Why white men jump higher

The Conservatives have selected a new candidate for Croydon South, one of their safest seats. He’s white and male, and he won on merit. But does the merit-o-meter need recalibration?

Congratulations to Chris Philp, a businessman once hailed as having the Midas touch. After winning a lengthy selection process, he will be the Conservative candidate in Croydon South. Welcome to parliament, Mr Philp. Croydon South is one of the safest Tory seats in London.

I want to be careful, because it is clear that Conservatives in Croydon went out of their way to be rigorous and to find the right candidate. And he is no slouch. But there is a ripple of concern because the party is keen to find itself more female MPs and minorities, and they had both on the longlist and shortlist, yet the only candidate on the shortlist who was neither won. He won on merit, the local party says. Fair enough. He does have the Midas touch. The problem is that when a member of the majority dominant group holds position – whether it is who gets that job, or who gets that promotion or who gets that place at Oxbridge – it is always said to be on the basis of merit. Good luck to him. But does the merit-o-meter – a human device – need recalibration?

Following his inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, Sir William Macpherson redefined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”, adding: “It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” It describes a sort of Bermuda Triangle of decision-making. Individuals behave in a way they might assess as perfectly proper, and yet the collective result is to be regretted.

Does the concept encompass other areas of difference? What unwitting processes are at play when we determine merit, for this too involves collective judgment by decent folk acting “objectively”. Is it that the person assessed fulfils the task effectively, or that they operate effectively in a way I find reassuring – in whole or in part because they or their modus operandi remind me of me?

A thousand micro-thoughts combine to determine why I may prefer one person to another – some helpful, some not so. Those building blocks need perpetual re-examination. Merit as a principle, everyone will sign up to that. But the devil is in the detail.

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