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Black Lives Matter protest in London. Photo: Katie Crampton / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Sewell Report’s denial of institutional racism is really just an exercise in whitewashing the actions of a racist Tory government, argues Yonas Makoni

From the outset the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ new report, the so-called Sewell report, speaks to a Conservative vision of British excellence. Long gone are the days when ethnic minorities were shut out of positions of authority or influence, or had to battle against the system to have their voices heard. We now live in an ‘era of participation’, the UK has become an ‘open society’ and a “model for other White-majority countries”. “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities” (p. 8).

With much insincere hand-wringing about how we should remember the plight of the white working class and geographical inequalities, the report then endeavours to show how negligible racism has become in contemporary Britain and why BLM activists need to get the chip off their shoulders and realise that Britain has progressed to become “a successful multicultural community – a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world”.

Here’s five reasons why it’s wrong:

1The ‘Hostile Environment’ and Prevent

The most obvious examples of the absurdity of the report’s claim that the system is no longer “deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities” are, of course, the government's very own Prevent and Hostile Environment policies.

According to the report, “Outcomes such as [the Windrush Scandal] do not come about by design, and are certainly not deliberately targeted”. But these policies were specifically designed to dehumanise and criminalise people based on their ethnicity and migration status - treating them in advance as terrorists, rapists and murderers. Even the otherwise disreputable EHRC found the Hostile Environment to have been unlawful. Their report revealed that the Home Office was repeatedly warned about the discriminatory effects of this policy but that these warnings were “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded at crucial points of policy development”.

It is doubly insulting that this report comes just as the government’s Police and Crime bill threatens to criminalise the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and when Priti Patel has revealed yet another scheme to further penalise refugees, who flee to the UK from conditions of unbearable poverty and war. Already asylum-seekers are being held in inhumane conditions in concentration camp-like detention centres (which Patel also considered relocating to distant overseas territories) - they now wish to take away their UN-mandated human right to seek asylum. It would be interesting to hear what the prisoners of Napier Barracks think of the UK’s open society.

2Education

It is ironic that this report should be published on the same day that pupils at Pimlico Academy protested against outrageously racist changes to the school’s rules, dress code and curriculum, including the banning of afro hair and ‘colourful’ hijabs. These regulations are “not exceptional but instead are often the norm” in British schools and lead to systemic discrimination of ethnic minority students.

Similarly, the school curriculum, which has long sought to airbrush Britain’s racist history, has drawn attention for its role in reproducing racist ideas and refusing to acknowledge the history of black and brown people. “The results of a survey on the history curriculum found that just 37% of current and former students learned about the transatlantic slave trade and less than 8% learnt about the British colonisation of Africa.” The Tories also launched an attack recently on any attempt to teach ideas that challenge this narrative.

With exclusion rates up to six times higher for Black Caribbean pupils, it is baffling that the report can claim this isn’t an obvious example of institutional racism.

3The Met police is openly racist

Again, the claim that there is no deliberate racism in our state institutions is belied by their very own statements. In February, Sir Stephen House, the Met’s Deputy Commissioner, went to the Evening Standard to defend the force’s targeting of black people for stop-and-search. Like this report, House tried to defend the disproportionate rates by arguing that ethnic minorities are simply more violent and criminal and that stop-and-search is a crucial policing tool for keeping them under control.

This is despite the fact that stop-and-search has been shown to have no effect whatsoever on preventing crime. In the same month, Sadiq Khan removed over 1,000 young black men from the Met’s Gangs Violence Matrix, as they were found to pose little risk of committing violent crime. Rather than deal with these facts, the report instead berates ethnic minorities for their negative perceptions of police officers.

4Covid disparities

As we know, ethnic minorities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Black people are four times more likely to die from Covid, while Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Fillipino people were three times more likely to die.

As the report itself states, once adjusted for age the risk of death from Covid-19 for Black African men was 3.4 times higher than the rate for White British men. It then proceeds to argue that once differences in housing, deprivation etc. are accounted for this gap is significantly reduced.

This devious logic takes for granted black poverty as simply a fact of life. But the report never asks why rates of deprivation are so much higher among certain ethnic groups. Which leads us to:

5Economic disparity is institutional racism

Most of the conclusions that the writers of this report draw are patently laughable, so there is little point denying the kernel of truth. Outright discrimination does play less of a role in explaining inequalities between ethnic groups than it did in the past. Ethnic disparities are, indeed, complex and determined by a wide range of factors - some economic, some cultural.

Given this welcome layer of complexity, it then seems strange to base the report’s entire conceptual framework on an oversimplified separation between ‘outright racism’ and ‘socio-economic’ disparities. The report often claims that certain racial disparities are insignificant, “once socio-economic factors are controlled for”. But these factors can’t be separated out – you can’t disentangle race from class.

‘Institutional’ or ‘systemic’ racism is the process by which ethnic minorities come to be overrepresented at the bottom of the social ladder. This process, of course, isn't all-powerful and on an individual level they can sometimes be overcome. But it is a strong tendency and reinforced by the overt racism and discrimination that still plays a signifcant role in our institutions.

Taking an individual-level view of the factors that determine inequalities fits nicely into the agenda of a government, which (disingenuously) champions ‘equal opportunities’ rather than social justice. In the vein of certain shades of liberal identity politics, rather than ask why the system traps so many people in poverty, it asks how we spread that poverty more equally across the population. 

Having thereby obscured the need for universal social reform as a means of reducing poverty in general, the report ends up with an extremely limited set of policy recommendations, that just so happen to fall squarely in line with Boris Johnson’s vacuous ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

The Sewell report’s denialism can only serve one purpose: to promote a conservative vision of Britain that sees all of our problems as fundamentally solved, although they might need a bit of tinkering around the edges. This will not be a vision recognisable to the millions of oppressed people in this country and no amount of government manipulation will make it so.

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