Increasing economic opportunity or bolstering racial neoliberalism?

Increasing economic opportunity or bolstering racial neoliberalism?

Stephen Ashe

Neoliberal orthodoxy rests on the belief that ‘human well-being can be best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade’.[1]

The role of the state at this time is to establish and sustain forms of governance that realise these principles.[ii]   Thus, emphasis is placed on ‘deregulation, privatisation, and the withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision’.[iii] Neoliberal common-sense also demands that minimal state intervention in the affairs of the market is necessary because the state does not possess the knowledge and expertise required to do so. However, as the discussion below will show, there is one particular sector of British labour market where recent governments have not been shy in their interventions – the public sector.

The present conjuncture is also characterised by widening disparities in both wealth and power. Indeed, it is commonly argued that such inequalities are the result of the decisions taken by individuals, rather than being the outcome of structural processes and institutional arrangements. Political-economic orthodoxy dictates that while not everyone is born equal, individuals have the agency to make choices that will enable them to work their way out of material disadvantage. Individual responsibility and accountability are integral to this orthodoxy.

These are principles underpinning the Green Paper’s proposals for ‘Increasing economic opportunity’:

The government believes in diagnosing an individual customer’s barriers to employment and providing tailored programmes (page 52).

The strategy explains how the government will help people of all ages to understand their options and different paths to work, and plan the steps they need to take to get from where they are to where they want to go (page 55).

The Claimant Commitment clarifies what people are expected to do in return for receiving Universal Credit. As Universal Credit is rolled out, we will expect more people from ethnic minorities to be subject to work related requirements as a condition of receiving Universal Credit (page 52).

These proposals offer little by way of addressing the historical, structural, institutional and entrenched cultural determinants of racial inequality. Indeed, they form a core part of a modern day racial contract which defines the place racialised minority people occupy in this country.[iv]

The ‘Race Disparity Audit’ and The Casey Review

In 2017, Theresa May marked the official launch of the ‘Race Disparity Audit’ by telling a meeting of ‘key stakeholders’ that:

…when one person works just as hard as another person…but experiences a worse outcome solely on the grounds of their ethnicity, then this is a problem that I believe we have to confront…Britain today in the 21st Century is a diverse multi-ethnic democracy. Diversity is a source of strength and pride for us…[‘the data we’re releasing today’] … It’s a world first, no country has ever produced a piece of work looking at the lived experience of people of different ethnicities which is as extensive and ambitious as this…The issues are now out in the open and we all have a responsibility to work together to tackle them…So I think the message is very simple; if the disparities can’t be explained, they must be changed…we must recognise that we’ve come a long way in promoting equality and opportunity… we still have a way to go if we’re truly going to have a country that does work for everyone.

Laced with institutional and national pride, the Prime Minister’s statement did not use the word racism once. It appears only once in the Green Paper. What is more, the section on ‘Increasing Economic Opportunity’ contains just a single reference to ‘Racial Prejudice’ framed in terms of unconscious bias. This reduces racism to the ‘unconscious biases’ and ‘implicit attitudes’ of individuals rather than viewing it as being structural, institutional and cultural in nature.

The nature of workplace racism and impact of everyday workplace racism in Britain has recently been catalogued by the 2015 Business in the Community survey and the 2016/17 Trade Union Congress survey. The former found that 30% of participants had witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying in the past year (an increase in the levels of reported 1-2 years ago and 3-5 years ago). What is more, the latter revealed that over 70% of Asian and Black workers had experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years, while around 60% of Asian and Black workers, and almost 40% of employees from a Mixed heritage background, had been treated unfairly by their employer because of their ‘race’.[v] A considerable number of TUC survey participants also provided personal statements detailing how workplace racism had both intensified and become more explicit following the EU Referendum and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Across both surveys, a significant number of participants also reported experiencing racist violence at work, as well as the severe impact that workplace racism had on their physical and mental health.

Rather than focus solely on the historically entrenched nature of workplace racism and racial inequalities in the labour market, Theresa May, like the Casey Review, frames her announcement in terms of ‘how a person’s ethnicity affects their experience in public services’ and how the ‘ethnicity’ of the individual produces a ‘worse outcome’. Not only does this type of statement displace racism, it also pathologises ethnic and racial differences. Such terms of reference are also evident in the Green Paper which actually cites The Casey Review when stating that ‘in some communities, cultural attitudes and behaviours are holding women and girls back from fully participating in society’. This is not a comment on the broader nature of sexism and patriarchy. This is a well-honed, non-referential narrative which reinforces Casey’s suggestion that Muslim women are more likely to experience poverty and unemployment as a result of ‘regressive cultural practices’ which are supposedly at odds with ‘British values and sometimes our laws’.

The private sector, non-interventionism and the McGregor-Smith Review

The McGregor-Smith Review was published on 28 February 2017.  It calls for further legislation and ‘fully inclusive workplaces where everybody can bring their whole self to work’ initially appear to be a step forward.

However, this starts to feel tangential given the emphasis that McGregor-Smith places on unconscious bias. Moreover, McGregor-Smith also contends that fully utilising ‘BME talent’ has the potential to ‘increase productivity and delivering £24 billion of benefits to the UK economy’. This very point is highlighted in the Government’s official response to the Review. While rejecting the call for additional legislation, the Government argued that a ‘business-led, voluntary approach’ was the ‘best method’ of ‘bringing about lasting change’ and that they ‘will monitor progress and stand ready to act if sufficient progress is not delivered’. Leading voices from the world of business rallied behind the Government, arguing that it is ‘important that we take a business-led approach to plans, targets and reporting systems, rather than a regulatory one’, as well as suggesting that firms ‘do not need a whole new set of paperwork and checklists’.

In the Green Paper, it is argued that, ‘a different approach is required for different sectors…These include developing a simple guide on how to discuss race in the workplace, an online portal of best practice and celebrating success through a list of the top employers for race equality’ (page 53).

Notably, the Green Paper talks of ‘educating’ employers on the benefits of a diverse workforce and encouraging employers to develop mentoring practices, but offers very little by way of holding individual employers to account, particularly in terms of realising equality and how employers responded to handle discrimination in recruitment, career progression, pay, retention and reports of everyday workplace racism.

State intervention in the public sector

While reluctant to regulate the private sector, the state has shown, time and again, that is willing to intervene in the public sector. The Government’s official response to The McGregor-Smith Review notes that the civil service ‘will continue to lead from the front in taking positive action to make…the wider public sector more inclusive’. In contrast to this, both the BITC and TUC surveys reveal that racism remains a resilient feature of everyday working life and institutional practice in the public sector, including the civil service. It is concerning that the Government has handed responsibility over to public sector managers to determine ‘how to comply with this new legal duty’, when both the BITC and TUC surveys identify managers as being main perpetrators of workplace racism.

Moreover, the aforementioned surveys raise concern in relation to Conservative’s ‘Code of practice on the English language requirement for public sector workers’, which was brought into law in fulfilment with promises made in the Conservative’s 2015 General Election Manifesto. A key aim of this ‘Code’ was to ensure that ‘every public sector worker operating in a customer-facing role must speak fluent English’. This pledge sat alongside a proposal to further ‘toughen requirements for non-EU spouses to join EU citizens, including with an income threshold and English language test’. The Conservative manifesto also noted that during their previous term in office, the coalition Government had ‘introduced tough new language tests for migrants and ensured councils reduce spending on translation services’. Those people who speak other languages are forever framed as being ‘outsiders’ unable to escape the category of ‘immigrant’. This further undermines the very idea that Britain is a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual nation.

The issue of language proficiency also runs through The McGregor-Smith Review. Indeed, it noted that around 30% of employers had said that ‘language skills’ were the main factor as to why ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ (BME) people ‘have difficulty in accessing jobs that match their skills’ and why ‘BME’ people do not ‘progress as far as their White counterparts in their careers’. Such views stand in contrast to the latest survey evidence. More specifically, such views problematize the skills and abilities of individuals rather than taking note of the fact that a considerable number of survey participants reported being routinely questioned on their perceived ‘ability to speak English’, while also being pressured into only speaking English at work. What is more, survey respondents also reported that an alleged lack of language proficiency had resulted in discrimination in recruitment, restricted access to training, demotion, and excessive, if not unnecessary, surveillance and scrutiny by managers. Both the BITC and TUC surveys also reveal that such forms of discrimination are commonplace in the public sector.

All told, the latest survey evidence suggests that language proficiency must be addressed as an issue of workplace racism, as opposed to framing people as ‘human resources’ whose inclusion can be exploited in the pursuit of profit. Instead such issues are better framed in terms of employers having both a legal and a moral obligation not to discriminate and to address enduring racial inequality.

If we are serious about addressing workplace racism and racial inequality in the labour market, we need to start by unsettling the guiding principles and institutional frameworks of racial neoliberalism. Doing so is critical if we are to realise McGregor-Smith’s goal of ‘Fully inclusive workplaces…where everybody can bring their whole self to work’.


[1] Harvey, David (215) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, page 2.

[ii] Kapoor, Nisha (2013) ‘The advancement of racial neoliberalism in Britain. Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(6): 1028-46.

[iii] Harvey, David (215) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, page 2.

[iv] For a further discussion of the racial contract, see Puwar, Nirmal. (2001) ‘The racialised somatic norm and the senior civil service’, Sociology, 35 (3): 651-670.

[v] The TUC survey is based on a non-representative survey sample. Therefore, the statistical findings are not generalizable beyond the surveyed population.


Stephen Ashe leads the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity’s Racism at Work Project. He is lead author of the following reports: Equality, diversity and racism in the workplace: A qualitative analysis of the 2015 Race at Work Survey (2016, Business in the Community); and Racism Ruins Lives: An analysis of the 2016-2017 Racism at Work Survey (2018, Trade Union Congress).