Howard Beckett is the deputy leader of the largest trade union in the UK, a frontrunner in the race to be its new leader, and the elected representative of the country’s unions on the executive of the UK Labour Party. On Friday, May 14th, the party suspended Beckett, and he was reported to the police for tweeting this about the Home Secretary, a woman of Ugandan Asian descent:
Although its use in the US dates back to the 1960s Black Power movement, the phrase “institutional racism” gained political currency on this side of the Atlantic following an official investigation into events surrounding the racially motivated murder of a black British teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993. The report produced by this inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan police force investigating that murder was guilty of:
…a collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. [Institutional racism] can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
Now, 22 years later, a senior elected representative in two of the most powerful institutions of the establishment Left has invoked the phrase to justify telling a non-white woman occupying one of the three great offices of state that she should be expelled from the country of her birth. For a segment of the self-proclaimed Left, the words “institutional racism” conjure a threat so cryptic that it requires no evidence, and so evil that it excuses overt racism. Beckett deleted the tweet, but his subsequent apology is even more revealing. “I’m very sorry for my earlier tweet,” he wrote. “I was angry to see Muslim Refugees being deported on the morning of Eid Al Fitr.” At the time of writing, the immigrants in question are believed to be Sikhs, not Muslims; but such distinctions matter little to a particular kind of crusader.
On March 31st, the British government’s 258-page report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) was released. From the start, prominent figures and institutions with an interest in UK race relations savaged the report, which they alleged denied the existence of institutional racism, and attacked its non-white authors, sometimes in unambiguously racist terms. On April 21st, after three weeks of ferocious reaction from ostensibly progressive race activists, academics, and campaign groups, the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch commended the report to the UK Parliament and defended its authors against “deeply personal and racialised attacks … which have included death threats.” In the session itself, she added that it was “disgusting” of Labour MP Dawn Butler to refer to its authors as “racial gatekeepers.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of the commission in June of last year, after protests in the UK following the killing of George Floyd. That its findings provoked controversy was not surprising in itself. Such reports often split observers—at least, those the media seek out—along tribal lines. Tribes generally prefer to broadcast their allegiance rather than illuminate the issue in question. Even by the dismal standards of such discourse, however, the vicious rhetoric that the report, or an imagined version of this report, elicited was remarkable. But it is also true in the UK that things do—usually, eventually—get done. If you have a personal interest in the material outcomes of a government report’s recommendations, it’s worth paying attention to those recommendations. In UK politics, unelected members of commissions often make bigger differences to real lives than MPs.
My own personal interest is that I am an immigrant from Nigeria with one black African (Sierra Leonean) parent. Because I also have one white English-born (Lancastrian) parent, and because I like it here, I am a UK citizen. But the aspects of life the report considers—education, the workplace, crime, and health—affect everyone, and the report tries to examine the lot of all racial/ethnic groups in the UK, including white, native-born Britons. So, why did those who claim to care about racial disparities obsess about what they thought the report’s authors said, especially about “institutional racism,” but ignore the things those authors wanted done?
Even before the commissioners had begun their deliberations, accounts of their remit were misleading. On July 16th, 2020, the BBC reported that “[Boris Johnson] wanted to ‘change the narrative’ to highlight stories of success among those from ethnic minority backgrounds and ‘stop a sense of victimisation and discrimination.’” It would be charitable to call this a half-truth. Johnson’s words were part of an off-the-cuff answer to a media question about what he personally wanted to do to tackle racism, from which the BBC omitted crucial lines: “What I really want to do as prime minister is change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination. We stamp out racism, and we start to have a real sense of expectation of success. That’s where I want to get to, but it won’t be easy—we’ll have to look very carefully at the real racism and discrimination that people face.”
The BBC’s account, with the PM’s determination to tackle racism excised, was then reproduced by other media outlets. This provoked an accusation of “condescension” from the opposition’s Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities (a representative of the party that promised “only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people” during the 2017 general election) and launched the false belief that the government’s real preoccupation was attacking grievance-mongering, not racism.
The new commission was overseen by Kemi Badenoch and chaired by Tony Sewell. Like most of his colleagues, Sewell was, on paper, well-qualified for the task to which he was appointed. He occupies a senior position in his field (education), sits on a number of boards, has received various honours for his work, and has a record of practical involvement in advancing minority Britons’ studies and careers. What views he has expressed on controversial subjects have tended toward the “small-c” conservative. All but one of the commissioners is a member of a non-white minority group.
Regardless of the media and government spin, the stated aims of the report were made clear in its terms of reference:
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will review inequality in the UK … [It] will set out a new, positive agenda for change—balancing the needs of individuals, communities and society, maximising opportunities and ensuring fairness for all. In order to understand why disparities exist, what works and what does not, the Commission will consider detailed quantitative data and qualitative evidence, commissioning new research and inviting submissions where necessary.
But, like its critics, Johnson’s government was not above spinning its own report in misleading ways for political purposes. As the BBC put it:
The commission’s report runs to 258 pages, but some conclusions had been briefed to the media in advance of its publication on Wednesday.
These included a call to ditch the commonly-used acronym BAME (black and minority ethnic) and data on the improving educational attainment of people from most ethnic minority backgrounds.
But perhaps the most controversial finding, and the one that grabbed the most headlines, was that the UK was not institutionally racist.
One source we spoke to praised the handling of the report “from a comms perspective.”
He said [the Prime Minister’s office] knew that a row was going to be inevitable so by briefing key elements of a contentious report in advance, it had allowed that row to take place on the government’s terms.
“The government knows how uncomfortable it is for Labour to have those debates,” said the source. “Some people feel their history and culture is being trashed by the Left.”
If the briefing was a trap, many of the report’s critics fell into it and attacked the briefing claims alone. In fact, at no point does the document offer any comprehensive declaration about institutional racism in the UK. Indeed, it repeatedly identifies racism as a real and persistent problem. In the specific case of exclusion and suspension of pupils from schools, the authors note that a different government report, the 2019 Timpson Review of School Exclusion, “found no evidence of systemic or institutional racism” in the pattern of school exclusions. Nevertheless, the commissioners go on to write: “…even when the Timpson Review used ‘new odds ratios’ and controlled for other factors, permanent exclusion rates continued to remain high for Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils.”
The report’s very first policy recommendation reads:
Challenge racist and discriminatory actions
The Commission recommends that, to aid endeavours to drive out race-based discrimination and prejudice:
- the EHRC receives additional, ring-fenced funding from the government to use their compliance, enforcement and litigation powers to challenge policies or practices that either cause significant and unjust racial disadvantage, or arise from racial discrimination. [My emphasis]
- separately, Government should consider the complex issue of online abuse, and the platforms that are used to perpetuate such, as a public policy priority.
This text is reprinted and enclosed in a purple box on page 37, in case anyone missed it the first time. It seems silly to have to point this out, but the report is unlikely to recommend action to tackle something its authors believe does not exist. To the contrary, the report leads with practical anti-racist recommendations for action, even before it examines any evidence of racism. The report does, however, insist that the phrase “institutional racism” should be more clearly defined in order to obtain better data on discrimination, and—more provocatively—for “motivational” purposes: the authors believe that telling minorities the deck is stacked against them is demoralising.
The report does also recommend that the term “BAME” be “disaggregated,” because distinguishing between racial/ethnic subgroups will help to clarify the complex picture of relative disadvantage. (The term also insults those to whom it refers by lumping them together into an undifferentiated bloc—just as white racists have long done with this country’s diverse immigrant populations.) And the authors reject the term “white privilege.” While the they concede that “there is something … in the idea that even in a relatively open society like today’s UK a psychological comfort can be derived from looking like the majority of people around you,” they warn that the phrase:
…is undoubtedly alienating to those who do not feel especially privileged by their skin colour. Phrases like “White privilege” and “White fragility” imply that it is White people’s attitudes and behaviours that primarily cause the disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities. It also reinforces the perception that being an ethnic minority in the UK is to be treated unfairly by default. The evidence we have studied does not support this.
Instead, the report demands better data and more rigorous research to determine why some groups do better than others in education, and to identify the causes of “ethnic pay disparities.” It recommends collecting better information, including camera footage, on interactions between the public and the police. The authors declare they are sceptical of prevailing approaches they say are unproven—no more money should be spent on “unconscious bias training” because the evidence for its effectiveness in reducing racial discrimination is negligible. Over and over again, the report insists on evidence before accusation:
It is very difficult to measure the extent to which an organisation’s culture is inclusive or biased, but we feel it is important to shift discussions about systemic or structural racism onto more objective foundations. Rooting these terms in observable metrics gives us the chance to not only measure how people feel, but also analyse both the causes and where things are getting better.
For this reason, the report refuses to accept that disparity equals discrimination and makes a point of exploring other plausible explanations for differences between UK subpopulations. In general, it recommends a practical and positive approach. Not only is the glass half-full, but more water should be added. Its recommendations on policing, for instance, eschew condemnation and withdrawal in favour of increased spending on partnership and oversight. In this respect, the report lives up to its government hype. Indeed, it echoes the Prime Minister’s full, unmanipulated pre-launch declaration of intent, and has what Sunder Katwala of British Future called, in his critique of the report, “an optimism bias.”
The reaction from much of the Left was apoplectic to the point of incoherence. On Twitter, where respected public figures go to destroy their reputations, two Shadow Ministers engaged in a brief exchange that made them look like distraught teenagers commiserating on Tumblr:
Thank you for all you do, it is so so awful you've been made to feel this way.
— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) March 31, 2021
David Lammy was once a Minister in Gordon Brown’s government, but he couldn’t bring himself to engage with the substance of the report or its recommendations, relying instead on the kind of performative self-pity and activist jargon that is the common currency of social media virality. He was duly rewarded with nearly 9,000 retweets. If Lammy cannot even talk in public about the grave problems he claims to care so much about, God forbid he should actually do anything about them were he to find himself back in government.
Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge University don and professor of Post-Colonial Studies who tried to get the porters at her university into trouble for failing to address her by her preferred honorific, elected to cast doubt on Dr Sewell’s own credentials. Corrected, Prof Gopal compared him to Hitler’s notorious propagandist, Joseph Goebbels:
Okay, established. It is, in fact, Dr Sewell.
Fair enough. Even Dr Goebbels had a research PhD.
— Priyamvada Gopal (@PriyamvadaGopal) April 1, 2021
Clive Lewis, a former Opposition front-bencher and former candidate for leader of the Labour Party, invoked cross-burning Klansmen:
— Clive Lewis MP (@labourlewis) March 31, 2021
The UK’s semi-official, 2016-vintage Black Lives Matter campaigning group—not to be confused with the more recent, semi-official 2020-vintage one—branded the report’s creators “house slaves.” An article posted on the organisation’s website and bylined Janet Powe denounced “Tory racists and their little helpers” and declared that “the commission wants to eradicate all mention of racial inequality, as seen in one of its centrepiece proposals, which is to end the use of the term ‘BAME’ in the public sector.” Across Twitter, the report’s authors found themselves condemned as “coons”—a racist slur I thought had fallen into disuse by the end of the 1980s.
Several ostensibly sober judgements of the report’s content tried the bold gambit of complaining that the report ignored “lived experience,” while, at the same time, objecting to its statistical approach on grounds of insufficient rigour. Never mind your endogenous control variables; feel our anecdotes. Sonia Sodha, a leader writer at the Observer, and Kalwant Bhopal in the Guardian both attacked the report on this basis. Bhopal—whose Guardian bio describes her as a “professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham and author of White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society.”—had this to say:
One of the claims made by this report is that white working-class children trail behind their peers in almost all ethnic minority groups. Once socioeconomic status is “controlled for,” the authors write, “all major ethnic groups perform better than White British pupils except for Black Caribbean pupils.” Yet while statistics such as these can be useful for mapping broad trends, they are far from perfect. Statistics are shaped by the assumptions, theories and interests of authors. They aren’t neutral, and they can introduce unintended biases.
Attempting to “control” for different factors is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how racism works. Often, various statistical factors, such as people’s socioeconomic status or geographic location, are themselves products of racism. For example, if a survey into educational attainment controlled for poverty, it might look, on paper at least, as if racism played less of a significant role. But this ignores the reality that poverty is often inherently related to racism, and is disproportionately experienced in the UK by ethnic minorities.
She adds that “the more factors that are ‘controlled for’ in statistics, the less impact any one of those factors carries … In this way, statistics can be used to explain away racism and underplay its significance.” But, as I will show later, whatever its foreword says, in the body and conclusion of the document, this is almost always the opposite of what the Sewell report does. It is also the opposite of what the report’s most effective critics do—attacking the report by using the technique Prof Bhopal dismisses.
Most of the statistical critiques nod to an article by Kings College London economics professor, Jonathan Portes, in the fringe online publication, Byline Times. Portes argues that controlling for other variables when looking at racial disparities is an “undergraduate” error he describes as “conditioning on a post-treatment variable.” However inapt this choice of jargon for observational studies rather than experimental ones, it describes a real and relevant consideration in social research that I will discuss in a moment. First, I must address two straw men Portes erects, presumably on the assumption that readers of his polemic will not bother to check his sources. He writes that:
[The Commission] divides observed disparities into two categories: “explained” and “unexplained.” It states:
Explained racial disparities: this term should be used when there are persistent ethnic differential outcomes that can demonstrably be shown to be as a result of other factors such as geography, class or sex.
Unexplained racial disparities: persistent differential outcomes for ethnic groups with no conclusive evidence about the causes. This applies to situations where a disparate outcome is identified, but there is no evidence as to what is causing it.
So disparities are either explained by factors other than racism—or there is no evidence so they are unexplained. Thus, apparently, while racism does exist (and the Commission goes on to set out its own definitions of systemic, structural and institutional racism), there is no way, within its framework, to demonstrate, through the use of evidence or analysis, that racism or discrimination, indirect or direct, is actually causing the observed disparities in outcomes.
This is simply false. In the original text, the two categories Portes quotes are the first two in a list of five. Note that, in the original, the forms of disparity are numbered, but he has removed the numbering. You can see why if you read the original text of the report:
The Commission therefore proposes the following framework to distinguish between different forms of racial disparity and racism:
1. Explained racial disparities: this term should be used when there are persistent ethnic differential outcomes that can demonstrably be shown to be as a result of other factors such as geography, class or sex.
2. Unexplained racial disparities: persistent differential outcomes for ethnic groups with no conclusive evidence about the causes. This applies to situations where a disparate outcome is identified, but there is no evidence as to what is causing it.
3. Institutional racism: applicable to an institution that is racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours in a single institution.
4. Systemic racism: this applies to interconnected organisations, or wider society, which exhibit racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours.
5. Structural racism: to describe a legacy of historic racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours that continue to shape organisations and societies today.
The last three of these numbered categories—the majority!—are forms of disparity for which the evidence of racism is sufficient. Indeed, in the same section, just a few paragraphs before the list that Portes truncates, the authors cite the example of exactly the kind of CV survey evidence that Portes’s own essay recommends as evidence of No.5: “Structural Racism”! But he leaves the false impression that the two categories he does mention are mutually exclusive and exhaustive.
The second straw man is transplanted from a review of the report written by political scientist Eric Kaufmann. Portes writes [my emphasis]:
As Professor Eric Kaufmann, another of the report’s cheerleaders, put it: “Yet to discern whether racism is involved requires controlling for minorities’ disproportionate employment in frontline services and their multi-generational housing and higher rate of pre-existing health conditions. Instead of crude racial aggregates, the commissioners seek a new scientific emphasis on multivariate analysis of individual-level data to isolate discrimination from confounding factors such as poverty or urbanity.”
Based on this approach, the Commission concluded: “The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.”
But this is not “scientific.” Instead, it is a very basic statistical error—indeed one that every undergraduate learning about quantitative methods in social science should recognise—described as “conditioning on a post-treatment variable.” The impact of someone’s race on their health cannot be dismissed by saying “well, actually, poverty is the ‘real’ cause,” if poverty and race are—as they are in the UK—inextricably linked.
But the report is not “based on this approach.” The authors make use of diverse forms of statistical evidence, some of which is adjusted and some of which is “raw.” Often the report calls for the collection of more data so that specific racial disparities can be investigated more deeply. The bulk of the statistical work was not, anyway, conducted by the report’s authors, but by independent academics, who sometimes repeated their analyses to show that the racial disparities they observed were robust even when likely confounders were accounted for. As one such contributor, Steve Strand at Oxford University’s Department of Education, put it:
The purpose in taking the socio-economic factors into account is not to “explain away” any ethnic achievement gaps, but to better understand the root causes and therefore identify relevant policy interventions and action. For example, if ethnic achievement gaps reflect the socio-economic disparities between ethnic groups, then a focus on in-service training to address racism by secondary school teachers would be unlikely to deliver substantial change, whereas a focus on increased resourcing for disadvantaged pupils (such as the pupil premium grant) may have a greater likelihood of success.
When the report does cite controls for external non-racial factors, it overwhelmingly judges the disparity in question to be more significant to particular “BAME” populations. Of the seven occasions in which the report’s authors explicitly refer to “controlling” or “adjusting” data, all but two instances led the authors to express more concern that a disparity was indeed associated with race:
- Controlling for socioeconomic status appeared to show that all minority groups outperformed whites in school except for black Caribbean pupils.
- An apparent negative effect of having a single parent significantly diminished when deprivation and other factors were controlled for.
- Controlling for deprivation, school exclusion remains disproportionately high for both black Caribbean and mixed white/black Caribbean pupils.
- Controlling for age would make race-based salary comparisons more meaningful, but the report says that this would make sample sizes too small for statistical power. The authors note that adjustments for age/qualifications/region etc. change disparities in different directions depending on the race of the workers.
- The report expresses concern that uptake of mental health services and consumption of anti-depressants is lower in non-whites after controlling for severity of symptoms.
- In its discussion of mental health, the report recommends that the disproportionately high psychiatric detention rate for blacks should be adjusted for higher prevalence of, for example, schizophrenia amongst blacks, which they then, in turn, state that racism contributes significantly to.
- Controlling for different factors in healthcare outcomes affects results in differing directions by race, but mostly exposes effects that cannot be explained by, for example, socioeconomic status. (Adjusting for risk factors, reduces but does not eliminate race disparities in COVID-19 deaths.)
Given that the report also makes many interventionist policy recommendations aimed at reducing racial disparities, the irony of Portes’s description of the document as “rhetoric-based evidence making” is exquisite. The report’s authors did not use the logical framework Portes accuses them of using; they drew the opposite inferences to those he accuses them of drawing; and they concluded by recommending policies that tackle racism that he accuses them of ruling out of bounds in advance.
In a far more honest and fair-minded critique of the report, LSE economics professor Alan Manning and PhD candidate Rebecca Rose tackle the section of the report dealing with ethnic pay differentials. Contrary to other critics, Manning and Rose argue that controlling for other variables is essential to make meaningful comparisons between ethnic groups, and they commend the report for presenting both raw and adjusted data. Even so, they disagree with its authors about which factors should be controlled for in the domain of pay disparities. Rather than rule such adjustments illegitimate, they raise an honourable objection: that any control variable should not be affected by any presumed racial disparity in the domain under investigation.
One of the most interesting things about the Sewell report is that at least one of its contributors entered the process holding conventional views about race and disadvantage within his own field, but had them transformed by newly collected evidence. If you are reluctant to wade through the report itself, I recommend this video in which clinical epidemiologist Raghib Ali describes how and why he changed his mind:
During the pandemic, Ali has worked on the frontline of hospital care and thought he was seeing disproportionately high numbers of black and south Asian COVID-19 patients. He believed similar racial disparities existed for other serious illnesses. But thanks to racial identity data collected during the pandemic and analyses that controlled for other factors, he found diverse differences, both positive and negative, in the major causes of death in the UK between different racial groups. Of course, the toll of poverty on health trumps all other factors. But, if we control for poverty and disaggregate “BAME” patients into sub-populations, we can target clinical resources by condition and by community. And, by clearly identifying the scourge of disadvantage, and measuring its miserable (and expensive) consequences on mortality and morbidity, we can make the scientific and moral case for wealth redistribution.
But if critics were slow to engage with the substance of the report, it’s probably because many of their critiques indicated they hadn’t bothered to read it. In the black UK tabloid, the Voice, campaigner Patrick Vernon griped that “the report fails to look at school exclusion”—a topic to which the report devotes four pages—or “racism in schools”—one of the report’s four sections is entirely devoted to education. But perhaps the most obvious evidence that many of those objecting to the report have not seen its contents can be found in the egregious accusation that its authors have attempted to “put a positive spin on slavery and empire.” The offending sentence, which appears on page eight of the report, runs as follows:
There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.
By more than one measure, this is poorly written. But it is clearly intended as a testament to human resilience—a reminder that the descendants of slavery’s victims found a way to remake themselves out of atrocity and immiseration. If those who seized on this sentence had actually read the report—or even just the section that inspired this awkward summary—their mistake would be self-evident:
British history is not solely one of imperial imposition—Commonwealth history and literature reveals a more complex picture, in which ideas travelled in multiple directions, cultures mixed and positive relations formed that today underpin diaspora around the world, which many ethnic minority children in the UK will feel part of. All this makes up the British story, our story, which has episodes of both shame and pride. As novelist Chimamanda Adichie expressed: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Meanwhile, a polemic against the report by historian David Olusoga in the Guardian repeats the canards that the report seeks to “deny the existence of structural racism in Britain” and that it promotes a “false binary” between addressing racial and class inequalities. I counted at least eight occasions in which the word “complex” was used to refer to compound causes of inequality that included racism. Regardless, the report makes numerous recommendations intended to address racial inequalities.
Given the calumnies circulated about the report among the political and media classes, it is understandable that its authors issued a formal rebuttal on the gov.uk website. The widespread dishonesty about the report’s section on slavery inspired the strongest response:
The idea that the Commission would downplay the atrocities of slavery is as absurd as it is offensive to every one of us. The report merely says that in the face of the inhumanity of slavery, African people preserved their humanity and culture. The Commission’s recommendation for Government to create inclusive curriculum resources is about teaching these histories which often do not get the attention they deserve.
The limits of reason and the politics of protest
The commissioners’ hope that public clarification might encourage their critics to be more careful and fair-minded is almost certainly forlorn. For a particular kind of anti-racist, there will never be social justice or an end to institutional racism in the UK because a faith-based belief in systemic problems cannot be shaken by measurement, especially if inspired by that modern form of personal revelation, “lived experience.” I am not even claiming these activists are wrong; I am merely pointing out that no evidence would be sufficient to persuade them that they are wrong. Even when someone tells them they are right, they are happy to misrepresent this agreement. Anyone who looks at the statistics on UK educational achievement and concludes that non-whites’ disadvantage must be attributed to racism while whites enjoy systemic advantage, no matter how inferior their performance to that of non-whites, is beyond the reach of rational argument.
The liberal Left has won so many historical battles for rights so completely that it has dominated the UK’s non-executive establishment for decades. But it has lost so many of its contemporary battles for power so abjectly, in part because it has lost touch with voters. Nothing could make this clearer than last week’s election results, in which the working classes continued to turn decisively against the Labour Party that was founded to represent them. I suspect that many of the report’s critics intuit that political neutrals do not share their rage against this document or the government that commissioned it. They worry that once the chronic background tension of the pandemic abates and the public get wise to what BLM is about, people will continue to get on better with each other, as Britons of every colour and background have been doing for the last half-century.
The Report of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities was occasioned by a rare spasm about race in the UK that wasn’t even about race in the UK; it was about the death of a black American in the United States. And the most significant flashpoints in the UK debate weren’t even about race issues now. Rather, they centred on statues commemorating historical figures, one of whom, Churchill, is most famous for leading the global fight against the genocidal racism of the Nazis—a fight upon which the fate of billions of people, of all races, rested.
These race panics focus on other places and times because the revolutionary conditions required to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” abolish the police, and overthrow capitalism, (all once-declared aims of the official BLM movement), do not exist in the UK in 2021. If you say you want a revolution, you need atrocities to justify it. In contemporary Britain, racist slaughter is hard to come by.
So, how should a neutral approach this fraught debate? I would recommend a modern variant on King Solomon’s test: Which side professing to care about the disadvantaged is acting in their immediate interests? Depressingly, not one of the criticisms of the report I have encountered has focused on its material recommendations. Indeed, few address its recommendations at all. In this respect, one of the funniest hit jobs of all is that in the Voice, which complains that the report should have called for the implementation of other government-sponsored reports about racism. Anyone who has actually read the document will know that it makes this recommendation with almost-tedious frequency.
Most critics have instead based their criticism on the demonstrably false accusation that the report “denied the existence of institutional racism in the UK.” But what difference would it have made to the lives of people from any minority group in the UK if the report had denied “institutional racism”? What is the significance of this particular phrase beyond a charge of simple “racism”? These questions are not rhetorical.
A specific accusation of “non-institutional” racism requires the identification of a perpetrator or perpetrators. And since the Race Discrimination Act of 1965, such an accusation has had legal implications. Racism is a grave allegation that defames when false and condemns when true. “Institutional racism” offers its users the hit of righteousness and victimhood without the requirement of legally admissible evidence, and the liberal use of the phrase signals one’s membership of one of the two biggest tribes in this debate. In contrast, actual racism requires proof, invites action, and offers legal power to enact change.
As an interested party, given the choice of how to tackle racism in the UK, I would rather align myself with a flawed report that focuses on evidence, action, and change over critiques obsessed with fashionable semantics and dubious theory, much of which has migrated here from the US. Would that UK academics were so keen on “decolonising” these aspects of the curriculum.
The UK’s history of race relations is (literally) thousands of miles away from that of the US, where this issue remains important, for demographic reasons apart from anything else. Yet, somehow, in recent years, that nation’s dominant racial dynamic has been imported all-but-wholesale and come to dominate fashionable discussion of all race-related questions. The extraordinary richness and diversity of this country’s many immigrant populations cannot be reduced to the singular enormity of North American slavery. Co-opting the agonies and grievances of another society, a society cleaved from our own by revolution and born of civil war, for political purposes insults UK minorities. I write this as the son of a Krio, a transplanted descendant of New-World slaves, a member of the minority within those minorities to whom that history is most relevant.
Today, the UK is a country where the National Diversity Awards can congratulate a company whose suppliers are under investigation by the US government for possible breach of forced labour rules. A constituency of anti-racism campaigners is more exercised by Western slavery abolished tens of decades ago than by non-Western slavery taking place right now. This particular row is illuminated by the fallout from Brexit, which has brought home the importance of outcomes over rhetoric in UK race relations. In a country where voters are electorally committed to a net cap on immigration, EU free movement locked the UK into an immigration policy that, by default, preferred immigration from overwhelmingly white nations to immigration from overwhelmingly non-white ones. However wholesome the intentions of those who championed it, it remained a de facto racist immigration policy. Since the vote to leave the EU, net migration into the UK has increased, non-white migration into the UK has increased, and voter concern about immigration has fallen. This extraordinary “Goldilocks zone” outcome is the result of a democratic policy choice that was widely condemned as racist across most of the UK’s establishment.
It is hard to read the Sewell Report without being impressed by its determination to target real-world problems and refocus on real-world solutions, just as you cannot read the CVs of its authors without acknowledging their material contributions to the lives of minorities in the UK. They are continuing their work even now: touring UK institutions to explain the report to and answer questions from the public. Above all, this row has been between people concerned with what we say about racism in the UK and people concerned with what we do about it.
Damian Counsell is a bioinformatics specialist and web developer based in the UK West Midlands. In his previous life in academic science, he was a co-author of the Euston Manifesto. You can follow him on Twitter @DamCou.
Feature image: police officer watches as thousands take part in the Black Lives Matter anti racism protest rally through Brighton, 13th June 2020. Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that Jonathan Portes described the Sewell Report as “policy-based evidence making” in his article for Byline Times. In fact, Portes argued that this description gave the report “too much credit” and that it was “better viewed as ‘rhetoric-based evidence making.’” The article has been amended accordingly. Apologies for the error.