A couple of race issues in the news caught my eye over the last week or so, and I thought I’d throw my oar in here, as a white bloke. That always goes down really well, doesn’t it?
Gender-based abortion has been generating chat because the Independent has reported research that the practice seems to have produced a statistically significant, if miniscule, effect upon the girls/boys birth rate ratio in the UK. The 1967 Abortion Act seems, to me anyway, to leave this tiny minority practice open to moral debate, and that debate boils down to a simple question, really. Should women’s access to abortion be constrained by the need to prove their motive isn’t gender selection?
It’s easy to understand the perspective of the ‘yes it should be constrained’ camp. If you’re opposed to abortion altogether, for example, you’re going be against gender selection. I must admit, though, that I’m surprised by the inclusion of the Labour Party in that ‘yes’ camp. Here’s Emily Thornberry ‘taking a [gradational] stand’ (albeit one that doesn’t express understanding of the fact that the CPS recently considered a case of an alleged attempt to procure an abortion rather than an actual abortion – did she appreciate the journalistic ‘sting’ context?) against women’s right to choose. In truth, it looks like Thornberry is under orders from Labour’s media blokes, who are up for a nibble at women’s right to choose in return for a nibble at the middle-Britain women’s vote. I think its a fool’s errand – I doubt the moral compromise will add any votes to Labour’s tally, since gender-based abortion just isn’t viewed by most as a significant issue. As far as I can see, all this stance might achieve is to help the Tory notion that Labour lacks moral coherence.
What I find it more interesting, though, is that the Tories are the ones playing the whole thing down on account of it obviously being a race issue: they can see that this basically means racially profiling women seeking abortions, and feel more than a bit apprehensive about that. Meanwhile, Labour seems to be taking the option seriously. Hello? This is the “most bombers are Asian” argument that leads to blameless people, mostly bearded, being aggressively stopped on their way from Manchester to London. It’s pretty weird in the context of abortion. It logically leads to us not telling Asian women what kind of baby they’re having.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Hugh Muir in the Guardian asks; “Does Labour need all-black shortlists?” This is yer hardy perennial race issue, and even though Hugh Muir is black, he doesn’t seem to think the issue is really worthy of any new thought.
So Muir tells us that the reliably Diane-Abbot like Diane Abbot MP has written a preface to a pamphlet saying that there are “exactly” 5 black Labour MPs. That’s obviously ridiculously low for 2014, but the pamphleteers and Diane (and Hugh too, if you read his emphasis) are saying that one answer is ‘all black’ candidate shortlists. Well, that’s simple enough.
Actually, the pamphlet referred to in the piece doesn’t call for ‘all-black’ lists at all. It calls for ‘BAME (black and minority ethnic)’ lists, in spite of referring to ‘black’ statistics throughout. So, er, who’s it talking about, then? Black people? Or black and ethnic minority people — a very different prospect?
Here’s a Wikipedia list of ethnic minority MPs. In truth, Hugh, Diane and the pamphleteers aren’t really talking about ethnic minority MPs at all – they’re talking about black MPs. They don’t regard most on the wiki list as black. Maybe many of the folk on the list don’t regard themselves as black (for example, I really don’t think people of Kurdish extraction consider themselves black. Do they?). And that would of course reflect the great divide which existed in the old Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) when I worked there, quite briefly, years ago. This, in turn, hints at two fundamental flaws in the ‘black’ list argument. First, what does ‘black’ mean? And, second, who decides who’s black?
Do Diane, Hugh and the pamphleteers really want organisations to appoint people to decide who’s ‘black’ and who isn’t? To take away from people their legal right to define their own ethnic identity? Do they want to change the Race Relations Act to permit racial discrimination in favour of some ethnic minorities but against others presently covered by the act? Do they really think it’s a super idea to be telling, I dunno, someone with 3 white grandparents or someone who’s half-Turkish or Greek, or a quarter Pakistani, that they don’t qualify?
The problem of ethnic under-representation is a deep and important one. Calls for ‘all-black’ racial discrimination are the epitome of intellectually laziness. The harsh reality is that the pamphlet Muir refers to, while mildly illuminative, amounts simply to a small number of often naive-looking complaints by people who failed to get selected as candidates (perhaps on racial grounds, perhaps because they weren’t very good. The pamphlet, part-written by an academic for goodness sake, provides no way of telling).
What is really required for substantive change, as a lot of people who’ve given much of their lives to the topic believe, is a rigorous analysis of the problem, followed by a coherent, politically literate plan about how to deal with it. So, for example: what are the patterns of membership of political parties and trades unions of people who define their ethnicity as other than white? What encouragement and preparation can be provided to such folk? How can all the parties, trades unions, businesses work together to genuinely make things fairer – and politics more representative?
Cheap moral panic on the one hand, and labelling everyone white as racist (as the pamphlet pretty much does) on the other, are pretty pointless and ineffective strategies. They seem awfully old-fashioned. Flagging to folk how things could be fairer and appealing to their sense of decency and justice often works wonders. Worth a try, maybe?
At (c) here is a legal view that, in effect, we have abortion on demand in the UK.