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Race Disparity Unit might ‘better serve’ the public by ‘looking to evidence’ – and measuring discrimination rather than disparity over time, says think-tank report

As the government-appointed Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has set out to address disparity between ethnic or racial groups across various social outcomes, a report by the Director of the Statistics and Policy Research Programme at Civitas, Richard Norrie, examines the numerous reviews conducted by various governments since 2010.
His report finds:
  • RACE DISPARITY UNIT: “…the Government’s Race Disparity Unit might better serve the country by looking to evidence and measure discrimination rather than disparity over time.”
  • DISCRIMINATION OR DISPARITY? “It is easy to say why discrimination based on ethnicity or race is wrong…Disparity is more difficult since there are innocent reasons why groups may have different outcomes.”
  • LOOKING TO EVIDENCE-BASED DISCRIMINATION: “While disparity is ambiguous, discrimination can be evidenced. Doing so would provide a better rationale for government intervention and engender greater trust.”
  • DISPARITY AS BASIS FOR INTERVENTION? “Government has adopted the principle of ‘explain or change’ – implying that where a disparity cannot be accounted for by other variables, it must intervene in order to correct the disparity. That the government has any competence in closing statistical gaps is a proposition that often goes unexamined.”
  • EQUALITY OF OUTCOMES: “Since there is no reason to expect equality of outcomes, given the myriad ways in which groups differ, perhaps comparing a group to another group makes less sense than comparing a group to itself over time.”
  • EXPLAINING ETHNIC DISPROPORTIONALITY: “Growing ethnic disproportionality in terms of youth custody, as highlighted by David Lammy, is due to declines in absolute terms for both ethnic minorities and the white British majority, only at different rates, meaning a rising majority share. Moreover, such trends are mirrored in the shares showing up in court, meaning the cause of the disparity is located ‘upstream’.”
  • WHAT CAN BE ACHIEVED? “The hopeful world is one where we accept our problems as well as differences and acknowledge the extent to which they are insurmountable while struggling to bring about incremental improvements that do not foster problems elsewhere.”
  • CAN DATA PROVIDE SOLUTIONS? “Overall, I find we are guided, more or less, by a faith in data – that data can be used to both identify problems and provide the control necessary for ‘solutions’. However, because of the data’s ambiguity, policy proposals are seldom solutions, and tend to be bland, vague or dogmatic.”

It is argued that ‘while we are adept at identifying disparity in statistics, we struggle to say why it exists or to provide a moral theory as to why it might be wrong’. It is ‘easy to say why discrimination based on ethnicity or race is wrong’, since it ‘violates liberal principles of equality before the state’ and of judging people ‘on individual merit’, ‘not immutable characteristics over which they have no control’. ‘Disparity is more difficult’: there can be ‘innocent reasons why groups may have different outcomes’, such as differences in age, or geographic region.

The author finds that a decade of various reviews ‘never go so far as to say disparity and discrimination are the same thing’, only that they tacitly allow the moral critique reserved for the latter to flow over onto the former. This begins to ‘provide a moral basis for government intervention’, as well as ‘a sense of purpose and virtue for politicians.’ All of this has hinged upon statistics – but those very statistics ‘are flawed in terms of missing data, confounding variables, and the problem of inferring causation from correlation.’

How we think about disparity: and what we get wrong

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