Confusion and outrage greeted the UK government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report. As opponents grapple with some of the more alarming findings, such as its assertion that there is little evidence of institutional racism in the UK, critiques and questions about the validity of its claims have begun to circulate widely on social media.
So, what does the report get wrong about racism in the UK, and does it get anything right?
The main arguments
From start to finish, the race commission puts huge emphasis on the “agency” of people from racial and ethnic minority groups, explaining away racial inequalities based on the choices of certain groups, or in favour of other social factors like class.
Despite the findings of other reports, it suggests that hate crime isn’t worsening but that perceptions of an increase have been influenced by internet trolling. It claims that the term “BAME” should be abandoned because it obscures specific issues among different groups; and that structural racism in work, education and elsewhere is hard to prove.
This finding on structural racism runs contrary to earlier findings such as the 1999 Macpherson inquiry report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and other more recent evidence that is yet to be adequately addressed.
Perhaps the most blatant issue is the report’s reliance on tactics that the government appears to have employed time and again: using Black and Asian representatives to minimise the credibility of racism in its many forms.
The commission’s chair, Tony Sewell, has previously dismissed the existence of systemic racism. Co-author Samir Shah has expressed similar views, and so has Mercy Muroki. Another member, Dambisa Moyo, is in favour of ending foreign aid to Africa because it creates a dependency culture. And Kemi Badenoch, the minister for equalities that the commission directly reports to, has also previously denied the existence of systemic racism. It is of little surprise then than institutional racism has been dismissed in the evaluation of the commission’s findings.
A selective view
Certain racial and ethnic groups have become wealthier in the UK in recent decades, and the commission is right to highlight that. Calls to prioritise social class are also important. But while the report appears to back an approach that looks at how class, race, gender and other social identities overlap, it stops short of accounting for how race intersects with gender, sexuality and disability.
Singling out white underachievement in education throughout the report is striking. Yet it doesn’t account for what happens afterwards in terms of employment and increasing wealth (long-term outcomes tend to be better for white graduates, for example).
Pitting white underachievement against outcomes for ethnic minority groups also echoes arguments often touted by the extreme right. Race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, describes this as playing “into cultural readings of inequality, which pitch [white people’s] interests squarely against those of ethnic minorities, and simultaneously allows middle class commentators to blame the ‘underclass’ for their own misfortunes”.
The report focuses on comparing different groups’ health, education, criminal justice and employment with what it claims is a data-driven approach. But we contend it’s ideologically driven. For instance, while high levels of COVID-19 among racial and ethnic populations are acknowledged, the roots of inequity are said to lie in socio-economic factors like living in higher population density and deprived areas and working in higher-risk occupations.
While this is undeniable, the report also stresses that disproportionate COVID-19 levels aren’t down to systemic racism, overlooking the fact that race and ethnicity significantly affect the jobs and housing some groups can get in the first place.
There are several other shortcomings. There’s hardly any mention of the racialisation of religion in Islamophobia; one mention of the “glass ceiling”; nothing on white dominance in the upper echelons of society; and no attempt to critically examine or expunge the British empire’s legacies, for example the names of national honours. Rather, the report vaguely refers to the “inflows and outflows” that connect the British empire with Commonwealth countries, along with one controversial reference to the effects of the “slave period” on the “re-modelled African/Britain”.
Campaigner Patrick Vernon said the report’s efforts to belittle slavery, colonisation and the resulting injustices to millions of people as “the equivalent of a Holocaust denier being asked to develop a strategy on antisemitism. Half the people on the commission do not understand the history of Britain, the impact and implications of enslavement, or modern-day racism”.
The report erases the language used to understand how race works, such as recommendations to stop using the term “white privilege” and to replace it with “affinity bias”, because it’s “alienating” to white people who don’t accept that they’re “privileged by their skin colour”.
It supports a divide-and-rule approach that propagates tensions within and between groups, such as suggestions that “minorities who have been long established in a country … in a context of racial and socio-economic disadvantage”, are held back because of a lack of optimism about social mobility and education, whereas “immigration optimism” from groups newer to the UK means they’re less likely to face prejudice.
In response, Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, has said that it seems that for ethnic minority groups, “if we succeed it’s on us. If we fail, it’s on us. The state has no collective duty of care on our outcomes if they are disproportionate”.
The timing of the report’s release couldn’t be more opportune in the wake of widely reported accusations of racism within British royalty and the establishment at large. Such rumblings threaten Brexit Britain’s international standing, especially with Commonwealth countries, with some reconsidering their continuing membership.
All this just a few days before Boris Johnson makes his trip to India to cement alliances in the east. As widespread criticism mounts, the bottom line is that although it gets a handful of things right, overall the commission’s report lacks credibility.
Raminder Kaur does not work for or benefit from any of the organisations mentioned in the article. She receives funding from the ESRC, AHRC and Leverhulme Trust for her academic research.
Gill Margaret Hague does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.