Is it right to ask university and job applicants their ethnic origin?
The second day in the university, I wanted to register with the medical centre. I had to fill in a form asking me about my address, previous diseases and allergies. At the bottom of the page there was a field where I had to tick a box confirming which ethnic background I had. I considered the filling in of that form to be up to my own knowledge and conscience and as I had never been asked such a question before I left the box blank and handed the form to the lady seated at the desk. She scanned through what I had filled in and gave it back to me: “You must fill in your ethnic origin,” she said. I told her I did not know what my ethnic origin was and that I had never been asked that before – not mentioning that I was utterly confused by the many choices I had. Of course, I knew I was white. But I was not ‘White English’ or ‘White Scottish’ or ‘White Welsh’, which was certain. She said: “You are from Germany? So you are ‘White Other’.” Now, that really killed me. I ticket the corresponding box and discomposedly went outside, wondering what difference it would make to define my ethnic background this specifically. And, if she knew I was from Germany and thus my ethnic origin was ‘White Other’, why did I have to tick the box then? Can’t she guess it herself? What was the use of that anyway?
One reason that medical centers like the one at the University of Bath ask their patients about their ethnic background is that certain groups of people are more likely to come down with certain diseases than others. “Some diseases are much commoner among some ethnic groups than others. Sickle cell anemia is common among Africans, while hemochromatosis, an iron metabolism disorder, occurs in 7.5 percent of Swedes” (Wade). In recent times a lot of experiments have been realized with a special focus on the ‘race’. This was done, however, to find out more about the occurrence of special diseases among certain groups. The experiments vary from simply asking the participants about their and their family’s previous diseases to even analyzing the genes of the tested persons using high standard modern research methods. In that way, scientists and medics found out and proved a number of interesting facts. “Twenty six [...] of 96 patients dying from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the Paris EU 10683 Mod. Brit. Society Ethnic Origin Katja Buthut, 06/07 metropolitan area between 1968 and 1982 were born in foreign countries [and] [t]he annual mortality rate of Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease in this group of foreign-born cases [...] was twice that of French-born residents [...]” (Cathala). An experiment in the State of New York, USA, in the late eighties showed that “[w]hite children in [a] lower socioeconomic area had the most unfavorable risk factor profile” (Walter) regarding coronary heart diseases and compared to an assimilable group of black children. And in the end, “[p]remenopausal black women have a 2- to 3-fold greater rate of coronary heart disease (CHD) than premenopausal white women” (Gerard). It is therefore useful for the doctor to know of what ethnic origin his patient is.
Even though there are some critics of the denomination ‘race’ to label an ethnic group – meaning that “race is a cultural idea, not a biological one” (Wade) – one cannot ignore the differences between people of different origin. And, be it a socio-cultural or a biological name, whenever there were visible differences between two groups, history has shown that the less potential or less powerful one would be at least discriminated against by the other one. That is why “[i]n 1992, the General Assembly [of the United Nations] adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities” (United Nations). In our modern society it has become unusual for a state to be a mono-ethnic state, meaning a state “where a distinct national group corresponds to a territorial unit” (United Nations). It is therefore necessary for the government of the particular state to help to protect their ethnic minorities and make their culture be a part of the whole nation’s culture. The twentieth century, regrettably, ethnic conflicts appeared frequently on the agenda: East Timor, Burundi, Croatia. In the case of the Roma a solution is still out of reach because they still suffer from discrimination in large fields of many societies, in particular in Eastern Europe and North Africa. As ignorance towards the fate of Roma has been, and still is, a part of the cultural tradition in many countries, “discrimination against the Roma was often seen as natural or normal” (United Nations). This is just an example, but to avoid this kind of discrimination governments have a number of possibilities acording to the United Nations’ Charta:
Other positives action taken by States include: legislative measures that introduce higher maximum penalties for racially motivated crimes; the use of ethnic monitoring to ascertain the number of persons of particular ethnic and national origin in various kinds of employment and the setting of targets to increase the employment of persons of minority origins in fields where they were underrepresented; the establishment of new advisory bodies on matters relevant to EU 10683 Mod. Brit. Society Ethnic Origin Katja Buthut, 06/07 combating racism and intolerance, including the launching and implementation public awareness campaigns intended to prevent racial discrimination and increase tolerance; and the establishment of human rights institutions and ombudspersons for ethnic and racial equality. (United Nations) As it can be observed, the “use of ethnic monitoring” is a recommendation by the United Nations to ensure the protection and integration of ethnic minorities into the states they live in. And it is being made use of by many British county councils, for example the Buckinghamshire County Council, which can be found on the web. “The County council is committed to providing services to those who need them without discrimination. Therefore, we need to know whether or not our services are being used by everyone who is entitled to them [...] If we are serving Buckinghamshire residents well, we would expect to see people from all sections of the community using our services [...] Ethnic monitoring can help us identify if a particular group are not using a service. We can then take steps to make that service more accessible” (Buckinghamshire County Council).
Now, compared to other countries, I have lived in so far, these arguments seem to me to be very elaborate and justified. In Russia, where I have lived some time, I was never asked my ethnic origin, neither for these purposes nor for others. The only question was where I was from and even that was not a question people would pose you directly, thus respecting your right to ‘categorize’ yourself before being judged by accent, outward appearance or skin color by others. Many officials would simply assume I was German and hence set their stamp on my front; which, I must admit, is also a form of discrimination. Even more, this fact adds to explaining why Russia still cannot manage to solve their problems in Chechnya. In Germany, too, this concept of ethnic monitoring is widely unknown. People will consider it an insult if asked their ethnic background. The ethnic origin is just as private to, for example, an applicant as the question whether he or she suffers from a grave disease like AIDS or is pregnant. But this is another story; in Germany, we still suffer from our stigma and thus do not allow ourselves to ask the question of the ethnic origin, which to the present day leaves us with problems integrating our own ethnic minorities.
To conclude I have to say that after having dealt with this topic I approve the advantages of ethnic monitoring very much but it still leaves me with the question why in our modern enlightened society it is necessary to ask such question, if not because we still have not learned to accept what is different.