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Government’s race report runs into the culture war

31 March 2021

By Scott Harker

The publication of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report has triggered a backlash after it found that the system in the UK is not ‘deliberately rigged’ and is ‘a model’ for other countries.

Elements of the report were leaked overnight prior to it being published in full this morning. The 264-page report makes 24 recommendations and admits that racism has ‘real force’ in the UK but argued that this was not born out institutionally and that one’s social class and family life were more important to determining future success than one’s race.

The report goes further in its recommendations, arguing that the term ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)’ should be disaggregated and is no longer helpful in understanding the disparities in outcomes experienced by specific ethnic groups. The incidence of unconscious bias is also downplayed, and the report recommends that employers and the Government look elsewhere to ‘more evidence-based approaches’ to create greater fairness in education and the workplace.

Critics of the report include the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust. The Trust’s CEO, Dr Halima Begum, has said that she is ‘outraged’ by the report’s findings and accused it of playing into the Government’s wider ‘culture war’ agenda by denying the existence of institutional racism.

A factor referenced by many critics of the report is the decision by the Prime Minister to appoint Dr Tony Sewell CBE to lead the Commission. Dr Sewell has previously been highly critical of the term ‘institutional racism’ and disputed its existence.

In defending the report’s recommendations, Dr Sewell has cited that the report’s findings are based on a wide data set made available by the Cabinet Office Race and Disparity Unit. He has also pointed to the report acknowledging the existence of racism, particularly on social media. Upon analysing the data, the Commission states that it found evidence of some biases but that: “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.

Among the early reaction to the report is an important point. The report places great emphasis on disproving deliberate incidence of structural racism but for example ascribes the higher rates of death from COVID-19 among Black African men compared with White British men to geographic and socio-economic factors. While it may not be deliberate, such a correlation between one’s ethnicity and economic conditions and occupation points to factors that could be called ‘structural’.

The report has ultimately played into contemporary political divisions and the way that its findings have been framed to hold the UK up as a ‘model’ serve to undermine its practical recommendations. Many of these do have the potential to bring about positive change, including the recommendation to establish an Office for Health Disparities to study and target health disparities, and to improve transparency in the use of data and artificial intelligence.

Although the report has aimed to provide greater nuance to discussions around race, it only seems to have drawn attention to political and racial divides in the UK. Although the recommendations from the report are yet to be taken forward and generate their own outcomes, the initial response suggests that we have some way to go before we can reach a consensus on the matter.