Thursday, October 03, 2013

Institutional Racism at Work - lost research from the last century

f you had been looking for a report analysing the operation of institutional racism in the workplace you might not immediately have been drawn, by its title, to "The Organisational and Managerial implications of Devolved Personnel Assessment Practices", a research report published by the (now defunct) Greater London Employers' Association in 1999.

(The report is not, as far as I am aware, available online, although the internet discloses its existence - http://eureka.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/4290/.)

This report, commissioned by a consortium of London Borough Councils in the late 90s, did however, in spite of its title, provide a methodologically solid foundation for some stark conclusions about racism in the workplace. Fourteen years on this research has not, as far as I know been either challenged or repeated. Indeed it has all but sunk from sight.

Since I was personally involved in the agitation which eventually led a number of London employers to commission this report, I could recount its origins and history at far greater length than would hold the attention of all but the most determined reader of this blog. And I fear that may well turn out to be what I now do...

In a nutshell, from at least 1993 several London local government UNISON Branches were particularly struck by the evident over representation of black workers among those facing formal disciplinary action from employers.

In one way or another, UNISON branches raised this concern with various London Boroughs. From personal experience I can recall that the employers' initial response (of denial) rapidly shifted when they carried out their own analyses.

I recall, for example, broad assent from one employer at the time to the observation (based upon their own monitoring data) that, in one Department, black workers were, in the mid 90s, twice as likely to be disciplined, and three times as likely to be dismissed, as their white colleagues.

Since these were employers with a high profile (and generally sincere) commitment to equality of opportunity, they agreed with us that something had to be done - but what?

One understandable (but misconceived) response was to review the files dealing with particular disciplinary cases. Since these were cases conducted under negotiated disciplinary procedures under which workers had (and generally made use of) the right to union representation, this laborious exercise (of which I have personal knowledge in one particular case) predictably failed to reveal any systematic pattern of greater injustice among cases that got as far as a disciplinary hearing.

It was because this "surface-level" analysis of data thrown up by personnel (or as we might now say "people management") procedures failed to account for the evident racial disparity in outcomes that a number of UNISON activists across Greater London pressed, as the 90s wore on, for the employers to commission research that looked a little deeper.

This led to the commissioning of the research which (eventually) led to the publication of the report. From the point of view of the concerns which had led to our campaigning for the research to be undertaken in the first place, there were two key findings.

The first was that managers acknowledged (in structured confidential interviews) that the ethnicity of an employee was a key determinant of whether or not they took formal disciplinary action. At least once asked to reflect upon their actions, managers were accepting that their actions were discriminatory!

The second finding (based upon something called a repertory grid technique - http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repertory_grid) was that white managers demonstrated a systematic tendency to rate white subordinates as better performing than black subordinates (whereas black managers demonstrated no such tendency). The nature of the research technique was that managers were not necessarily conscious of this discriminatory tendency, but revealed it in answer to the questions which they were asked.

Taken together, these findings tell a compelling story about the obstacles to creating islands of equality of opportunity in a society in which the deep structural roots of racism, embedded in the actually existing social relations of production, express themselves both consciously and subconsciously in the conduct of social actors (in this case, the predominantly white managers in a number of London Borough Councils in the late 1990s).

Obviously this could be read as a cautionary tale about the limits of reformism and the need for a revolutionary transformation of society if we are to destroy the persistent racism which is the enduring (and perpetually reproduced) legacy of the key role of African slavery in the genesis of Western capitalism.

However, whilst waiting (and/or preparing) for that revolution there remains much that can be done to fight for what Manning Marable once referred to as "non-reformist reforms".

In many ways, the problem of institutional racism in the workplace was only highlighted in the 90s because of victories won in the previous decade in gaining access to those same workplaces for black workers.

At the beginning of the 80s, Lambeth (with an estimated black population of 40% - remembering that no ethnic origin question was asked in the 81 census) had a workforce which was 90% white. Within ten years, vigorous application of equal opportunity recruitment practices had shifted that percentage to 50%. (Older readers will remember Lambeth and other boroughs being denounced at the time as the "loony left").

In the generation since we managed to open some of our workplaces up to greater diversity we have failed to make the same progress to achieve both equity and equality in those workplaces.

However, the research published by GLEA all those years ago continues to point out things that could be done, right here, right now to advance equality given that we know that (still predominantly white) managers, left to their own devices may end up discriminating.

Managers can be trained and challenged to analyse and confront their own prejudices.

Managerial decisions can be rendered transparent and subject to scrutiny.

Human Resources staff can be given the support to champion equality and challenge discrimination.

Union representatives can be empowered and encouraged to confront racism.

Employers can support and resource the self-organisation of black workers within trade unions.

The long lost research report, buried because of the discomfort to which its sound findings give rise, remains a tool which we can use to fight for these limited, achievable and worthwhile goals.


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