Playing down disparities between white and black people, the commission argues they are often not caused by racism. It concludes the UK is not institutionally racist, issuing a patronising put down for the well-meaning “idealism” of young people who think it is. It suggests the UK is a “model” for white majority countries.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Tony Sewell, who chaired the review, was hand-picked by Munira Mirza, head of the Downing Street policy unit; she knew he shared her scepticism that institutional racism exists in the UK.
In painting the brightest possible picture of today’s Britain, the commission suggests very current problems are rooted in the past. It admits some communities continue to be “haunted” by “historic cases” of racism, creating “deep mistrust” in the system. The report acknowledges that overt and outright racism persists in what is not “a post-racial society” – particularly online, which is something ministers will be happy to talk about.
Indeed, the commission’s findings are very convenient for Boris Johnson’s government on several fronts. It backs an extension of the school day in disadvantaged areas to help post-Covid catch up, handing ammunition to ministers in their battle with teaching unions on the issue. The commission was split on whether to recommend making it mandatory for companies to report pay gaps between ethnic groups, and so came down against the idea, in line with government policy. Some 635 businesses do so voluntarily under the race at work charter; ministers should force the other 70 per cent to follow suit, but now have cover not to do so.
The commission is surprisingly upbeat about employment, insisting that high educational achievement for children from certain ethnic communities is, in turn, creating fairer and more diverse workplaces. Yet twice as many (almost 40 per cent) of black African graduates are in non-graduate jobs than white British graduates.
The commission argues that inequality is due as much to social class as ethnic background, pointing to under-achievement by white working-class boys. Yet it does not explain what Aberdeen University research called the “paradox” that this group outperforms the ethnically diverse population on income and social mobility even though white boys have lower educational attainment.
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The commission’s 264-page report is more nuanced than the headlines suggest but contained enough to allow the government to cherry-pick positive “key messages”. Spin doctors will be delighted the Daily Mail’s front page trumpets “Britain’s race revolution. Landmark report says UK ‘a model to world’ on diversity – and finds NO evidence of institutional racism.”
Back in the real world, equality campaigners will be disappointed, and rightly so. They will ask: if the racism the commission exists is not systemic, where does it come from? This report will not build confidence among the ethnically diverse population at a time when it is sorely needed. The Windrush scandal might have begun in the past but still reverberates today. The horrific, disproportionate death toll among ethnic diverse people during the pandemic does not merit a mention in the government’s selective summary of the report. The worryingly low take-up of the vaccine is another sign that “it is hard [for black people] to trust institutions and authorities,” as Lenny Henry said in his letter urging them to have the jab.
It was to the government’s credit that it allowed him to make that point. But overall Johnson’s administration is much keener on research into racial inequality than action. It could afford to be bolder than it realises. As new research by the British Future think tank shows, there is common ground across all communities for confidence-building measures, such as more honest teaching of the history of race and the British Empire in schools. A majority of people agree it is harder to get on in Britain if you are black, Muslim or born outside the UK. But those in ethnically diverse communities are significantly more likely (44 per cent) than white people (25 per cent) to say that black people face a lot of prejudice.
Surely, the terrible impact of coronavirus on the UK’s ethnically diverse population tells us that “levelling up” should start with them. Instead, the Tories choose to define their domestic mission to maximise their chances of holding on to their new voters in the red wall.
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