Despite the Sewell report, No 10 can no longer remain in denial about racism

by Simon Woolley


This was a wasted opportunity. But last year’s protests created a move for change the government won’t be able to hold back.

Illustration: Bill Bragg

I can imagine the reaction of people of colour to the publication of the government’s race disparity commission. Many will either have screamed with anger or cried with sadness.


The commission’s chair, Dr Tony Sewell, told the BBC: “This is a truly historic report.” On that we agree: it is a truly historic denial of the scale of race inequality in Britain, delivered precisely at a moment in our national history when the opposite is required.


Let’s remember why this commission and this report came about. Last summer, as Covid-19 struck our nation in an unprecedented and tragic way, it become clear it was having a disproportionate and devastating impact on African, Asian, Caribbean and other racial-minority communities. Black people were four times more likely to die; Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Filipino people were three times more likely.


The evidence from numerous studies showed that social determinants, many of which have a racial element, were factors. For example, low-paid and zero-hours workers, such as cleaners, security guards and care workers, were hit hard. Many of them had no choice but to put their lives – and hence their loved ones’ lives – in danger as they had to go to work to pay the rent and feed their families.


The evidence from numerous studies showed that social determinants, many of which have a racial element, were factors. For example, low-paid and zero-hours workers, such as cleaners, security guards and care workers, were hit hard. Many of them had no choice but to put their lives – and hence their loved ones’ lives – in danger as they had to go to work to pay the rent and feed their families.


This, the protesters argued, was the legacy of economic and political systems embedded into the national fabric for centuries that sought to justify first the enslavement of Africans and then the theft of resources across Africa and Asia. It did so by asserting white superiority and Black and Brown inferiority. At its worst, we could be killed with impunity, with no accountability; but on a regular basis, almost daily, our talent could be locked out and denied.


The government had to react to the events of last summer, and to appear to be doing something. So it commissioned an inquiry into racism, but in producing this report it has patently failed to make any useful contribution.


This report has almost no answers to the plethora of inequalities that Covid has uncovered, in education, health, housing and employment. To have published it any time in the last 20 years would have been seen as a whitewash; to do so after the months of heartache and the awareness-raising of the past year is almost criminally negligent.


It’s a huge missed opportunity, when the nation feels ready for change and open to the idea of real, long-lasting work to undo the scourge of racism.


Imagine for a moment that instead of denigrating the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors who rallied to the cause of Black Lives Matter, and patronisingly accusing them of “well-meaning idealism”, the government and its race commission chose to listen to them. It would hear about the lived experience of young Black people being nine times more likely to be stopped and searched and twice as likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic. Only last week, the Guardian reported on the state of racial inequality in education, with Black headteachers saying that their lives had been made miserable by years of microaggressions.


This should have been our 1945 moment: a time when, as a nation, we could be big and bold enough not only to acknowledge historic and continuing embedded racism, but come up with a plan to deal with it.


For example, make the reporting of ethnic pay gaps compulsory for all companies; recruit more Black teachers; police with consent for all communities; make boardrooms do far more to bring in racially diverse talent; and have an honest conversation about Britain’s history, the bad as well as the good, and show how the past still very much influences the present.


But instead of the embarking on a potentially transformative conversation, this shameful commission report has retreated into denial.


And, worse than the denial, many of the headline findings are that the nation should be focusing on white working-class children rather than race discrimination. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report, because it appears to be pitting poor white people against poor Black people.


Yes, of course, the government should look at the underperformance and potentially low aspirations of some poorer white working-class areas of both the north and south. But that is not a reason to ignore racism and its impact on ethnic minorities. The things that hold white working-class people back are very different to the discriminatory practices, both direct and subtle, that see Black pupils being excluded at a much higher rate at school.


One suspects the government, which selected its commissioners carefully, believes there are votes to won by this narrative, which fuels white working-class grievance and has them seeing people of colour as the enemy. To their new northern voters, some Conservatives seem to be saying, “Let’s take back control and stop pandering to the anti-racist activists.”


There is not much good that I see in this report, except for what many minority-ethnic parents already know: that the pursuit of education is our best opportunity to get out of poverty. This is clearly not enough in itself, though, because discrimination has been shown to be an issue even for those who are highly educated.


But there is something to be positive about. The Black Lives Matter protesters have not protested in vain. Never before in British society have business, our institutions and the public at large been more receptive to our lived experiences and more understanding of the myriad ways that racism affects us. The government and its puppet commission may be in denial, but many of our leading figures are up for change. If they keep on this trajectory, they and all of us will ultimately be the winners. Unlocking talent, bringing together a greater sense of belonging, above all being comfortable with who we are and our shared and diverse talent, will work for the benefit of society as a whole.


Britain is changing. We must seize the opportunity to be a dynamic, multicultural nation – to confront and deal with deep-seated inequalities in spite of the denial by some. Eventually all areas of government, particularly No 10, will be forced to catch up.

  • Lord Woolley was chair of the No 10 race disparity unit until July 2020, and is the director of Operation Black Vote

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/01/sewell-report-no-10-racism-protests

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