My son, Kieran, knows me too well. At Christmas he gave me a book. It is called, “Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race.” It is written by Reni Eddo-Lodge, who has worked as a freelancer for Inside Housing. Kieran knows that I have spent the last 40 years of my career challenging the housing association sector on race and housing. He also knows that I have become very frustrated in recent years at the lack of progress in this area. He knows that I believe strongly that we will not move forward unless we realise that structural racism still exists in our society and that we in housing are not immune to it. We have spent too long addressing the symptoms of the issue and not the cause. Reni’s book eloquently identifies this when she says that the vast majority of white people “refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.”
The results of this refusal are again shown by recent research on BME leadership in our sector and elsewhere. Research by Inside Housing has shown that we are going backwards on race and housing. Black and Asian people only account for 4.5% of housing association executives and there are only 50 BME non-executives. Many housing associations have no executives or non-executives from BME communities Research also shows that the number of people from BME communities we provide homes for is also reducing. This is not surprising as BME people are more likely to feel the full effects of austerity and are more likely to be excluded from housing association homes.
These findings are not new. I was secretary to the first Race and Housing Enquiry in 1982 which identified that in services and employment housing associations were failing Black and Asian people. I was a member of the second enquiry in the 1990s which revealed that we were still failing. I contributed to the recent CIOH enquiry which again showed that we have made little progress, especially in senior appointments. All these enquiries made recommendations that were similar. I have no doubt that for a short time they produced some results and improvement. However despite some good work they were not sustained or completely embedded in housing associations.
Last year London housing associations launched Leadership 2025 in response to this continued failure. The initiative includes a set of commitments that are similar to those that have been made repeatedly over the last 40 years. And this week Inside Housing launched its own campaign called Inclusive Futures with similar challenges and pledges. The details are here. Of course I welcome these initiatives. The challenges and pledges they contain are ones that we should all sign up to, but my experience of over 40 years of similar campaigns convince me that they do not go far enough.
They mainly seek to address the symptoms and not the cause of our continued failure to promote and appoint people from Black and Asian communities. The first stage that is missing in all of these initiatives is the acceptance that we are the problem. We need to address this as part of any solution. The default position in almost all HAs and in most other organisations is that predominantly white men in positions of power appoint predominantly white men to similar positions. This has changed slightly in recent years with the appointment of more women but it has gone backwards in the appointment of BME people. These same predominantly white men also set the culture of most organisations. Unless we realise that this structural racism exists in most of our cultures, it will not change. As the book says “it is our problem not theirs.”
Many will find this uncomfortable and some will reject it. However, I believe that racism in our society never went away. It went underground. Brexit has legitimised it. Recent British Social Attitude surveys show an increase in people who admit to racism. The sharpest rise is in white professional men aged 35 to 64 who are highly educated and are high earners. Exactly the men who hold positions of power. But the real issue is not just about personal prejudice it is the collective effects of bias at all levels in our society. This is structural racism. The HA sector reflects this as much as any other. Until we recognise and address this we will not move forward.
As a first step I recommend that you read the book. The publicity says, “It is a wakeup call to a nation in denial about the structural racism at its heart.” For the housing association sector this wakeup call is long overdue. We should support the initiatives by Inside Housing and others but I am fearful that we will repeat the failure of previous initiatives going back 40 years, unless we address the problem within.