Boris Johnson facing backlash as race review branded ‘divisive polemic’

Labour dismissed report from Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities as ‘divisive polemic which cherry picks statistics’

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Boris Johnson has been urged to explain how his race equality commission included statements “glorifying the slave trade” in its official report while ignoring evidence of structural racism.

The commission, which published its report on Wednesday, claimed Britain was no longer a country where the “system is deliberately rigged” against ethnic minorities – prompting accusations of “deeply cynical” complacency.

The 258-page report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities said the term “structural racism” was “too liberally used” and that factors such a socio-economic background, culture and religion have a “more significant impact on life chances”.

But shortly after the report’s publication the government admitted that a “considerable number” of people giving evidence – particularly from ethnic minorities – had in fact told the commission that structural racism was a real problem.

The report also raised eyebrows after it appeared to suggest there was a silver-lining to the Atlantic slave trade and that this should be taught in schools.

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In a section about the curriculum the review said there was “a new story” about “the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African-Britain”.

Reacting to the claim, Labour’s shadow equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said: “The government must urgently explain how they came to publish content which glorifies the slave trade and immediately disassociate themselves with these remarks.”

Respondents told the commission that “they were less likely to be hired or to progress once they were in a job compared with their white counterparts” and that such racism appeared to “manifest largely but not exclusively in healthcare, policing and crime, education, employment, and housing”.

But the commission chose not incorporate them into its own conclusions. In his foreword, commission chair Dr Tony Sewell wrote: “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.”

“The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined”.

However, the authors said that “outright racism still exists”, the UK was not a “post-racial society”, and stressed: “We take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK”.

The report was commissioned by Boris Johnson last summer in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the globe highlighting endemic racism and injustice after the death of George Floyd in the US.

In a statement, the prime minister suggested the commission had “set out a positive agenda for change” and said the government will “consider their recommendations in detail, and assess the implications for future government policy”.

The report – carried out amid the coronavirus pandemic – highlights that some ethnic minorities have faced a disproportionate impact from the disease, but when examining the health of overall population “is it also evident there is more than one story to tell”.

“Life expectancy or overall mortality shows that ethnic minorities do better overall than the white population and actually have better outcomes for many of the 25 leading causes of death,” the authors added.

In its 24 recommendations, the report calls for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to receive additional funding from government to challenge policies or practices that “cause significant and unjust racial disadvantage”.

Among other recommendations, the report also urges for:

  • the creation of an independent office for health disparities
  • an extended school day prioritising disadvantaged areas
  • further action to challenge racist and discriminatory actions online
  • ending the use of ‘unhelpful’ acronyms such as Bame

Other opposition politicians, race equality campaigners and unions criticised the report's central conclusions as insulting while “gaslighting” ethnic minorities in Britain.

David Lammy, who led a review into racial disparities in the criminal justice system in 2017, described the report as an “insult to anybody and everybody across this county who experiences institutional racism”.

His Labour frontbench colleague Ms De Cordova added: “This report was an opportunity to seriously engage with the reality of inequality and institutional racism in the UK. Instead we have a divisive polemic which cherry-picks statistics. To downplay institutional racism in a pandemic where black, Asian and ethnic minority people have died disproportionately and are now twice as likely to be unemployed is an insult.”

Dr Halima Begum, the chief executive of the race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust, questioned the suitability of the chair Dr Sewell and head of the No 10 policy unit Munira Mirza, who had a role in setting the commission up – both of whom have previously questioned the existence of institutional racism.

“If both these individuals are from the outset denying the existence of institutional racism, then what hope did we have that they were going to look into this in an objective manner, if not follow whatever the government mantra is?” she said.

The national secretary of GMB union, Rehana Azam, claimed: “Only this government could produce a report on race in the 21st century that actually gaslights black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

Describing the report as “deeply cynical”, she went on: “Institutional racism exists, it’s the lived experience of millions of black and ethnic minority workers.

“We’re paid less, we’re more likely to be in high-risk jobs during the pandemic, we’re more likely to die from Covid, we’re more likely to be stopped and searched, to be arrested and to go to prison.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said: “The commission has chosen to deny the experiences of black and minority ethnic workers and be complacent about the UK’s progress towards being an anti-racist society.”

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