In this post, Dr. Ipek Demir, Associate Professor in Sociology and Social Policy and Director of the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism, University of Leeds, analyses the recent report on racial disparities commissioned by the UK government.
Since its recent publication, there has been much criticism of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report, a report by the UK government’s appointed Race Disparity Unit, for downplaying the structural and institutional reasons behind racial disparities. It was set up by the UK government in response to the widespread Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests which took place in many countries, including the UK in the summer of 2020. As it has been highlighted, the report lacks accuracy, coherence and credibility. After highlighting these I examine the hegemonic operation of the report and the role that it is designed to play in contemporary UK.
In terms of accuracy and scholarship, the report fails to draw conclusions based on facts and evidence. Its central conclusion that ‘geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism’ (p.8) lacks social scientific literacy about how these attributes are themselves related to outcomes of structural racism and inequalities. It acknowledges racial discrepancies exist but argues that ‘very few of them are directly to do with racism’ (p.8). Such conclusions, as many colleagues have noted, contradict much peer-reviewed research carried out by UK academics spanning the fields of health, education, race, sociology, criminology and others (e.g. BSA Response 2021; Bhopal 2021; Kaur and Hague 2021; Razai, Majeed and Esmail in BMJ 2021; Walker 2021a; Open Letter1 2021; Open Letter2 2021).
In the report, there is not only little attempt to engage with facts and evidence supplied by peer-reviewed scientific research, but it also goes against other government-commissioned reports in the UK (e.g. 2017 Lammy Report), civil society reports (e.g. Runnymede Report ‘State of the Nation’ 2020) and international reports (e.g. United Nations 2019 which condemns entrenched racial discrimination and inequality in the UK). Yet there is no serious discussion that refutes these reports and existing research except for counterclaims. There is instead a conspicuous absence of serious engagement with facts, evidence and research of years of race and ethnicity scholarship developed in the UK. Even by some of those whose research is cited, it has been accused of ignoring their findings and underplaying the impact of structural racism in health outcomes (e.g. Marmot 2021; Walker 2021b). It claims that ‘genetic risk factors’ are responsible (p. 199) even though there is ‘no evidence of “genetic risk factors” for covid-19’ (Razai, Majeed and Esmail in BMJ 2021). Many others, including Simon Woolley who headed the Race Disparity Unit under Theresa May and the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady have criticised it for disrespecting the lived experience of people of colour (see also Open Letter1 2021 and Open Letter2 2021).
The report is also intellectually incoherent. For example, it denies that structural racism exists in the UK but then recommends what the police as an institution should do to tackle racism amongst its ranks, including training. The report discusses the role of supplementary schools but avoids mentioning how they had to be set up by parents due to the structural exclusions and racism that children faced in mainstream schools. It considers outcomes of inequalities in health arising out of deprivation and poor housing, not ethnicity, failing to understand that these ‘are themselves the result of longstanding inequalities and structural racism’ (Marmot 2021). The report’s data which identify that Black and South Asian people have lower life expectancy than White groups contradicts its overall conclusions (Razai, Majeed and Esmail in BMJ 2021). There are many other infelicities and chasms between some of its conclusions and the recommendations it makes. It is at best confusing and incoherent.
The report has also been accused of lacking integrity and credibility (e.g. Letter 2021; Razai, Majeed and Esmail in BMJ 2021). Even according to its authors, institutions and organisations in the UK, for example, schools, universities, the police, the judicial system, the Home Office, the health system and others can produce negative outcomes for racial minorities. Yet it seems that those institutions cannot be accused of structural failures. The report unashamedly recommends teaching how slavery was not only ‘about profit and suffering, but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a remodelled African/Britain’ (p. 8). It considers an evaluation of the legacies of slavery as ‘refighting battles of the past.’ It instead tells us to get over it. In placing the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of Britain’s ethnic minority populations, their families, culture, and on individuals, it in fact steers the conversation away from what can be done collectively to alleviate racial inequalities.
Explanations, which would no longer be employed to explain why poor White communities are structurally disadvantaged, are used to account for the disadvantages that people of colour face. This, of course, needs to be understood against the backdrop of the often-employed discourse of ‘left-behind’ communities during and after Brexit: whilst ‘traditional’ working-class communities (used as a proxy for working-class people who are White) emerge as being ‘left-behind’ and thus deserving specific policy intervention and help, people of colour are responsibilised for their alleged individual, family and cultural failures. As the report problematically claims: ‘In many areas of investigation, including educational failure and crime, we were led upstream to family breakdown as one of the main reasons for poor outcomes’ (p.7).
The report’s integrity and credibility have also been challenged due to not fully telling the truth about whom it consulted when putting the report together. Many institutions and academics cited or acknowledged have come out to say they had either been misrepresented, or their submitted evidence ignored, and some have also come out to say that they had not been consulted even though they were listed as such in the report (e.g. Black Young Professionals Network, The Black Training and Enterprise Group, FounderTribes, historians such as Stephen Bourne and SI Martin, the Kings Fund, academics such as Dr Kaveri Qureshi, Dr Ria Ivandic, Prof Tom Kirchmaier) (Mohdin 2021). The government’s senior Black advisor Samuel Kasumu resigned after the report was published, and soon after its publication Downing Street was accused of rewriting the report (Iqbal 2021) – if true, it might at least go towards explaining some of the incoherencies and discrepancies within the report.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the focus of much deliberation after the report was published became the question of the reports’ authors’ political and ideological stances, pushing political narratives on race previously set by the government and chair (Sewell), and also the alleged government interventions (e.g. Thomas and Mohdin 2021; Walker, Siddique and Grierson 2020; Murphy, Stewart, Dodd and Walker 2020). There is thus a serious issue of if and how one can respond to a report on racism that clearly writes out racism. Given the obvious inaccuracy, incoherence and integrity failures of this report, we must instead turn our attention to the hegemonic operation of the report and the role that it is designed to play in contemporary Britain. The report individualises racism and purports to remind us that racism is no longer a structural issue, feeding into the wider culture wars which have been stepped up in the UK since the Black Lives Matter 2020, and acts as another confirmation of how well Britain is doing, repeating comforting myths of British exceptionalism – a discourse we have become used to post-Brexit. Most importantly, however, the report is there to ease the existing worry and ‘crisis about Whiteness’. It is part of a defensive White identity politics which denies that structural interventions are needed to remove racial inequalities, calling those at the receiving end of racial disparities to be grateful whilst telling them off for their ‘reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer’ (p. 6).
This report is there to relieve the worries and anxieties of some of the White population as it tells them that the demands of ‘others’ for equality and fairness are unjustified and can be ignored, and that if the mindset of ethnic minorities changed, only if they were ‘more family-oriented’ and ‘more ambitious’, then they would not be disadvantaged. As such its audience is not the people of colour but some sections of the majority White population. The report is not only patronising towards the BLM movement and what it calls the ‘idealism of those well-intentioned young people’ (p. 27) but pulls the rug under the feet of British people of all colours who are increasingly mobilised and re-energised to fight racial injustice. It acts as a justification for dismissing their calls.
While the report is embarrassing in its lack of coherence, accuracy and integrity, it is also powerful because it is disarming. It argues ‘the UK had become open and fairer’ (p. 6). Yes, there has been progress on some issues, however as we know, comparing the UK with other countries where there is more prejudice, or with the past when racism was sanctioned, is not optimistic. It is the new race ‘from’ the bottom. It is disarming also as the report preys on our basic instinct that family is important and that family breakdown is difficult. Furthermore, the report is disarming because it is seen to be attending to the interests and concerns of people of colour and their plight in Britain. It invokes authenticity, a concern for racial disparities. Yet, we must be clear – there is little evidence of a concern for understanding it or changing it. This report attends to anything but racism itself.