20 October 2020
‘A white British student is still 16 per cent more likely to be accepted to the elite Russell Group universities than a black African student with the same grades.’9
A former child refugee, barrister Hashi Mohamed knows something about social mobility. In People Like Us, he shares what he has learned: from the stark statistics that reveal the depth of the problem to the failures of imagination, education and confidence that compound it.
It is time to recognise racial bias in the UK and the impact it has on social mobility. People Like Us explores this problem, and offers insights into how we can begin to solve it.
Radio 4’s Book of the Week
People Like Us is currently Radio 4 Book of the Week, being read aloud by the author every morning at 9.45am. Catch up and listen online
From Chapter 4: IN PURSUIT OF PURPOSE: CONFIDENCE
The Oxford English dictionary offers the following definition of confidence:
The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something. A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.
What we can take from this is that confidence is both internal and external: confident individuals believe they are good enough and they believe or trust that other people and institutions will recognise this. Partly, confidence is a responsibility you must take on yourself: to believe in your strengths and talents and keep faith with them. But you also need to have a certain amount of trust in the world around you, and that it will treat you fairly. And it’s much easier to do that if you feel comfortable about your place in it: no definition of confidence would be complete without acknowledging that it’s entirely contextual. All of us are more at ease in some situations than in others, and few of us find ourselves behaving most naturally somewhere new or with people who aren’t like us. This confidence of familiarity cuts both ways: in his book Poverty Safari, the rapper and activist Darren McGarvey, writes about the first time he left the extremely deprived area of Glasgow where he grew up, to attend therapy in a part of the city where ‘it is not unusual to find a small, fashionable dog waiting in the retro wicker basket of an upcycled penny-farthing while its owner proceeds into a café to politely complain to a barista named Felix about being undercharged for artisan sausage.’ While there, he sees a group of young people from the local school, confidently chatting among themselves, ‘using the kind of words I always had in my head but felt too inhibited to speak’. But as he passes them, they go silent and turn away, a response he recognises as fear of him. He is ashamed, and feels ‘harshly judged by snobs who could do with a clip around the ears as an introduction to the “real world”’.2 His trip to the other, more well-to-do side of town has brought him into collision with a different social milieu, and with both kinds of people – poor and privileged – feeling uncomfortable as a result. It’s clear how this might come into play in a job interview, for example: the interviewee feeling nervous, out of place, looked down upon, and the interviewer uncomfortable, unsure, already looking for an easier option.
Looking at all of this, it’s easy to see why a ‘confidence divide’ has grown up to match the class divisions in economic, social and cultural capital that I’ve already talked about. In Britain, the kind of confidence I am talking about sits at the intersection of a number of factors: your childhood and close relationships; the availability of role models; the kind of positive reinforcement you get at school and in the wider world; and your ability to achieve, and see those achievements recognised. It’s clearly simplistic to say that confidence is a preserve of the middle and upper classes, and that everyone else is unconfident, self-doubting, unable to visualise a better kind of life for themselves. Neither am I romanticising the middle-class childhood: I know plenty of people who have had a privileged upbringing, but who, when they came home for the holidays, practically had to sign a book if they wanted a hug. I know plenty of middle-class kids who buckled under the expectation that, having been gifted a good education, endless tutoring and a happy home, they would excel, end up at Oxbridge and carry all before them. And I know plenty of working-class parents who harbour passionate aspirations for their children, and are well aware of their talents.
But it’s also true that in general, poor children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are on the wrong side of all these factors. Statistically, among our fellow successful applicants for pupillages, Mike and I will have been outliers: the Bar is dominated by privately educated Oxbridge types. And this is not because they’re innately superior beings, but because throughout their lives these individuals have had their intellectual abilities recognised and rewarded to the point where they have a crucial edge over people whose childhoods may have been more about survival than academic excellence. They exhibit that elusive ‘it’ that we’re all looking for because they have a deeply rooted sense that they are good enough, and that their – often prodigious and genuine – talent and ability will be recognised. Life has been good to them so far – why would that change? Contrast this, for example, with the experience of a young, under-privileged, black man. In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, the journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge explores how the confidence of young black men in ‘the system’ is undermined at every turn: at school by the lowered expectations from their teachers; by the poverty of ambition of the culture that surrounds them; by bad experiences with authority, particularly the police; by the fact that, if they get to university, they’ll have to work harder to get the same grades as their white peers; by the far higher rate of rejections they’ll receive when they send their CVs out; and by the extremely high unemployment rates that affect young black men. As she puts it:
Our black man can try his hardest, but he is essentially playing a rigged game. He may be told by his parents and peers that if he works hard enough, he can overcome anything. But the evidence shows that that is not true, and that those who do are exceptional to be succeeding in an environment that is set up for them to fail.3
A version of this fate exists for a young black woman from Peckham, a young white man from a north-eastern ‘cold spot’ or a young Muslim woman of Bengali heritage, wearing a headscarf and sporting a foreign name. We are all bruised by trying to force our way through the structure of a society that isn’t set up for us and it takes extraordinary levels of self-belief to arrive on the other side still believing that you have something to contribute (whereupon you’re often held up as an example of how people from diverse backgrounds absolutely are welcome – if only they had the confidence to apply!).
9. Boston Consulting Group, for The Sutton Trust, The State of Social Mobility in the UK 2017, p. 14
2. Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, 2017, pp. 26, 27, 28
3. Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, 2017, pp. 57–84