A government-commissioned report into racial inequality in the UK faced a backlash on Wednesday after it concluded that the country was not “rigged” against minorities and that most racial disparities were not linked to racism.
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Cred), established in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, presented its findings to prime minister Boris Johnson on how best to tackle ethnic disparities within employment, healthcare, the criminal justice system and education.
In his foreword to the report, commission chair Tony Sewell claimed “very few” racial disparities were linked to racism. “The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism,” he added.
However, campaigners, union leaders and opposition politicians took issue with the tone of the report and some of its main findings, with some describing it as “an insult”, “disappointing” and “complacent”.
The report has also been accused of putting a “positive spin” on slavery, following Sewell’s comments in the foreword in which he claimed that there was a “new story” about the Caribbean experience, adding that slavery was “not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a remodelled African/Britain”.
But Marsha de Cordova, shadow women and equalities secretary, said the report marked a lost opportunity to “seriously engage with the reality of inequality and institutional racism” and “cherry-picked” 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,” she said.
The report made 24 recommendations with the aim of building trust between ethnic minority communities and British institutions, promoting fairness and encouraging communities and individuals not to rely on “invisible external forces” to close disparity gaps.
Within healthcare, for example, the report proposed creating an independent office for health disparities, designed to “properly” target the problem in the UK. The report also urged the government to undertake a strategic review to fully understand ethnicity pay gaps in the NHS.
Existing health inequalities have been exacerbated throughout the past year, with black and ethnic minority communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
The report acknowledged that ethnic minorities were disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system, adding that some of the greatest disparities between ethnicities were found in the police’s practice of stop and search, custodial sentencing and within prison populations.
Government statistics show that as of June 2020, while black people make up 3.4 per cent of the population in England and Wales, 7.7 per cent of prison inmates are black.
In the workplace, the report argued that “ethnic minorities have been making progress up the professional and occupational class ladder”, and said reporting of ethnicity pay gaps should continue on a voluntary basis. It also called for organisations to “move away from unconscious bias training”.
The commission found that education was the “single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience”, saying that the majority of such pupils — except those of Caribbean origin — often outperformed their white peers. Recommendations within the sector included a longer school day to prioritise “disadvantaged areas” and more targeted funding.
But critics raised concerns over some of the report’s findings, particularly comments made regarding institutional racism in the UK. The report notes: “We also have to ask whether a narrative that claims nothing has changed for the better, and that the dominant feature of our society is institutional racism and White privilege, will achieve anything beyond alienating the decent centre ground.”
Meanwhile, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress said the report was “complacent”, and argued that ethnic minorities were more likely to be in low-paid insecure jobs: “Institutional and structural racism exists in the UK, in both the labour market and wider society.”
For example, research conducted in 2019 by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College found that ethnic minority applicants needed to send 60 per cent more job applications than white candidates in order to receive a response from employers.
Social campaigner Patrick Vernon argued that the report failed to face up to the realities of racism within 2021. “It’s stuck in a time warp,” he said. “The report is ‘gaslighting’ us — it is very disappointing.”
The Institute of Race Relations said the report risked pitting minorities against each other: “Black Caribbeans, for instance, are contrasted with black Africans, and deemed to have internalised past injustices to the detriment of their own social advancement.”
The Runnymede Trust, a think-tank, has also questioned the leadership behind the report. Last year, Sewell was forced to apologise after homophobic comments were unearthed and, in the past, he has described the evidence for institutional racism as “flimsy”.
Munira Mirza who is the head of the No 10 policy unit and helped to appoint members of the commission, has in the past questioned the existence of institutional racism and argued that “anti-racism is becoming weaponised”.
“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?” said Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust.
Responding to the report, Johnson said the government would “consider” the recommendations and “assess the implications for future government policy”.
He added: “The entirety of government remains fully committed to building a fairer Britain and taking the action needed to address disparities wherever they exist.”