The ethics of race- and ethnicity-based statistics

Since the Vichy government, France has been more than just reluctant to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, skin colours, etc. — it has positively banned such activities, and recently ruled that a sociology professor’s survey which sought to collect such data was unconstitutional. This from todays’ episode of CBC Radio’s Dispatches.

The EU has recently stipulated that its member countries work to fight discrimination and France has established a body to adjudicate claims of racial discrimination but it has so far seen few cases because without the body of statistics to back up such claims, there are few hard facts upon which to proceed.

The argument offered for maintaining the status quo by one of the interviewees, himself a university professor who studies discrimination (and whose own research showed that resumes with North African-sounding names were three times less likely to receive call-backs), were pretty weak. He claims that because there is, officially, no such thing as race in France, there can be no racial discrimination, and that race is an unscientific concept (true) therefore there can be no study of its effects in society (an incredible non-sequitur).

He reasoned that it would lead to greater discrimination because if, say, you asked who was Muslim, then decided that you would set aside a certain number of jobs for Muslims, that would lead to you needing to define “Muslim,” which would in turn lead to abuses.

This is of course not a bad point: the Canadian government’s definition of “Indian” is contributing directly to the disappearance of “Indians” (in one of Thomas King’s books he cites a statistic that there will be no Indians left in 20 or so years — I forget the exact number).

But taking education as an example, the prevailing attitude in France seems to run exactly counter to the approach that, in North America, is increasingly seen as both progressive and necessary to addressing blatant and serious inequalities. This is exemplified by the Toronto District School Board‘s fairly exhaustive and admired student survey, by the work of the US-based Education Trust, whose sole mandate is to work towards closing the achievement gap and does extensive research on the different educational outcomes of young people from various ethnicities, and is also heard in the calls of First Nations in Canada for better data on the achievement, dropout rates, and so on of young Aboriginal people. In North America, the issue is more often around privacy than potentially discriminatory use of such data.

Despite the pitfalls identified by Thomas King and the French professor on the CBC program, no sound policies for adequately addressing inequality could be formulated or implemented without this sort of knowledge.

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