Is Britain racist? This binary question is unhelpful and obstructs real progress

Britain has made progress on race – but expectations have risen faster. So finding the common ground is now more important than widening divisions

Sunder Katwala
Wednesday 31 March 2021 16:04 BST
No evidence of institutional racism, says head of race report

The pattern of opportunity and disadvantage in Britain has never been more complex. Eight million ethnic minority Britons have very different experiences – half of us were born here, to parents and grandparents who were migrants. By education, social class and place, there are different experiences of opportunity and barriers. So dissatisfaction with the “Bame” shorthand, which lumps all of that together, has turned out to be one thing on which most people have agreed.

The Sewell Commission consists of a group of ethnic minority professionals, often with personal experience of the opening-up of new opportunities that were available to the first British-born generation, but not to their parents. Yet they were convened by the prime minister because of the challenge, from the next generation, for that progress to speed up.

There is some attempt to strike a balance. The commission’s report concludes with a vote of thanks to Black Lives Matter, saying that “we owe the many young people behind that movement a debt of gratitude for focusing our attention once again on these issues”. Yet the same report argues that “you do not pass on the baton of progress by cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed”.

However, the balance of that message may have gone down, any attempt to deliver it got rather lost in the media briefings which preceded the report’s publication this morning.  Beginning another round of the national debate about race, without the report that we are debating, was a mistake – a recipe for confirmation bias. So we have heard, once again, as we so often do, that the government is in denial about the existence of racism and discrimination in Britain – or that its critics are blind to the progress that has been made over the years.

The commission has been challenged for being in denial about “institutional racism”, partly due to the past statements of its chair. Yet the commission report itself endorses the Macpherson definition – while calling for more care in how to apply it, because not all disparities are evidence of discrimination. The Windrush scandal is a clear example of when the term is justified.

By lived experience, the commission members are inclined to think of the glass as three-quarters full. They can marshal some good evidence that it is probably half-full at least, but the evidence they present also sets out why there is still more to do on all fronts.

Education is a story of success for most ethnic minority groups, with a need for support for black and white working-class boys who risk being left behind, and issues about the university experience for some minority groups.

There are positive signs, too, of convergence in pay and progression once people are in the workplace – but gaps in employment rates remain. The commission says the evidence clearly confirms that unconscious bias matters. Those with an ethnic minority name need to apply for more jobs, with the same CV, to get interviews. But it is concerned that companies can respond by sending everybody on unconscious bias training, to tick that box, without bothering to invest in evaluating what works and what does not.

It also sees what it terms “affinity bias” – “people like us” syndrome – as a major cause of the lack of diversity in boardrooms. The report refers to the “snowy white peaks” where progress has been much slower than in national politics. The report rather pulls its punches on accelerating change here. One-third of NHS Trusts and FTSE 350 boardrooms are all white. The commission is right to say that one person at the top table is not a substitute for a strategy – but it missed an opportunity to show how recent rapid progress on gender could be emulated as part of a sustained approach.

The report sees more challenges on crime, policing and justice. The commission sets out just how far every force is from reflecting the communities it serves, in its recruitment and retention. The report recognises that Black British mistrust in the police is not just a legacy of the past but also linked to the experience of Stop and Search disparities today. A step-change in community engagement is clearly needed.

On health, there is a detailed account of the nuance. The stark disparities in Black deaths in childbirth and the scale of disparities in mental health services are very clear. A new Office of Health Inequalities is proposed, along with practical challenges of stronger engagement with minority citizens in research.

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Does this mixed record of incomplete progress on race make Britain a beacon for other white majority countries? Up to a point, yes. No other European society has put as much energy into race and tackling discrimination in national politics, public policy and institutions. Few would think that there are no ethnic disparities in the impact of the Covid pandemic in Belgium and France, yet that remains an anecdotal debate because the data is not even collected. Here, the pandemic has illuminated those disparities, but that can hardly be cause for self-congratulation.

And if a Manchester graduate worries that their ethnic-sounding surname will mean fewer job interviews than a white classmate with the same CV, why should they feel lucky that the odds might be worse in Milan or Marseille? Being told that we are top of this not-very-competitive anti-racism league rather misses the point.

Nor is their test whether they will face fewer barriers than their parents or grandparents did in the middle of the last century. Rather, there is a rightful, impatient expectation that the pledge of equal opportunities in Britain must now be redeemed in full.

Britain has made progress on race – but expectations have risen faster. So finding the common ground on race across the generations depends on transcending this binary “is Britain racist?” debate. It can be useful to recognise the progress we have made – but the challenge for public policy should be to focus on what still needs to change.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, an independent, non-partisan thinktank and registered charity, engaging people’s hopes and fears about integration and immigration, identity and race

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