By Maurice Mcleod
In the battle against systemic racism in Britain, one thing that we are not short of is reports and recommendations.
Over the years, there have been numerous reports on how race impacts the life experiences of black people in the UK. They take time and effort to compile and usually come with well thought out suggestions about how we can become a more equal society.
On the face of it, a report by the Joint Commission on Human Rights (JCHR), a cross-party select committee of MPs (none of whom are black) into ‘Black people, racism and human rights’, might not seem the most likely place to find effective tools against racism. However, last week’s report was surprisingly damning in its assessment of successive Government’s attempts to tackle anti-black racism in Britain.
The report looked at how black people feel about their lives in Britain, how they are actually treated and how effective the statutory organisation, tasked with fighting racism, really is. It also made 22 recommendations for steps that should be taken.
Much of the coverage of the report focused on its attitudinal findings.
One standout statistic was that 75% of black Britons believe their human rights are not as protected as white Britons, despite these rights being enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
There is a risk, though, with attitudinal studies. Many of the racism-sceptic think the real issue is one of narratives. The thinking is something along the lines of, ‘Black people are not treated unfairly, they just believe that they are’.
Perceptions are important. They shape how you view the world and how you interact with it. If such a sizeable proportion of people in a group believe they are being let down by the systems that are there to support them, this is a problem in itself. But, as the JCHR report asserted and the COVID pandemic showed beyond doubt, racism is very much a reality in modern Britain. Black and brown people didn’t die of COVID because of their perceptions, they died because of what they were expected to do, how they were forced to live and how they were protected.
The JCHR report found 78% of Black women and 49% of Black men didn’t believe their health was equally protected by the NHS compared to white people. These beliefs are backed up by recent reports which have found black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women, and black pregnant women are eight times more likely to end up in hospital with COVID-19.
While 224 white men per 100,000 caught Covid-19, 649 black men did the same.
Looking at the criminal justice system, the figures are even more stark. 85% of black people believe they will be treated more harshly than their white peers. This is backed up by the fact that black people were 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales, more than five times as likely to have force used against them, and were subject to the use of tasers at almost eight times the rate of white people.
The Committee reported that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is not adequately equipped to tackle deep-seated racism in the UK and called for a specific body to lead the fight. Gordon Brown’s government collapsed the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) into the new EHRC in 2007. The idea was that all protected characteristics would be defended by a single organisation but, just as direct action on anti-black racism is sometimes muddied by institutions’ BAME-focus, lumping all human rights monitoring under one roof just means the EHRC struggles to devote the time needed specifically to tackle racism. It was also noted that the EHRC currently has no Black commissioners.
The report also said that the EHRC has been drastically underfunded and this has an impact on how well it can fight racism. In its last year of operation, the CRE received £90 million in funding just to look at race. Last year, the EHRC was funded £17.1 million to protect the rights of all protected characteristics. The commission is basically being asked to do nine times the work for a fifth of the funding.
Most damning off all, the Committee noted that there had been 14 reports into race over the last 24 years making hundreds of recommendations but that many of these had not been implemented. It suggested there was a lack of political will to genuinely make change and this will be a tough thing for those working in the anti-racist voluntary sector to hear. Replying to reports, completing surveys and supplying evidence is not a small task for the underfunded groups working on these issues. It is particularly insulting to know your input is likely to sit in a report gathering dust and that no real change will happen.
The report said: “At best this can be viewed as negligent, at worst there is a sense that these reviews… are used by governments as a way of avoiding taking action to redress legitimate grievances.”
We are in a time of heightened racial awareness, when people whose ears and minds are usually closed to calls for equality from Black people are being forced to listen by the sheer weight of public opinion. If this is to be the moment we actually move forward on racial equality, the Government needs to walk the anti-racist walk, rather than just talking the talk. It needs to break with tradition and actually implement recommendations in a report on race. The JCHR report would be a reasonable place to start.
Maurice Mcleod is a Labour councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth and CEO of the social policy research organisation Race on the Agenda
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