No place for systemic racism

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How systemic racism affects the Bar, an audit of the profession’s progress so far, and the structural, cultural and personal change required for meaningful action

By Amit Popat


The murder of George Floyd in May sparked outrage throughout the world. The spotlight it shone on racism jolted people’s awareness of racial injustice and energised a global movement for equality. George Floyd’s name joins many others – such as Stephen Lawrence, Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor – after whose deaths we have committed to seeking a fairer and more equal society. As a British Indian and a diversity and inclusion professional of many years, I strongly support this renewed focus on racial inequality and, six months on from the tragic events in Minneapolis, I believe that we must continue to reflect on the racism that still exists, particularly in our own sector, the progress we have made and the challenges that lie ahead.

Despite the great strides towards equality that have been made in recent decades, we know that racism remains a problem. By accepting that racism exists in society, we are presented with the logic that it exists in organisations too. None of us leaves our underlying prejudices at the door.

But before we can begin to address racism, we need to be able to identify and understand it. Most of us can recognise overt and deliberate racism, such as verbal abuse or clear incidences of discrimination. Yet we all have a duty to grasp the more subtle and indirect manifestations of racism too. The technical term for this is ‘systemic racism’ – when a policy, practice, institution, culture or norm works to the disadvantage of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people without there necessarily being any intention to discriminate. I realise that this concept is a broad and abstract one, but it is vital in understanding why – unless we believe that BAME people are inherently less able, or that deliberate racism is widespread within the profession – we haven’t yet achieved race equality at the Bar.

Over the past few months, I have been encouraged by the increasing number of barristers from all backgrounds who are reflecting on systemic racism, and this presents an appropriate juncture at which we can audit the profession’s progress on race so far. In January 2020, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) published its annual research, Diversity at the Bar, which found that the percentage of practising barristers who are BAME is 13.6% compared with 14.4% of the working age population of England and Wales. The proportion of BAME barristers generally increases each year, so it’s clear that we are heading in the right direction, although the proportion of QCs from BAME backgrounds is only 8.1%. Perhaps this reflects the lower number of BAME barristers who were entering the profession in years gone by, but it could also suggest an issue in the progression of barristers from BAME backgrounds at the Bar.

While it is seldom recognised, there are also significant disparities in the proportion of barristers from different ethnic groups within the overall ‘BAME’ category. In fact, although the term may be useful for policymakers, I’m acutely aware that it essentially groups people together based on the fact that they are ‘not white’, the underlying logic of which is both crude and vastly oversimplistic – and of course, white people would never be assigned an acronym (WAME – White and Majority Ethnic) because the diversity within this group is supposedly widely understood. For instance, the data shows that there is a slightly greater proportion of Asian/Asian British practitioners at the Bar than within the working age population of England and Wales (7.2% v 6.2%). The opposite is found for those from Black/Black British backgrounds (3.2% v 3.7%) and amongst those barristers who identified their ethnic group as ‘Other’ (1.2% v 3.2%).

BSB research shows that ethnicity affects barristers’ likelihood of attaining pupillage too. Our 2020 report of key Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) statistics found that, even when statistically controlling for applicants’ undergraduate degree class and BPTC grade, BAME barristers living in the UK/EU were less likely to have commenced pupillage than those from white backgrounds. For example, amongst UK/EU domiciled BPTC graduates who had enrolled on the course from 2014 to 2018, of those who had a 2:1 degree and a ‘Very Competent’ overall BPTC grade, 45% from white backgrounds had started pupillage compared with 25% of those from BAME backgrounds. Statistics like this make clear that systemic racism is far from a theoretical concept.

Overcoming racism and discrimination, particularly their indirect forms, presents a remarkable challenge. It requires change on structural, cultural and personal levels. In fields like policy and design, it is called a ‘Wicked’ problem – one which is difficult to solve because: it has no definitive form; there is an interdependent relationship between it and other problems; single solutions are impossible; and measuring the effectiveness of rectifying actions is not easy. To solve a ‘Wicked’ problem like racial inequality, I believe that the best approach is to collaborate with others to devise innovative and disruptive solutions – the aim should be to do something different for diversity.

A major step towards this at the BSB came in 2018, when we convened stakeholders from across the sector for our event, Heads Above the Parapet: How can we improve Race Equality at the Bar? The valuable discussions we had led me to establish the Race Equality Taskforce, which brings together BAME and white barristers to drive change in support of the BSB’s statutory objective to ‘promote an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession’.

The taskforce aims to help the BSB take meaningful action beyond just talking about racial inequality. While I am glad that, as a society, we are increasingly comfortable discussing race, I worry that focusing too much on events and discussion forums can crowd out more transformative forms of action. This is why the taskforce is providing the BSB with practical advice on reviewing its Equality and Diversity Rules – regulations with which chambers must comply – with a view to making the culture of barristers’ workplaces’ more inclusive. The taskforce is also publishing a series of case studies to encourage all chambers to take tangible steps to making the Bar more equal, such as compulsory anti-oppression training and widening access schemes for aspiring BAME barristers.

Perhaps our most exciting new programme is the pilot reverse mentoring scheme, in which BAME Bar students and pupils mentor senior white barristers. This initiative, which is the profession’s first race equality reverse mentoring scheme, is designed to provide an insight into people’s experiences of racism by pairing individuals who might not otherwise come together. It reflects my belief that, to achieve race equality at the Bar, the onus of change needs to be on the white majority and senior ranks of the profession. I am delighted that established practising barristers are seeing the logic of the scheme, and the reasons that mentees have signed up so far have included: ‘my background has left me with sub-conscious biases that are part of my make-up’; ‘the potential to lead to the disruption of the usual way of doing things in relation to recruitment’; and ‘it seems to me clear that we just “don’t know what we don’t know”’.

One big barrier at the Bar can be misplaced competitiveness. A lack of collaborative working skills, being unsupportive of new approaches, undermining efforts of people driving change – these can negatively affect race equality outcomes. Historically we have seen how the principle of divide and rule compounds racial discrimination, yet with a higher level of maturity we can embrace change, join forces with others and use collective intellectual capital to create real long lasting impact so we don’t end up waiting for a tragedy to prompt radical change.

Whether it is by signing up for the reverse mentoring scheme or engaging in another way, such as supporting Bar Council programmes, working with the Black Barristers Network or the organisation Bridging the Bar, I very much hope that established members of the profession will lead on the issue of race equality at the Bar. Real leadership must go beyond saying the right things about race – it means being role models who approach this issue with humility, understanding the nature and extent of systemic racism at the Bar, and taking action to challenge the status quo. 

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Amit Popat

Amit Popat has a part-time role at the Bar Standards Board as Head of Equality and Access to Justice. His role aims to develop strategies that influence anti-discriminatory practice at the Bar. Amit also delivers diversity and inclusion solutions for organisations internationally.