At least a half-dozen major inquiries in the past two decades have examined various aspects of race in Britain. All of them found evidence of institutional racism, including four since 2017.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, launched after the Black Lives Matter protests last year, begs to differ. Its controversial conclusions in a report published last week say that while it’s too early to declare Britain a “post-racial society,” arguments of institutional racism are overblown.
Overall, it says, the U.K. is pretty much best in class when it comes to White-majority countries around the world. (One fact: The difference in educational attainment between Black and White pupils is eight times smaller in Britain than in the U.S.) That message of “cheer up, things are better than you think” is unlikely to be the comfort the government hopes.
Such inquiries carry considerable weight in Britain. Normally led by an authority of unimpeachable impartiality, they gather mountains of evidence, deliberate for ages and subject their findings to some level of peer review. A vintage inquiry is a gospel of sorts — it’s widely accepted, gets cited in Parliamentary debates and provides the basis for reforms to government policy.
This report is different, as the reactions show. It was commissioned with a clear objective to “change the narrative” on race and “stop the sense of victimization,” as Johnson put it at the time; the fear was that Britain was copying too much of America’s race debate. Tony Sewell, who led the commission, has in the past said that evidence of institutional racism in Britain is “flimsy.” There was no peer review and friendly media got an early summary, ensuring positive headlines when the full report was published. That left the impression that this was far more a political exercise than a fact-finding mission.
That’s a shame as the 264-page report is far more nuanced than the reaction would suggest. The report doesn’t deny racism exists or that there is work to be done. But it argues that terms like “structural racism” are as lazy as the catch-all BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). It is right to encourage a more granular understanding of disparities, for example between Black Caribbean and Black African populations, or Indian and Bangladeshi ones. The data on the dire plight of poorer White communities are a reminder that not all disparity is down to race.
Many of the recommendations point to the very structural or institutional issues that the report’s summary breezily suggests aren’t a problem. Its recommendations for better policing practice, a more representative police force and improved oversight are right on target. Requiring employers to publish ethnicity pay figures (the report cautiously supports voluntary reporting) would be sensible, as is the call for apprenticeships highly targeted at the most deprived areas.
The report notes the high rate of lone-parent families in some communities (63% among Black Caribbean children compared to 6% among Indian ethnic children) and calls for more interrogation of the impact on outcomes. All of these things can indeed help dislodge the Ever Given of Britain’s race debate.
It would be wrong to suggest, as some have, that the commission — whose members, bar one, are all ethnic minorities — was out to whitewash Britain’s record on race. But the undertone of the drill sergeant who believes dwelling on difficulties might lead to giving up altogether isn’t helpful. That reflects the government’s belief that the ethic of woke encourages racial minorities to wallow in victimhood.
The authors don’t exactly quote Henry Ford’s famous dictum, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” But you get the impression they’d like to. The subtext is clearly that everyone just needs more positive thinking.
That logic is at odds with many previous findings and the experience of many minorities, and it leads to some absurd places. One is the recommendation that school history curricula be revised to tell a “new story” that “speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a remodeled African/Britain.” That would be like an American textbook chapter on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination focusing on how excellent the play was in the theater that night.
In discussing microaggressions and safety, the commission criticizes vague, subjective language, “stretching the meaning of racism without objective data to support it.” But rather than encouraging more discussion of what we mean by these things, the report implies people should just stop talking about it and suggests scrapping unconscious bias training. And yet, there are plenty of wrongs in society that aren’t captured in neat data sets. In fact, the local news has been flooded recently with one such example: thousands of girls, some not even teenagers yet, coming forward to tell stories of being sexually harassed or abused in school settings in spite of a dearth of data sets on the matter.
The irony here is that while the commission rightly sought to show the multiplicity of factors that feed into race disparities, in its messaging it resorted to oversimplification and alienated those it’s trying to engage. The reality is that sometimes two different things are both true. Britain has made substantial progress in tackling institutional racism and it still has problems of racial bias within the police, criminal justice system and elsewhere that need to be addressed. There can be multiple factors impacting social mobility and racial bias can be one of them. By downplaying the “and,” Johnson’s commission had its say, but lost its voice.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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