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Response to the Sewell Report

A statement in response to the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. (Download the statement below).

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As each day passes, more individuals and organisations join in expressing dismay over the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities chaired by Dr Tony Sewell (the Sewell report), published on 31 March 2021.

There is much to criticise. The near silence on the recent Windrush scandal is a major flaw. The limited reference to Northern Ireland is a blow to those in the sector here who submitted evidence in good faith that it would be treated with the seriousness it deserves.

But the central, glaring, fatal flaw in the report is its attempt to redefine institutional and structural racism out of existence. This passage is from the foreword:

“Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism…we have argued for the use of the term ‘institutional racism’ to be applied only when deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level and not be used as a general catch-all phrase for any microaggression, witting or unwitting.”

They use terms like ‘deliberately’ and ‘directly’ here, but discrimination is not always overt, conscious and explicit. It can manifest as a matter of routine, a pattern of thoughtless omissions, ‘unwitting’ inattention, not only as ‘deliberate’ and ‘direct’ acts of hatred.

Put simply, a system does not have to be ‘deliberately rigged’ in order to be discriminatory. This was the invaluable, hard-won lesson of the report of the enquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Macpherson report, published in 1999, a report which transformed, in a constructive way, work in the race relations field.

The Sewell report seems set on dismantling Macpherson.

News outlets splash: ‘no evidence of institutional racism in the UK’ over their headlines. But they can say this only because Sewell first redefines the concept, raising the bar so high that otherwise admissible evidence can be simply dismissed. Anything short of “deep-seated racism” that “can be proven on a systemic level” can now simply be set aside, as much of the evidence submitted to the enquiry seems to have been.

Few individuals, and few institutions will tell you, on being asked, that they discriminate on the basis of race. Their answers will cite other factors: economic circumstances, for example, or the culture of those disadvantaged – factors like those cited by the Sewell report as ‘alternative’ explanations of disadvantage. How would one set about proving ‘deep-seated’ racism in such cases? Only through evidence of just the sort the Sewell report wants to dismiss.

Structural discrimination is detectable only through the patient accumulation of many instances, each of which in itself may easily seem to be explicable otherwise – and if the question is asked, each inevitably will be.

The Sewell argument appears to be: you can’t prove these individual instances of disparity solely to be caused by racism; therefore structural racism is a myth.

It is a very similar argument to that of the climate sceptic. No individual spell of hot weather can be proven to be tied to climate change, but you can’t conclude on that basis, as some claim, that it isn’t happening.

When hot spells start happening more frequently, when they start earlier, when the hot season lasts longer, and becomes more intense in more and more regions, there comes a point at which you are no longer talking about the weather; you are talking about the climate.

The apparent determination of the Commission to dismiss the ideas of institutional and structural racism in advance – in spite of the evidence submitted to the enquiry, and even the considerable amount of evidence described in the document itself – renders this report the racial justice equivalent of climate change denial.

There is much more to be said, more criticisms to level, and, believe it or not, some recommendations and ideas with which we can agree. But for now, we echo the dismay of countless other organisations and individuals who see the general tenor of this report as constituting a retrograde step, making the already difficult work of dismantling racism, in all its forms, structural and individual, witting and unwitting, all the harder.

We urge the government not to rely on the general tenor of this report, but to read the evidence, submitted from all across the UK, for themselves, and then engage in the systemic response that this systemic problem demands.

As we said in our submission to the Commission:

The problem of ethnic disparities and inequality in the UK is on such a scale and of such a systemic nature that no private individual, no group of NGOs or researchers, and no consortium of voluntary and community sector organisations has the power to provide a solution. Nor should the responsibility for producing such a solution be seen to lie in the private, voluntary or community sector.

It is the responsibility of government – at a UK level and in the devolved institutions – to bring the scope, the authority, the resources and the power which only it commands to the task of overcoming the institutional racism that lies at the root of the disparities and inequalities addressed in this report.


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