Black lives matter, black careers matter

Let me start by saying that I know my knowledge about this subject is limited and incomplete. I’d love to hear from other people who know more than me and who are willing to contribute a guest post to this blog, either anonymously or named.

Like everyone else I know I’ve been shocked into action by the killing of George Floyd. It is easy to get complacent about the endless stream of unlawful killings and racialised murder that flashes past me on social media. I hear about Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, and I think, ‘what can I do’ ? For those of us outside of the USA it seems like racism is out of control. The state is racist and it uses its power for violence to deal out unmitigated injustice to ordinary people. But, both the seemingly endless stream of these cases and the inspiration of seeing people fighting back against this injustice makes me feel a need to do something, however small a contribution my solidarity might be.

The consequences of the system of racial injustice are stark divisions in American society that both create day-to-day oppression for black people, but also divide up the population through fear, resentment and inequality, meaning that sections of the white working class can happily back Trump despite the very obvious fact that he has not got their best interests at heart. Racism is not accidental, it is a powerful weapon to divide people and obscure the operation of power and privilege.

But of course it isn’t just America. Race and racism structures opportunities in the UK as well. The Institute of Race Relations published a paper a few years ago called Dying for Justice detailing 509 people (an average of twenty-two per year) from BAME, refugee and migrant communities who died between 1991-2014 in suspicious circumstances in which the police, prison authorities or immigration detention officers have been implicated. It is clear that there is a need for us to stand up and say that black lives matter in the UK as well.

But what do I know?

I’m a white person living a relatively privileged life in the UK. I don’t have any great insights into what it is like to be black in the UK at the moment and even less about what it is like to be black in the USA.

I don’t understand, but I do have empathy. I can’t speak from experience, but I can try and educate myself about what the problems are and perhaps more importantly what might be done about it.

I can listen, read and try and amplify black voices. I can also argue that we are all linked, that injustice for one is injustice for all, that solidarity is the only way to organise a society and that we need to move forwards steadily (or ideally rapidly) increasing equality, democracy and justice. The coronavirus has taught us all that we are interconnected and also that when we put our minds to it we can throw off the shackles of ‘political reality’ and transform society in the interests of people.

Sadly, I have little confidence that this is the direction the current government are taking us in. They seem determined to re-establish a new normal that is just the same as the old normal. In other words they want to return us to a society in which opportunities were structured by class, gender and race (amongst other things).

We need to try and do something about this. The Black Lives Matters movement is inspiring because it is people standing up and saying that things have got to change. Saying that the old normal was not good enough.

Black careers matter

While I’m deeply concerned about the criminal justice issues raised by the black lives matters protests, I have little detail to offer about how the criminal justice system should work. This interview with David Lammy raises a lot of the issues and explores both the UK and USA dimensions.

But, the space where I work is around career and career guidance. Any insights and influence that I have relates to this. I have to shamefully admit that while I’ve done lots of work looking at career guidance, inequality and social justice, I’ve done very little that is focused on racial inequality. I need to think about this and shift my focus.

There is an important connection between the issues of criminal justice that grab the headlines around racial injustice and thinking about career. Career is how individuals build their lives, find their way through education, into work, provide for their families and so on. All of this requires some kind of level of trust in the functioning and fairness of the state. If you can’t trust that the police will protect you, if you fear arbitrary interventions from the state that disrupt your life, then you are carrying a burden which will make your career building much more difficult than your white peers.

But, we don’t have to look to the criminal justices system to see how racism structures inequality. A really useful book called Ethnicity, race and inequality in the UK provides a brilliant rundown of how race shapes experience across a wide variety of areas in the UK. For those of us interested in careers it includes essential chapters on education and the labour market. It presents the evidence that ethnicity shapes participation in the education system with ethnic minorities usually, but not always, getting a worse deal. It also shows the disparities that exist between different ethnic groups and how ethnicity interacts with other characteristics such as class and gender. The chapter on the labour market shows the racial segregation and differential outcomes that exist in the UK on the basis of ethnicity. Research from the CIPD puts it more starkly as discrimination impedes BAME career progression.

The comfortable policy narrative is to explain away these differences in experience and outcome as ‘cultural differences’. Such an approach subtly, but genuinely, locates the responsibility for differences in career outcome with the individual and their ethnically-defined community. It also bypasses the realities of both day-to-day and structural racism. The challenges in the education and employment system are pushed onto black people and both white racists and systemic discrimination are ignored.

Career guidance has often been co-opted into these kinds of policy narrative. The pressure is to raise aspiration, challenge community expectations and inspire the individual to transcend their circumstances. Rarely are career guidance professionals asked to advocate for their clients, challenge racism, change unfair structures or even encourage people to think about why they are discriminated against and what they can do to change this toxic reality. Such acts are viewed as ‘political’ and outside of the bounds of the professions responsibility.

But, as the black lives matters movement reminds us, we have a responsibility to challenge what is wrong both when it is inter-personal racism and when it is structural. The response that we make will always be labelled as ‘too political’, but this just shows that we are on the right lines. If careers professionals are committed to helping their clients and students achieve the best career outcomes that they can, then they also have to be committed to dismantling the inequality that works against a huge section of the population.

The events of the last few days have sent out a strong signal that enough is enough. We cannot go on accepting that career success is structured and limited by racism. We need to act.

I would like to hear from other people (teachers, careers advisers, researchers and employers) who are interested in acting. I’d love to feature some guest posts on this blog saying more about what is wrong and what can be done. If that can help to amplify black voices within the careers field, even better. Please get in touch and I’ll publish your thoughts as a guest post.

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