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31 May 2023

Ethnic and racial inequality in the UK: a comment from a German perspective

The minority population in the UK is more diverse than in Germany, where the population with an immigrant background has long been shaped by the legacy of the immigration of guest workers mostly from countries such as Turkey, Italy, Spain, Greece and the former Yugoslavia. In general, the academic and societal debates focus on ‘ethnic inequality’ related to immigration rather than on ‘racial inequality, though the topic of racial disadvantage and discrimination has gained importance in recent years. Over time, inflows have diversified in terms of countries of origin and skill levels. Education-wise, the share of individuals with tertiary education is now higher among newcomers than in the majority population (Sprengholz et al., 2021). Nonetheless, research on immigrants’ structural integration in the education system and the labour market still focuses on explaining the persistent disadvantages of some origin groups. The countless studies on ethnic inequality in these areas have yielded some robust findings. Most importantly, the majority of children with an immigration background – this includes many German-born children – come from households with rather low levels of education. This educational disadvantage is passed from generation to generation, a process that is reinforced by the German education system where early tracking – that is, sorting children into different academic and non-academic paths at a young age (after fourth grade when the children are about 10 years old) – is the norm.

The so-called ‘primary effects’ of children’s socio-economic backgrounds (parental socio-economic status) play an important role in this transmission process: most importantly and much as in non-immigrant families, at the onset of primary school, children whose parents have low formal education already have lower academic competencies. In addition, many school children are not yet proficient in German because of the processes of ethnic replenishment (Esser, 2003), which refers to the ongoing immigration of spouses who join co-ethnic but native-born partners in the destination country (i.e. individuals who belong to the ‘second generation’ of immigrants). As a consequence, many families speak a language other than German at home. Some of the children who grow up in these households lag behind in terms of their German language skills, even though they were born in Germany. This, in turn, hampers their academic success. With respect to the secondary effects of children’s socio-economic backgrounds, however, we see advantages for immigrants. The term ‘secondary effects’ refers to educational choices that systematically differ by parental socio-economic background – even at similar levels of academic competencies. While these secondary effects usually mean that native children of parents who have a low socio-economic status make less ambitious choices, this is not the case for immigrants. Ceteris paribus, they are more likely to choose more ambitious educational tracks than native children (Dollmann, 2017). However, these positive secondary effects do not fully make up for the disadvantages related to the lower competencies of immigrant children.

These educational disadvantages also shape immigrants’ integration into the labour market later in life. Controlling for the level of education explains much of the difference in occupational status between immigrants and native Germans, even though gaps may persist in earnings and unemployment. The remaining gaps partly reflect a lack of social ties to members of majority groups, which can be helpful in acquiring important information, for example, about job vacancies (Lancee and Hartung, 2012; Kalter and Kogan, 2014). A French study shows, for example, that language courses increase labour force participation partly through access to better information about the labour market and application procedures (Lochmann et al., 2018). Some authors point out that cultural factors also hamper labour market integration, especially for religious Muslim women (Koopmans, 2016). Still others emphasise that discrimination contributes to ongoing disadvantage, especially for women wearing a hijab and for young men entering the system of vocational training (Diehl, Friedrich and Hall, 2009; Weichselbaumer, 2020). Overall, however, empirical evidence suggests that ethnic and racial inequality in Germany primarily reflects low levels of education that are transmitted from the first generation of immigrants to the second generation (Diehl and Granato, 2018).

I will discuss some findings from the chapter by Mirza and Warwick (2022) against this backdrop. What renders the comparison with the UK particularly interesting and worthwhile is that in the UK, there is a greater heterogeneity in terms of immigrants’ overall skill level, their cultural background and their ‘visibility’. As a consequence, the overall picture is more complex than in Germany. One challenge in comparing both countries is that – reflecting different understandings of belonging and nationhood – some figures in the report do not differentiate between native and foreign-born. In the following, I discuss findings from a German perspective in four areas: gender differences in labour market inequality, tertiary education, the role of discrimination in explaining inequality and the COVID-19 crisis.