Are quotas the best way to combat racism?
Are quotas the best way to combat racism?

How you answer this question is likely to depend on whether you favour an individual or a social approach to racism. Which of these approaches you favour will further depend on how you respond to broader questions about society. Is society nothing more than a collection of individuals, each of whom has complete control over whether they behave well or badly? Or is our behaviour, to a greater or lesser extent, determined by the structures in which we live, which can only be changed at a systemic level? Do we need to fix ourselves or the system?

If you take the individual approach, quotas are neither effective nor fair. Selection for jobs or educational programmes should be entirely merit-based. Consider someone's relevant experience or their A-Level results; ignore their ethnicity. If you can provide evidence that someone has been discriminated against because of their race - if a black person has been turned down in favour of a less qualified white person, and if it is clear that this was because of their race - the person or people making that decision is or are acting in a racist way, and action must be taken against them. You can prosecute them under the 2010 Equality Act, which makes such discriminatory behaviour illegal; you can discipline them or dismiss them. Deal with the guilty individuals. But leave the institution alone to continue to make its selections on the grounds of merit.

This is what is known as the colour-blind approach. The colour of someone's skin is irrelevant to their fitness for a job or a course of study, and it should be ignored. On the face of it, this looks like natural justice. However, critics of the colour-blind approach point out that it acts as if race does not exist. Unfortunately, say these critics, it does. Not as an objective fact determining people's abilities, but as a social construct which affects the way people are treated. People from ethnic minorities are systematically and unfairly disadvantaged by their race. White people are systematically and unfairly advantaged by their race, a phenomenon sometimes known as white privilege. We need to recognise our unconscious bias and intervene to correct this imbalance.

Quotas are a very effective, and therefore very fair, way of doing this. It is naive to think that we live in a world where everyone is treated the same, and that quotas interrupt natural justice. Unofficially, informally, but powerfully, quotas have always existed, making sure that positions of influence and advantage have been overwhelmingly occupied by white men. How else did they get all the top jobs? Are they really all inherently smarter and more capable? Race-based (and gender-based) quotas are simply acting to remove the effects of existing discrimination to everyone's benefit; they make institutions both fairer and more effective, by widening the talent pool. If people really were appointed to jobs and awarded places on courses of study entirely on merit, with race playing no part, the proportion of people from ethnic minorities in influential positions would match very closely their proportion in society; that hasn't been the case for most of history.

Opponents of quotas would argue that they are not, actually, in the interests of people from ethnic minorities. If you feel, or the people around you feel, that you have only been appointed to a position or offered a place on a course of study because of your race, then this could cost you much respect (and self-respect). Nobody wants to be labelled as a 'diversity hire'. Without quotas, you can be confident that any success you achieve is thanks to your own efforts and abilities. To be given something simply because of the colour of your skin is patronising and demeaning.

Moreover, quotas can be an imprecise tool that could inadvertently benefit the wrong individuals.. Not all people from ethnic minorities are the same, and they should not be treated as one amorphous mass. Some are underprivileged; some are not. Should the black daughter of a hedge-fund manager living in South Kensington and attending an expensive private school really be given a university place over the white son of an unemployed single mother living in Sunderland and attending an underfunded state school? In June 2023, the US Supreme Court ruled that the 'affirmative action' programmes run by many American universities, whereby quotas were used to increase recruitment of black and Hispanic students, were illegal. Those who supported this ruling pointed out that many of the students offered places under these schemes in fact came from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. They also claimed that many students of East Asian heritage (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) were effectively discriminated against for not being the 'right sort' of minority.

Supporters of quotas argue that they are necessary because of existing institutional and societal prejudice, fair because they address this prejudice, and effective because they recruit more talented people. Opponents of quotas argue that they are unnecessary because prejudice is better confronted on a personal than an institutional level, unfair because they exclude people unreasonably, and ineffective because they select people on the wrong grounds.

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would oblige schools to appoint teachers who reflect the ethnic profile of the student body.
2. This house would oblige all universities to ensure that the ethnic profile of their student body reflects the ethnic profile of the UK as a whole.
3. This house would oblige all businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure that the ethnic profile of their workforce reflects the ethnic profile of the UK as a whole.
4. This house would reserve some constituencies for ethnic minority MPs only.
5. This house would make it compulsory for 20% of texts studied for English Literature GCSE and A-Level to be by writers from ethnic minorities.