Don't count on the numbers game to heal racial rifts

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We have in Britain a bad habit of borrowing social policies from the United States 30 years late - at precisely the point when the Americans have begun to see all the drawbacks. The latest shibboleth to cross the Atlantic is ethnic minority recruitment targets. "Targets" because formal quotas are illegal in English law.

As a supposed "ethnic" emollient, targeting has gradually penetrated the public services. Tomorrow, the TUC is holding a conference, entitled Monitoring to Target, to spread the concept. Evidently, ethnic conflicts like the row at Ford's Dagenham plant cause concern. At the lower levels, Ford had recruited many black and Asian workers, but few rose to positions of authority, and some of the white supervisors abused their power.

But before we rush too far ahead, we need to think this through. The Americans, who pioneered such targeting schemes, now have grave doubts about them. And the doubters include black observers as well as whites.

Tomorrow's conference will be addressed by Paul Boateng, the Home Office junior minister. But the biggest endorsement of ethnic targeting, so far, has come from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw (whose American borrowings already include "zero tolerance" and "three strikes and you're out"). Following the inquiry into the case of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, Mr Straw laid down precise racial targets for the police, to be met within 10 years.

This panoply of targets has been driven home by an "action plan" announced by yet another junior minister, Charles Clarke. "It is vital," Mr Clarke said, "that the police service meets the challenging but clearly achievable targets set."

It is beginning to dawn on people that these fine words hide an impossible, and probably counter-productive, task.

The most crucial factor to consider, of course, is the Metropolitan Police force which bungled the Stephen Lawrence, Michael Menson, Joan Francisco and, arguably, the Ricky Reel inquiries, all of which involved the deaths of non-white people. Yet the Met has been set a target that even the most liberal-minded observers think is unattainable if standards are to be upheld. By 2010, the Met is expected to have added 5,661 black or Asian recruits to the force.

The bureaucratic rationale is that about a quarter of London's adult population belongs to an ethnic minority, compared to the present 3.3 per cent level within the Met. Clearly, that percentage is too low. But the only way even to approach 25 per cent in the target time would be by bringing down standards. What good would that do anyone?

In view of all this, a new book from one of the United States' most influential social scientists - who happens to be black - is a welcome antidote. Everyone who thinks targets are the way to the stars, including Mr Straw and John Monks, the TUC general secretary, should read William Julius Wilson's The Bridge Over The Racial Divide. After several studies of economic and racial division in the US, he concludes that the emphasis "should be shifted from numerical guidelines". The numbers game, he says, creates resentment and finally a backlash.

He has advised Bill Clinton on race policy and is now advising the left-of-field Democratic presidential contender, Bill Bradley. His preferred policy is "affirmative opportunity" - instead of quotas or targets, public programmes should forward extra help to the disadvantaged of every skin colour, giving them the skills and qualifications they need to compete on a level playing field.

Global economic change, Professor Wilson points out, is destroying low- skill jobs in all the large industrial nations (partly by computerisation, partly by the shift of work to cheaper, developing countries). So the poor of all colours have an interest in a coalition for action - a "black agenda", he believes, will never work so well.

Britain's ethnic dilemmas are not quite the same. Black Americans alone account for 12 per cent of the US population. In Britain, all racial minorities together only make up 5 or 6 per cent of the whole. Indian families are much the most numerous, and they are seen as pushing ahead of white families on every economic criterion. Little need for targeting here, though bizarrely many of the target systems count any "ethnic" recruit as a success.

On Wilson's criteria, Britain's disad-vantaged include not only Anglo- Caribbean young men from London or Birmingham, but also young white men from the abandoned mining districts of northern England.

Not everyone is slipping into the targeting trap. Cambridge University, for example, tries to diversify its student intake by reaching out to schools, encouraging application from those who might not have considered it. In the Cambridge admission statistics for October this year more than 10 per cent of home students said they were non-white. But the small print is revealing: 91 were from Indian backgrounds, 56 Anglo-Chinese; only nine new undergraduates were black Caribbean.

No one ever said that social justice would be easy. Family ambitions and personal networks - "social capital" - are probably the most important factors affecting people's futures. But at least we can try not to make things worse - as the Home Secretary and other well-intentioned people risk doing by adopting outdated panaceas, which the most thoughtful Americans already reject.

Paul Barker is a senior fellow of the Institute of Community Studies. 'The Bridge Over The Racial Divide' by WJ Wilson is published by the University of California Press, pounds 12.50