Boy Scouts fail the tolerance test

I'm glad I'm not an American teenager going to an Alternative Youth Adventures Program in Colorado this sweltering summer. This camp sets out "to teach youths about the consequences of their actions by forcing them to rough it in the woods", a helpful man in Denver explains. "If campers refuse to put up tents, for example, they may be left out in the rain." So idealistic an American notion, naturally, was bound to end in tears. And so it did last Tuesday amid headlines such as "Youth camp mutiny investigated", and reports of emergency squads of police being pelted with rocks and stones.

Good luck to those youths while they still have some spirit of independence left, I can't help feeling. Here, meanwhile, is a related quiz. To which organisation did two-thirds of current US senators and 208 members of Congress belong? Which has also had more than 110 million members, including three million today? Which is in the throes of bitter controversy? The answer: the Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910 and chartered by Congress in 1916. And now, ever since a 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court last summer which upheld the organisation's right to exclude homosexuals, the American Boy Scouts are facing a mounting crisis: membership has dropped by more than 4 per cent on the West Coast, by 8 per cent on the East.

Most Americans believe boy scouts to be a quintessentially US notion, as irrefutably American as apple pie. Very few, I suspect, know it to be yet another Brit import, courtesy of Sir Robert Baden-Powell. But while churchgoing and clean living were very much Baden-Powell's tenets, in America, church affiliation has never been required for membership - although, paradoxically, members are required to believe in God. Gays have always been excluded, either as members or leaders - and, despite laws prohibiting discrimination against lesbians and homosexuals in 244 localities and 13 states across the country, the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling means the law still excludes gays.

In the Eighties and Nineties, such rulings hardly ruffled the feathers of the Scout movement. But in the 21st century, last year's ruling has already had a powerful effect. Steven Spielberg, an Eagle Scout, resigned from the national advisory board, insisting he could no longer be part of a group that practises "intolerance and discrimination". The head of the Scouts in New York dismissed the movement's leadership as "a bunch of rednecks". Seven groups in Oak Park, Illinois, announced that they would accept gays - only to be expelled promptly by headquarters. At least one teenage Boy Scout, struggling with his homosexuality, tried to commit suicide.

The 317 local chapters of the Girl Scouts of the USA, meanwhile, have managed to dodge the issue by adopting a mixture of Queen Victoria's "lesbianism doesn't exist" approach and Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the US military. The official position of the Girl Scouts, in fact, is to let each of the 317 local councils sort it all out by themselves. Membership rose from 2.5 million in 1998 to 2.8 million last year - in part, at least, because of ferocious Girl Scout cookie sellers.

But when it comes to boys, American parents are less sanguine: having a son taken camping by a gay man is an altogether less welcome prospect than a daughter being taken by a gay woman. Private polling by the BSA indicates that as many as 30 per cent of parents are coming round to the view that gays must not be excluded, but many are cynical about the genuineness of this data: "Would you allow your son to be taken out camping into the woods by a [gay man]?" is the immediate rejoinder to most of those proposing a relaxation in the approach. And the at-least anecdotal response of most parents? "No way."

As with so many American issues, it will all probably finally boil down to money. The Mormon and Roman Catholic Churches (which between them sponsor 750,000 Scouts) support the no-gays rule, but Baptist and Anglican Churches have now asked the Scouts to rethink. The Methodist Church sponsors the most Scouts, at 417,000 - followed closely by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which sponsors 411,000. No church can afford to fail to put its money where its mouth is, especially where so inflammatory a subject as homosexuals in scouting is concerned.

Perhaps seeing this storm brewing, some corporate donors - such as CVS, a huge, mainly East Coast chain of pharmacies - has stopped supporting the BSA altogether, as has Levi Strauss. Wells Fargo and Fleet Banks have cut back on funding. But other major US financial institutions - the Chase Manhattan Bank and Merrill Lynch, for example - have, so far, shown no sign of stepping back funding. In a way that scouting never did in Britain, it has really entered the bloodstream of society here, producing such alumni as not just Spielberg but Neil Armstrong, Ross Perot and Gerald Ford.

But I'm afraid I have always had an aversion to grown men who voluntarily choose to dress up in uniforms; and my only actual experience of Boy Scouting here was in the Cubs section, where I watched fathers almost literally fight each other over their sons' Pinewood Derby races of cars that the seven-year-old boys had supposedly whittled themselves out of wood. At least the Boy Scouts is an altogether healthier operation than these "tough-love" camps.

And let us spare a thought for the 14-year-old in Arizona last month who, hallucinating after being forced to stand in the desert sun because he wanted to go home, was left to drown in a bath.


Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The Murdochs: a family saga

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.