Solutions to Inequality

The case for addressing prejudice to address inequality, and some ideas on how we move forward

Part 3 of the blog series Solutions to Inequality, bringing together inspiring policy ideas and initiatives delivering greater equality from around the world.


Undoing the prejudices we have against each other — whether because of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation — is perhaps one of the hardest challenges of achieving equality. Throughout history prejudice against groups has been politicized. Yes, prejudice is an issue of humanity and respect, but it is also a political tool by which to divide. It is a simple equation for a cynical politician — get the majority to hate the same group through demonization and fearmongering and commit to addressing these myths when you get into power. Lately, it feels like the issue has become even harder to solve because fighting economic inequality (income and wealth gaps) has been pitted against challenging group or identity-based inequality within political narratives.

The argument goes something like this: by asking for women’s equality, gay rights, trans rights, racial equality or any other form of group-based rights, you are somehow fighting against more attention and better material conditions for the working class. You are the enemy of the majority, and only there to posture for groups of people who are taking up too much political space. You are, in countries such as the UK and the US, the “woke mob.” We are in a deeply damaging phony war of the working class vs the “woke-ing” class — but there is, (a) nothing wrong with being “woke,” if that simply means being aware of structural disadvantages certain groups have faced; and, (b) group-based inequalities and economic inequalities do not contradict each other, rather they overlap, with many of us fighting against both.

You are probably thinking of Trump, Johnson, Modi, and Bolsonaro, as key proponents of this narrative, but it is much wider than that. Our work in different countries means we are aware of aspects of this narrative emerging in South Korea, Sweden, and even the country dubbed as one of the “happiest” places on planet Earth — Costa Rica. This pitting of different forms of equality against each other has become central to the playbook used by those who would like to sow division in order to distract from the activities of the richest. For those of us who want to address all inequalities in society, finding a way to counter this narrative is key to the implementation of not just equality legislation and greater solidarity between groups — but policies from higher taxes on the rich to greater investment in childcare.

Even before the current divisive narrative, the separation made between group-based inequality and economic inequality has always annoyed me. A focus on the former without the latter means that politicians are able to put a few more female or minority ethnic faces at the top without addressing the economic system that puts low-income workers — who are usually disproportionately discriminated ethnic and racial groups, women, and migrants — in perpetual poverty. Structural inequalities are thus “dressed up” by some limited representation that the wider group does not get any tangible gain from. On the other hand, tackling economic inequality without considering who ends up where in the economic hierarchy and why, misses issues of prejudice which will take more than redistribution measures to combat. You simply can’t and shouldn’t separate these issues.

Take the issue of care. Radically shifting the economy to address low-paid or unpaid care work means having to confront gender stereotypes. That women are paid so poorly to do what has historically been considered “women’s work” is because of misogyny and prejudice. I always say that the economy is sexist and racist because the economy reflects society and our prejudices. So not only do we need to consider how we bring group-based and economic inequality together better in our framing of the issue, but we also need to consider both in our solutions.

So, what can we do to truly tackle group-based inequalities in society, and what can we do about this divisive narrative that is beating back progressives in large parts of the world? We asked three thinkers and activists in different parts of the world — South Africa, Colombia, and Europe — to draw on their local experiences to tell us how we can see progress on this issue. Despite geographic location, there was significant overlap in conclusions about the need for both policies to redistribute resources as well as recognize historic injustices. Investment in public services, closing wealth and income gaps, sustained and meaningful mechanisms of dialogue and peacebuilding, legal protections and access to justice were themes across the papers. The central importance of civil society in giving voice to marginalized groups and holding governments to account was also repeated across papers, with the Colombia case study of protests last year a potent example of grassroots action.

South African, Masana Mulaudzi, refers to literature on contact theory, which looks at how regular mixing with people of different races and ethnicities can help to break stereotypes and build understanding. While there is evidence for this as a valuable action, the evidence is also clear that this works best when there is mixing among equals — i.e. only mixing with someone of another ethnicity when they are cleaning, caring, or cooking for you is not sufficient!

Someone recently sent me a paper that highlighted how the Liverpool football club player Mo Salah had worked wonders for reducing anti-Muslim hatred online, but the problem with this ‘good immigrant’ approach to winning people over is that (1) you have to rely on someone superhuman to come along; and (2) what if he starts playing badly? Just look at the surge in racism directed at England football players when they missed penalties at the Euros in 2021. Yes, community solutions and footballers can help, but we need something far more macro to counter hate and tackle inequality.

In Sivamohan Valluvan and Leon Sealey-Huggins’ paper on the rise of ethno-nationalism in Europe, which delves into some of the narrative issues discussed in this blog, there is a helpful list on the actions that can be taken to counter ethno-nationalism — school curriculums that encourage empathy and provide historic context, tackling fearmongering and lies in the media, and a call for political leaders to resist cheap, short-term anti-immigration scapegoating. I would add that we desperately need a clear and visible effective counter-narrative that emphasizes the shared struggles and points the finger at the role some powerful politicians and their elite friends have in society. To be given the power and time to apply policies to ameliorate inequalities of all kinds, we need to win people’s hearts and minds and make them believe in a better society — for that we need a compelling, unifying, and hopeful story to tell.

The Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion will be doing in-depth work on progressive narratives in the coming months so watch this space…



Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Inequality Program Lead at NYU’s Pathfinders & Visiting Professor in Practice at LSE’s Institute for International Inequalities (III)