The senior female colleague with whom I share an office has a perennial complaint. When a call is put through from the switchboard on a land line, the assumption made by the caller is that she is my office assistant rather than one of the country’s foremost business writers and broadcasters.
Decades after the feminist movement, there is still an unconscious bias that a woman working alongside a man must be in charge of his diary.
Many of us in the Jewish community have experienced some form of conscious bias. One of my fellow classmates was constantly greeted with the refrain ‘Jewish boys can’t paint.’ Antisemitism, as the community has learnt to its cost, is as rampant on the far left as it is among the right-wing populist parties in the EU.
There is nothing unconscious about comments by Bristol University Professor David Miller suggesting Jewish student groups on campus are used ‘as political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing.’
Similarly, there may be ignorance but there is nothing unconscious about lesbian couples being brutally assaulted on a London bus or Jews, wearing kippot, being abused as they head to synagogue. Such attacks on ethnic minorities or people with different sexual preferences is a consequence of overt prejudice.
There can be very few among us Jews who have not faced unconscious bias or, for that matter, are not immune to such tendencies in ourselves. While we may recognise it exists, the idea that students and faculty alike at Oxford University and elsewhere should be required to go through a form of unconscious bias training has kicked off such a raw public debate.
As a correspondent in the US, one of my early assignments was to cover a coal miners’ strike in Western Pennsylvania. My guide was a well-educated, thoughtful and hospitable secretary general of the union. It all went swimmingly well including a weekend visit to his log cabin up in the hills. As we relaxed by the fire, my host – seeing me only as an English journalist – embarked on a tirade about how the Jews and Israel controlled capitalism and the world. He clearly liked my company but had an unconscious bias against Jews. I am not sure a training course at an Oxford college could ever have eradicated such a deeply-held belief.
The truth is that society is riddled with unconscious bias. More than two decades after the Macpherson report and its finding of ‘institutional racism’ in the Metropolitan Police, a black driver is far more likely to be pulled over than a white one. In our own community, the commonly-held view that Charedim are the main vectors of coronavirus and we should cross the road when a Chasid comes our way is also a form of unconscious bias.
However, unconscious judgements are made about people for the way they speak, where they went to school, whether they prefer football to rugby and from whence they come.
In the Jewish community, we tend to assume the bias is conscious. Jeremy Corbyn is an interesting case. He has long proclaimed there is not a racist bone in his body. That’s because his anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish tendencies are largely unconscious. He and his followers may have adopted ancient tropes without realising it.
The movement to eradicate unconscious bias at Oxford is seen by many as just another example of ‘woke’ politically correct culture. It almost certainly is. But if one really believed that, with training, deep-seated prejudices about Jews, Muslims, Old Etonians, immigrants, Yorkshire and LGBT people et al could be tackled, maybe – just maybe – they could be supported.