Professor Eric Kaufmann reviews a group of recent books by Rakib Ehsan, Sunder Katwala, Remi Adekoya and Tomiwa Owolade. First published at Literary Review.
An increasing number of British minority ethnic writers are questioning progressive orthodoxy on race. In their different ways, Rakib Ehsan, Sunder Katwala, Remi Adekoya and Tomiwa Owolade dissent from the academically fashionable notion that ethnic minorities should define themselves against the white oppressor and that British national identity is inherently racist. The view that minorities are passive subjects whose fates lie in the hands of the white majority is rejected in favour of the position that minorities are active agents. All reject the notion that Britain is defined by its diversity rather than by what its people have in common. They are critical of the excesses of ‘wokeness’ and the idea that disparities in group outcomes are necessarily evidence of systemic discrimination.
They are far from neatly aligned. In terms of ethnicity, Ehsan’s background is Bangladeshi and Muslim, Owolade is British-Nigerian, Adekoya is Polish-Nigerian and Katwala is Indian-Irish. Ehsan and Adekoya are splitters, who have misgivings about cultural progressivism. Katwala is a lumper, who seeks to bridge the woke and anti-woke positions. Beneath the hood, all back liberal-minded approaches to equal treatment but diverge in their stances on attempts to engineer equal outcomes. Three of them are grounded in the social sciences: Ehsan has a quantitative social science background and Katwala is a policy wonk, while Adekoya’s work is informed by his international-relations research.
In Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong About Ethnic Minorities (Forum 256pp £16.99), Ehsan counters the idea that all of Britain’s minorities share the outlook of progressives who speak in their name. His data-rich account demonstrates that non-white Britons are upwardly mobile, often outpacing their white peers. At school, minorities fare better than white Britons; they also attend university in higher proportions. Their superior performance is less clear in the labour market, where Ehsan acknowledges that discrimination still exists, but even here, British Indians and Chinese now outearn their white counterparts. He stresses that the patterns we see at the top of the status pyramid were shaped decades ago; thus we should expect a steady increase in minority representation, something heralded by the ascent of a British Hindu to the position of prime minister and British Muslims to the offices of first minister of Scotland and mayor of London.
Ehsan’s data supports an interpretation similar to that provided by Tony Sewell’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) report of 2021 and suggests that minorities are generally satisfied with British democracy and are doing better than their counterparts in other Western countries. In this context, Ehsan finds the alarmist tones of what he terms the racial ‘grievance industry’ of NGOs, political activists and academics distinctly off-key. Critics of the CRED report monstered Sewell, who is of Afro-Caribbean origin, as variously a Klansman (Labour MP Clive Lewis) and a Nazi (Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal). This destructive attitude, Ehsan argues, has made inroads into the Labour Party, which has managed to alienate both white working-class voters and many members of minority groups, where small-C conservative views predominate. Among British Asians, for instance, there are high levels of religiosity and low levels of divorce. This is in stark contrast to patterns among the general population, where few attend church and almost a third of 18- to 24-year-olds report that they had an unstable family life while growing up. Members of ethnic minorities are generally unsympathetic to progressive ideas around gender identity. Most are patriotic, with 68 per cent saying that British identity is important to them, higher than among whites. Most trust the police and British institutions, and an important share voted to leave the EU. Ehsan argues that many increasingly feel unrepresented by Labour, suggesting that the Left’s grievance-based approach has offered an opening for the Tories among minorities.
Katwala, who heads the think-tank British Future, has carved out a distinct role as a left-liberal voice who defends progressive ideas while seeking to build bridges with conservatives and Brexiters. His book makes the case for a liberal progressive form of patriotism. Rather than throw the baby of national identity out with the bathwater of racism, he embraces a diverse, inclusive and egalitarian Englishness, nested within a flexible, bottom-up Britishness.
On the one hand, in How to Be a Patriot: Why Love of Country Can End Our Very British Culture War (HarperNorth 224pp £16.99) Katwala espouses a progressive story that emphasises Britain’s struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia. He lauds initiatives to increase the numbers of women and members of ethnic minorities in FTSE 100 firms and the political elite, claiming that we have further to go. He endorses the ‘we are here because you were there’ framing of Britain’s postwar immigration story. Katwala also supports the conclusions of the MacPherson Report, commissioned after the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and routinely calls for social media firms to censor those who utter legal but hateful speech.
Yet this important book is predominantly about searching for common ground. He wants progressives to accept the importance of nationhood, even if the country’s past and present are imperfect. He urges them to speak of ‘institutional reform’, not ‘institutional racism’, as the latter exudes negativity and the mark of Cain. He distinguishes legitimate criticism of Islam as an idea from illegitimate Islamophobia, involving stigmatisation of or generalisations about Muslims. Instead of focusing on ‘cancellation’ of those with ‘incorrect’ views, Katwala calls for dialogue over the boundaries of acceptable speech, claiming that a latent consensus exists beyond culture war divisions.
In It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth: How the Economics of Race Really Work (Constable 224pp £14.99) Adekoya provides a vital international dimension to these questions. Shorn of the need to tiptoe around race issues on account of his ethnic background, he brusquely argues that as long as white-majority countries are richer and more successful than black-majority ones, status will invariably flow towards whites and away from blacks – whether within Western countries or in the international arena. Campaigns to police speech for microaggressions or elevate black voices in culture will not alter people’s latent status perceptions. Instead, they divert energy away from addressing the material problems faced by black people. While black people have acquired immense moral power in Western countries, they have done so in the guise of victims, which is disempowering.
The victimhood trope, which casts whites as, variously, oppressors or saviours, works directly against the improvement of black status, which he sees as the only durable route to parity of esteem. This occurs in two ways. First, the victimhood claims undergird the narrative that Africa’s economic problems stem entirely from colonialism or neocolonialism. This deflects attention from corrupt African regimes, hampering the reforms needed to unleash African productivity. Second, it frames whites as masters and black people as hapless victims of structural discrimination, reinforcing status distinctions. In conclusion, Adekoya suggests that economic and political reform in Africa holds the key to achieving lasting status equality between blacks and whites.
Owolade’s approach in This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter (Atlantic Books 328pp £18.99) is more autobiographical than that of the others, but he arrives at a similar destination. He notes that while Britain’s experience of race differs widely from America’s, many British writers insist on addressing it through a homogenising American lens. Owolade draws a parallel with the experiences of the protagonist of the great black American novelist Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who observes, ‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’ Ellison’s protagonist, says Owolade, is invisible ‘because his experiences are not viewed on their own terms … White progressive liberals simply see him as a victim who needs to be rescued. Black nationalists only see him as a vehicle for righteous indignation against racism. Both … only see him for his race.’ Owolade tells an optimistic story of racial progress, one in which black Britons possess what Rogers Smith has termed a ‘multiply constituted’ British identity. Often race is not the most important part of their identity and their views are diverse. Black people in Britain, like the nation itself, are complex and irreducibly individual.
Katwala’s bridging approach would benefit from a more realistic acknowledgement that race and gender ideology have become destructively ascendant in elite institutional circles. On the other hand, Adekoya, Owolade and Ehsan could borrow a page from Katwala by specifying the precise compromises we need to make to reach consensus. Between them, thinkers like these are poised to dramatically alter a conversation that has hitherto been dominated by a narrow cadre of white progressive elites and minority radicals.
Eric Kaufmann is professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London and senior fellow at Policy Exchange.