The Coronavirus pandemic has increased the urgency of actions to eliminate racial disparities in Wales. Analysis shows that the risk of deaths involving COVID-19 among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups is significantly higher than that of those of White ethnicity in Wales. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic employees are also more likely to work in occupations at higher risk of COVID-19 and within industries told to close.
The Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic COVID-19 Socio-economic Subgroup (which I chaired) submitted its report to the Welsh Government in June 2020. The report contained several recommendations which emphasised the urgency of taking radical and sustained action in addressing the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and the pre-existing disparities that have hindered the economic and social progress of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups in Wales.
Shortly after the publication of the report, I was invited to co-chair the Steering Group that was tasked with developing a Race Equality Action Plan for Wales (with Dame Shan Morgan, the Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Government). The Action Plan will aim to promote culture change and address structural and systemic racism and discrimination such that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are afforded equal value to their White counterparts. It was launched successfully for public consultation at the end of March 2021.
Co-leadership of the Steering Group with Dame Shan Morgan represents the first time in the history of the Welsh Government that such an important initiative has been led jointly by the top civil servant in the Welsh Government and an external expert with lived experience. We agreed from the onset that I would play a more active role in leading the Steering Group while Dame Morgan played a major role in getting things moving at the Welsh Government. For example, at one of our earlier meetings, we discussed the strategic and symbolic importance of the Welsh Government and the need for this organisation to be an exemplar in the pursuit of the ideals of anti-racism, which we had identified as a key distinguishing feature of our plan. Dame Morgan seized the initiative that our work on the Action Plan presented by commissioning training on institutional racism for all senior civil servants at the Welsh Government.
The Steering Group was clear that we wanted a radical Action Plan (not a strategy) that will prioritise anti-racism, on the basis that previous approaches (equal opportunities and managing diversity) have failed to deliver meaningful change in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. Equally, we emphasised the importance of collaboration and co-creation in the sense that we wanted the plan to be the joint efforts of the multiple stakeholders that are impacted directly by racial and ethnic discrimination; academics that have interest in this area of research; individuals and groups that are working to eradicate racial and ethnic discrimination; trade union leaders; policy-makers; and those that represent key organisations and institutions in society.
We held a variety of ‘vision setting events’ with racial and ethnic minority groups where we sought to envisage what success of the plan would represent in the future, and these helped us to identify a variety of high-level goals and actions. We also worked closely with the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) which was commissioned by the Welsh Government to provide the research anchor for the plan.
The rapid reviews of evidence that the WCPP provided, along with the contributions of the subject specialists who worked with them, were particularly helpful in directing our attention to the key emerging themes. The reports the WCPP provided on the substantive areas of concern helped in isolating the key problems in the individual elements of the plan, the intersectional implications and the potential alternative courses of actions that could be explored.
The WCPP reports were complemented by what we considered the most important source of evidence: the ‘lived experiences’ of members of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. We recognised that racial and ethnic minority groups are commonly disempowered in research and policy making and we were determined to put them and their experiences at the centre of the Action Plan. We undertook extensive community consultations which led to some valuable insights. These understandings informed the ‘deep-dive’ and ‘round table’ sessions at which all the groups and experts that participated in the evidence gathering events were invited to co-shape the policy directions on the different themes that were covered in the plan.
All the activities described above were designed to support the Welsh Government policy specialists who had the critical task of developing goals and actions in each area of the plan. To prepare the Welsh Government policy specialists for this important role, we recruited external Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic mentors who were carefully matched to the individual specialists. These mentors played a crucial role in helping policy specialists to understand the dynamics and impacts of racism and discrimination, to the extent that they served as ‘vicarious lived-experience’ which the mostly White policy specialists found particularly useful in understanding some of the subtleties of discrimination to which they were not previously exposed. We also ran training sessions to ensure that members of the Steering Group had a shared understanding of institutional racism.
Although we celebrate the successful launch of this Action Plan, it is useful to highlight some of the challenges we encountered in the process of its development. The obvious challenge for me was leading such highly diverse groups whose differences and problems were often so wide that homogenising them (as is required for policy making) often felt like diminishing their difficulties. In this regard, it was often necessary to manage the competing expectations of different groups, with some believing that our approach was not sufficiently radical to deal with the magnitude of the problem and others questioning the level of attention that was devoted to a specific sub-group of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Leading such heterogeneous groups which frequently had little in common other than their experiences of discrimination was also challenging in other respects. One area where this was evident was in the lack of agreement on the terminology that will be adopted for the Action Plan, with the dominant groups wanting their group identities to be reflected in the terminology chosen. In the end, we opted for the term ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Groups’ as this was Welsh Government’s preferred terminology.
While it is worth highlighting these challenges, it is also important to note that they were not major concerns and were not unexpected in working with such diverse groups on issues that are so deep-rooted and that have such potentially pernicious consequences. A more pressing concern is to ensure that the Action Plan is implemented fully following the outcome of the consultation. This is because the success of the Action Plan will help to deliver the fairness that all communities in Wales desire. Such an outcome will minimise the need for individuals and groups to seek solace in their respective identity groupings as a way of responding to inter-racial/ethnic dynamics either as victims or as perpetrators of discrimination. This will help to unleash the unparalleled potential that Wales will enjoy as the first anti-racist nation in the world.
About the author: Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna is a Professor of Management and Organisation at Cardiff Business School. He is Chair of the First Minister’s BAME COVID-19 Socioeconomic Subgroup and co-chair of the Welsh Government’s Race Equality Action Plan Steering Group.
You can listen to our podcast on Improving Race Equality in Wales, starring Professor Ogbonna and Professor Charlotte Williams OBE here.