This essay, on the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 4 April 2021, under the headline “Yes, we need a more nuanced debate about race. But this flawed report fails to deliver it”.
Britain is less racist than it was 40 years ago. Many minority groups in Britain still face racism. Both those claims can be (and are) true. So are these two claims: racism exists in Britain; racism does not explain all the disparities faced by minorities.
We live, though, in an either/or culture. You accept one or the other, but not both. The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities self-consciously seeks to bridge that gap and bring complexity to the debate. That it fails should concern us all.
The Commission was set up by the government after the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Its chair, Tony Sewell, writes in the foreword that Britain has “fundamentally shifted” in recent years when it comes to racial disadvantage. Racism remains “a real force in the UK”, but “too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined”. I agree. I have long questioned the contemporary narrative about racial disparities, arguing we need to think more carefully about the complex interplay of race, class, gender and geography. The Sewell report is, however, a flawed piece of work, its polemical needs distorting its empirical analysis.
The Commission’s challenge to concepts such as “institutional racism” has led to its non-white members being abused as “tokens” or “native informants”. This, in turn, has allowed the report’s defenders to dismiss criticism as “tribal”, even “racist”. It’s the kind of public exchange that allows the real problems to stay obscured.
The report details the experiences of different minority groups, revealing not only the many patterns of disadvantage but also the many successes, from the narrowing of the ethnic pay gap to rising educational attainment. What all this shows, it argues, is that “it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists”. This is a strange way of framing the issue, ironically bringing the commission perilously close to the views of those whom it is most keen to challenge. It also allows it, however, to argue that “we need to look elsewhere [other than racism] for the roots of that disadvantage”. Racial disadvantage, it notes, “often overlaps with social class disadvantage”, but quickly moves on from class to ask “how have some groups transcended that disadvantage more swiftly than others?” Its answer is “family structures” and “cultural traditions”.
It provides two illustrations. The first is single-parent families, the report noting both the “wealth of evidence” linking family breakdown to negative outcomes and the disproportionate number of black children in one-parent households. Almost in passing, it mentions that this is an attribute of poverty; only a minority of poor children live in two-parent households, making lone parenting a feature of working-class white communities too. Such detail might “complicate the picture”, the report acknowledges, but does not detract from the desire to make this an issue about race.
The second example is the lack of fluency in English within Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities: “Among 45- to 64-year-olds, 17.4% of Bangladeshi women and 9.0% of Pakistani women were unable to speak English.” This “is an obstacle to economic advance” and “helps explain” why these communities are so poor.
The lack of English among older Bangladeshi and Pakistani women is a problem, reducing their ability to build social networks or find employment. But it’s a stretch to suggest that the inability of a small number of older women to speak English is a significant contributor to the economic disadvantages their communities face. Around 3% of Britons of Bangladeshi origin and 2.1% of those of Pakistani origin cannot speak English. To put that in context, the figure for the Chinese community is 2.3% yet it is taken by the report as a model community that has raced ahead. The point is not that broken families or a lack of English are not social issues that need tackling. They are. The point rather is that the Commission distorts the data to pursue polemical points. It criticises others for seeing everything in racial terms – but does exactly that when it suits its agenda.
The underlying theme of the Sewell report is that the causes of disadvantages faced by minority groups lie primarily within those groups. This places it in a longstanding tradition of moralising social problems, from blaming poverty on the behaviour of the poor to condemning “lifestyle choices” for health inequalities. Social issues – including the complex interactions of race and class – are reframed as moral choices and the behaviour of individuals. Racism itself comes to be seen in terms of individual behaviour and attitudes rather than as a social phenomenon.
The report’s discussion of discrimination in the labour market is apposite. There has been a slew of studies in which researchers sent out identical CVs except for the applicant’s race or ethnicity. These consistently show that white applicants were more likely to get interviews than non-white ones. It’s gold-standard evidence of racism. The report acknowledges these studies but claims they “cannot be relied upon to provide clarity on the extent that it happens in everyday life”. Again, it seeks to individualise the problem. Many minority groups, it argues, don’t understand the job market and are too choosy: “If not enough young Black people are getting the professional jobs they expected after graduating, we need to examine the subjects they are studying and the careers advice.” It blames “prejudice and ignorance” for the lack of black apprentices. In fact, while young black people are under-represented in apprenticeships, black people overall are not and the number of non-white apprentices has steadily risen over the past decade to almost match their proportion of the population.
One of the challenges of contemporary politics lies in the atomisation of society and in the tendency to see social problems more in terms of culture and identity than of politics and class. Much of the debate about race reflects this. The Sewell report, for all its claims to question orthodoxies, in recasting issues of disadvantage as problems of individual behaviour or cultural norms, only deepens this trend. There is much talk in the report of “agency”. But “agency” here means not the possibilities of collective action, but, rather, a kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” individualism.
Many of the report’s recommendations are useful, if anodyne. The analysis, though, falls victim to the report’s polemical needs. Far from resetting the debate about race in a constructive fashion, the Sewell report replaces one set of simplistic narratives with another.