The UK is no longer an institutionally racist country…apparently

Tomos Owen

The UK is officially no longer institutionally racist, and in fact we should be seen as a shining example to other white-majority countries when it comes to tackling racism. These were just some of the conclusions of the recent Sewell Report, published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Dr Tony Sewell, the Chairperson of the report, wrote in his foreword that, “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. He admitted that “impediments and disparities” existed, although he quickly confirmed that in their conclusion these were not to do with racism. The report was rapidly met by condemnation by various sections of society. 

One of the first to criticise the report was Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, who expressed her disappointment in the findings of the report. Her reaction to the conclusion that Britain isn’t institutionally racist was to say, “tell that to the black young mother who is four times more likely to die in childbirth than her young white neighbour, tell that to the 60% of NHS doctors and nurses who died from Covid and were black and ethnic minority workers”. David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, called the report an “insult to everybody and anybody across this country who experiences institutional racism”. Rehana Azam of the GMB Union added, “institutional racism exists, it’s the lived experience of millions of black and ethnic minority workers”. The comments go on and on, but these few highlight the common theme that the findings of the report simply don’t match the experience of those that it describes. 

When you dig into the report it is not difficult to understand why the response has been so visceral. The report itself is a 258-page document and covers various aspects of life, but there are a few key points which the authors seem to have used to make their conclusions. These include figures showing an increase in diversity in some professions, the pay gap shrinking between ethnic minorities and the white majority population, and improvements in educational attainment among ethnic minorities. Certainly, all are points that deserve commendation. They definitely demonstrate improvements in some areas and there is clearly scope to conclude this, but evidence continues to show that while improvements may have been made, institutional racism still exists. 

Although it is not like the authors have omitted statistics that suggest this – ironically this evidence is included clearly in the report. There is ample evidence actually in the report to suggest that institutional racism still exists in the UK. The report notes that there are now zero Black CEOs at any of the FTSE 100 companies, that Black and Asian women faced a substantially greater risk of dying during childbirth, that Black African men were 3.4 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than White British men, that in the year ending March 2020 Black Carribean people were almost 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people. In that same year, Black people were also arrested at a rate 3 times higher than that of White people. Do the authors of the Sewell report seriously think that these are a mark of a country that should be looked up to when it comes to fighting racism?! They certainly tried to excuse many of these statistics, on many occasions criticising the public for taking these out of context or suggesting that the way data is presented is misleading. Take the section on stop and search, and you will see that the authors point out that higher crime levels and a larger proportion of ethnic minorities in London create major disparities in the figures. However, their own graph clearly shows that stop and search rates for Black people in England & Wales, excluding those done by the Metropolitan and Greater Manchester Police (no data was available for GM Police force), from April 2019 to March 2020, were still 6 times higher than White people. 

Given the evidence that is freely available, it is pertinent to ask how the authors were able to reach the conclusion that the UK is no longer institutionally racist. However, many would say that the conclusions of the report were written on the wall as soon as it became clear who the authors would be. You need only look at comments made preceding the report by several of them. In an article written in 2010 by Dr Tony Sewell, the Chairperson of the report, he dismisses the idea of institutional racism in schools and instead suggests that the reason Black pupils were failing was because they hadn’t done their homework. In the same article, he also suggested that Black pupils were held back by a sense of victimhood and used the bizarre anecdote of how he believed he helped some of them get over 400 years of racism and slavery by offering them a Quality Street. More recently, he acknowledged racial disparities, but expressed his opinion that these may be caused by class and geography rather than racism. There is even the question of whether he should have been selected to lead the report in the first place given that in the same month that he was appointed to chair the report, he was forced to apologise for homophobic comments he made some years ago.

Others involved in the report had also expressed their opinion that institutional racism doesn’t exist in the UK or had questioned the prevalence of racism. Munira Mirza is the head of the Downing Street policy unit and set up the commission that was tasked with the report, choosing Dr Sewell to lead it. In 2018, following Theresa May’s racial disparities audit she said, “it reinforces this idea that ethnic minorities are being systematically oppressed, that there’s a sort of institutional problem, when in fact what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a liberalisation, an opening up for many people”. Dr Samir Shah, one of the authors, wrote an article for the Spectator in 2009 entitled, ‘Race is not an issue in the UK anymore’. Dr Dambisa Moyo, another author of this report and author of a book called Dead Aid, had argued that we should be phasing out aid to Africa as it only causes corruption and overreliance. There are also some among the authors that have links to the Conservative party, including Aftab Chugtai and Mercy Muroki, the former having met with Conservative members previously and the latter working for a think tank co-founded by Iain Duncan Smith and speaking at the Tory conference. 

Understanding the backgrounds of many of the authors of the report and those tasked with setting up the commission, it becomes clear that there are serious questions about whether the report was truly an objective look at racism in the UK. The authors recommend that unconscious bias training stops in workplaces, but ironically they seem to have succumbed to their own confirmation bias in their conclusions. The debate surrounding the outcome of the report continues, with several calls for the entire report to be scrapped. This includes a letter from a group of prominent Windrush campaigners, including the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, which accuses the report of completely ignoring the “atrocities” by the Home Office during the Windrush scandal. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has said that the report “isn’t credible” and that it was a “missed opportunity”. Black Lives Matter UK have also called for the report to be withdrawn immediately. 

Despite this response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that he still wishes to implement the recommendations in the report and although admitting that he didn’t agree with everything in it, there is no sign of it being withdrawn. The truth is that far from putting the issue of racism to bed in the UK the report will only fuel the debate and divide the nation further. This report was set up with the intention of concluding that the issue of racism in the UK was being overplayed and that was achieved by selecting individuals who already held these beliefs to write it. This has also now distracted from the issue of actually dealing with the racism that does exist and instead we are debating the conclusions of the report. Nonetheless, this debate will continue and pressure may continue to grow on the report being withdrawn. What is certain is that the UK still has a long way to go in tackling racism, both overt and institutional.

You can read the Sewell Report in full here

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