, black, Hispanic — are the root of racism and war, says Richard Williams, aka US rapper Prince Ea, in his widely-viewed spoken word piece “These Labels were Made Up to Divide Us”.
“Human beings were not meant to be slapped with labels . . . Only until we remove them all and stop thinking and living so small will we be free to see ourselves and each other for who we truly are,” he says.
His sentiments are widely shared.
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Many companies, institutions and policymakers have moved away from labels such as Bame (black and minority ethnic), instead embracing colour-blindness.
In the US, universities have reduced programmes of affirmative action, which discriminate in favour of applicants from ethnic minorities. In law, colour blindness has become the standard against which acts of bias are judged. Meanwhile in Europe, companies and universities are adopting name-blind applications.
To its proponents, colour blindness epitomises the dawn of the post-racial society. But some academics, activists and business leaders say it is a misguided approach. They point out that the election of Barack Obama as the first black US president hardly ushered in a post-racial society, nor will the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s first Muslim mayor end racial bias.
From police brutality against African Americans to the growing political backlash in Europe against the influx of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, racial tensions are rife on both sides of the Atlantic. They are spilling into politics, with Donald Trump proposing a ban on Muslims coming to the US as part of his presidential campaign. In Austria, the far-right anti-immigration Freedom party came close to claiming the presidency on Sunday.
Disparities in pay may be less dramatic, but no less pernicious. The latest US census found that the gender pay gap hurt Hispanic and black women most, with the former earning 61 cents and the latter 64 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men.
In the UK, just three companies in the FTSE 100 have non-white chief executives and the discrimination starts at entry level, with research suggesting candidates with names hinting at a minority ethnic background are significantly less likely to be hired than those with white-sounding names.
The internet economy is far from immune. Harvard researchers recently found that guests looking for accommodation on Airbnb were about 16 per cent less likely to be accepted if they had distinctively African-American names, rather than ones suggesting they were white.
Removing racial markers at such moments, or in job or university applications, can be helpful. But a broad-brush colour-blind approach perpetuates bias, business leaders and academics warn. Instead of ignoring racial distinctions, they are urging companies and policymakers to embrace them.
“Shutting our eyes to the complexities of race does not make them disappear, but does make it harder to see that colour blindness often creates more problems than it solves,” say Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers, academics at Harvard Business School and Tufts University, who have published several studies on the issue.
After analysing the survey responses of 3,758 employees of a large US healthcare company, academics at the University of Georgia concluded that companies run mainly by white people that endorse colour-blind policies increase the perception of racial bias among their ethnic minority employees. Conversely, when a majority-white company endorses multiculturalism, minority employees perceive their employer to be less biased.
Meanwhile, several other pieces of academic research conclude that a multicultural approach has multiple benefits. For example, a manager who asks team members to consider the ethnic diversity of their colleagues, rather than ignore it, fosters appreciation for other people’s perspectives and sharpens assessments of discrimination.
Talking about race is uncomfortable, admits Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel investments and chairman of DreamWorks Animation, which, she says, makes her one of only two black women to chair a publicly traded US company.
Yet Ms Hobson believes “we cannot afford to be colour blind”. “We have to be colour brave,” she said in a Ted Talk. “We have to be willing, as teachers and parents and entrepreneurs and scientists . . . to have proactive conversations about race with honesty and understanding and courage.”
In the talk she applauds John Skipper, president of sports channel ESPN, for insisting that the company consider a diverse slate of candidates for every position it fills.
Such policies are facing a backlash. Professors Norton and Sommers believe there is growing resentment among white people of actions they perceive as unfairly favouring people from ethnic minorities.
Despite their preference for a multicultural approach, the two academics expect colour-blindness to gain in acceptance, not because people with ethnic minority backgrounds feel victimised by labels, but because white people do.
In a 2011 survey they found that the average white American believes they face more racial bias than African Americans.
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