The Sewell report cancels institutional racism and erases black struggles for justice and equality, argues Saleh Mamon
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Diversity Report (the Sewell Report) is to set the ‘new race agenda’ for the Johnson administration. Central to this is its politics, rather than the plethora of data it marshals.
Institutional racism cancelled
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, after the launch of the report, Dr Sewell said that while there was anecdotal evidence of racism, there was no proof that there was “institutional racism” in Britain.
The entire right wing media received this news with glee. The Daily Mail ran a front page “BRITAIN’S RACE REVOLUTION – Landmark report says UK is ‘a model to world’ on diversity- and finds NO evidence of institutional racism”. For the Sun it was the final proof that no structural and institutional racism exists in Britain and the dividing line of social inequality is class.
The publication of the report in 1999 of the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry chaired by Sir William Macpherson was a landmark in British legal and social history. Macpherson, after much deliberation, discarded earlier shibboleths of countering racial disadvantage through cultural compensation by funding ethnic projects recommended by the 1981 Scarman report and forced the establishment to accept that institutional racism needed to be tackled in the police force.
The commission argues that the Macpherson definition has been devalued through “linguistic inflation” and it should be “applied only when deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level”. It is difficult to understand this. Can’t allegations against an institution be made before proof?
This distorts the elegant clarity and directness of the Macpherson definition which states that
“It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.”
Furthermore, the report makes the astonishing claim that one of the key justifications for Macpherson’s findings of institutional racism was the under-reporting of racist crime and the problem has been solved.
In fact, the Macpherson report confirmed that the Met was “institutionally racist” because there was gross misconduct on the part of the police during the Stephen Lawrence case, primarily due to racism. Their misconduct included failure to administer first aid to the victim as well as failing to follow obvious leads and failure to arrest subjects. What was revealed over the years through investigations and reviews was that undercover police had undermined the Lawrence family’s campaign and there was corruption in the police force. Doreen Lawrence, who campaigned for 18 years for justice for her son’s murder, said that the claim that the system was no longer rigged against minorities could give racists a green light.
This would give government institutions, both central and local, the health service and the educational services a green light to periodically review their policy and practice to ensure that there is no institutional racism. There was great resistance against Macpherson’s proposal when it was published in 1999, and before it could be turned into a policy across institutions, the tabloids and right virtually killed it off. There is still massive resistance to tackling institutional racism that is woven over centuries of colonialism and slavery into the structures of society and into the instruments and institutions of local and central government, as Sivanandan put is so powerfully.
Windrush state racism condoned
The way in which the report deals with the Windrush scandal illustrates this well. Apart from the token gestures to the Windrush generation, their heroism, their experience, etc., the report does not recount how the lives of Black British citizens, who joined their parents legally as children but were deemed illegals as they became adults, were destroyed. Thousands lost their jobs through employment bans, lost pensions, lost homes because of lack of income to pay their mortgage, or through eviction if they rented, were denied access to health care, unlawfully deported as adults, refused re-entry to the UK and left traumatised and impoverished for years.
When these injustices were exposed by campaigners, a token ‘Windrush Day’ was declared by the perpetrator Theresa May and a fund set up to compensate the victims. Even then, the system failed to respond with urgency with just a trickle of money being awarded if they survived the ordeal. The report has the gall to say that that, “Outcomes such as these do not come about by design, and are certainly not deliberately targeted.”
It is widely accepted that this injustice was the direct result of the hostile environment created by the Home Office. This is quintessentially state racism arising from the Immigration Act 1971 which defines citizenship of two types, giving unrestricted right of abode to ‘patrials’ who were British citizens by birth or immigrating citizens who had an ancestral connection to the country, and a second class citizenship for ‘non-patrials’ who are largely Citizens of Commonwealth such as the Windrush generation and who no longer have the automatic right of abode.
Those who have suffered and those who campaigned to get justice for the Windrush victims are appalled by the report. There is no recommendation in the report to amend the immigration acts and remove the hostile environment which is still operated by the Home Office.
Sewell wrote in the foreword that there was a new story to be told about the “slave period” not just “about profit and suffering”, but about how “culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain”. It is best to read the excoriating criticism of this distortion of history from David Olusoga and other historians who found the report poisonously patronising and historically illiterate. Olusoga was shocked that the report deployed a version of an argument used by the slave owners in defence of slavery 200 years ago, the idea that by becoming culturally British, black people were somehow beneficiaries of the system. The report reduces slavery’s racial terror and Britain’s racial capitalism to a simple exchange of cultural ideas. The report fails to make clear that slavery entailed hundreds of years of crimes against the African people and the deaths of millions of African men, women and children justified on the basis that they were sub-human.
Deracinated, torn from their communities, their native languages and traditions, under immense odds slaves went on to create their own culture in song, dance and art. On many occasions they rebelled and fought for their freedom even though they were defeated by the slave owners who were backed by superior arms. The story of the Black Jacobins who successfully overthrew slavery in Haiti in 1791 to claim liberty and equality needs to be celebrated.
This is what the movement for toppling statues such as that of Edward Colston in Bristol is all about. It is about the removal of the memorial statues of slavers and the colonial history they represent. We live in a country where the crimes of slavery have not been recognised by the establishment which has refused to make any reparations. The report argues against reparations and considers ‘decolonising’ the curriculum to be negative.
Systemic racism in education and health underplayed
The report’s approach on educational achievement uses the evidence to highlight the significant differences between ethnic groups. Its analysis shows that using the threshold of strong GCSE passes in English and Maths as a measure, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups outperform the White British group on this measure by wide margins. Its new evidence indicates that attainment is closely related to socio-economic status – once this is controlled for, all major ethnic groups perform better than White British pupils except for Black Caribbean pupils (with the Pakistani ethnic group at about the same level). It also revives the argument that has been promoted by the right that ‘white working class’ people are disadvantaged by policies intended to help ethnic minorities to succeed.
From this it concludes that educational achievement is affected by different social, economic and cultural factors: parental income levels, parental career and educational achievement, geography, family structure, and attitudes towards education within the family and wider community. Hence racial bias in schools has limited effect on achievement.
Attempting to “control” for different factors is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how racism works. Often, various statistical factors, such as people’s socioeconomic status or geographic location, are themselves products of racism. For example, if a survey into educational attainment controlled for poverty, it might look, on paper at least, as if racism played less of a significant role. But this ignores the reality that poverty is often inherently related to racism, and is disproportionately experienced in the UK by ethnic minorities, with 50 percent of BAME households living in poverty compared to 19 percent of white households.
The findings of the report have been contested strongly by more than 400 academics and researchers on the ground that it “completely overlooked the substantial base of evidence in educational research that has shown how structural, institutional and direct racism works in and through schools, universities and other sites of education.”
Black Caribbean pupils are five times more likely to be excluded in some areas in England compared with other groups, and teachers consistently fail to address the overt racism that many Black pupils experience in schools. Last week it was reported that more than 60,000 incidents of racism were recorded over the last five years in UK schools. The latest research in London shows that government policies promoting Pupil Referral Units (PRU) and zero tolerance policies have resulted in a ‘PRU to prison pipeline’, criminalising black working class youth.
The report claims that “for many key health outcomes including life expectancy and overall mortality… ethnic minority groups have better outcomes than the White population.” The report also concludes that deprivation, “family structures,” and geography — not ethnicity – are key risk factors for health inequalities.
According to the British Medical Journal, this contradicts several decades of irrefutable peer-reviewed research which show that ethnic minorities have the worst health outcomes on almost all health parameters. The BMJ authors found that the report cherry-picked data to support a particular narrative in its conclusions and recommendations. Their data used was not externally peer-reviewed by independent health experts and scientists. There was no health expert amongst the commissioners.
The report ignores the overwhelming evidence that systemic racism, in particular residential segregation, which is rising in the UK, is a major driver of ethnic differences in socioeconomic status. Consequently, this segregation also affects health, due to poorer quality education, employment opportunities, and poorer access to resources to enhance health. The concentration of poverty in these areas leads to exposure to higher levels of multiple chronic and acute psychosocial stressors, greater clustering of these stressors, and greater exposure to undesirable social and environmental conditions.
The report is indifferent to empirical analyses that show that ethnic differences in health persist even after adjustment for socioeconomic status. In the UK, for example, Black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy than White women and Black people have a greater risk of detention under the Mental Health Act than White people.
Black and South Asian men are respectively 4.2 times and 3.6 times more likely to die from Covid-19 as their white counterparts. According to the report, these Covid-19 disparities are due to “genetic risk factors” along with “cultural” and “behavioural” factors. There is no evidence of “genetic risk factors”. Sufficient evidence exists showing that these disparities are partly due to high risk public-facing jobs, living conditions such as multigenerational households, poverty, chronic co-morbidities, as well as racial discrimination and the effects of structural racism such as residential segregation.
Hate Crimes, Stop and Search, Knife Crimes, Drugs and Gangs
Using police record and crime survey data, the commission find that during the 2018-2020 period there about 142 racially motivated hate crimes per day. There were over 10,000 incidents of violence without injury and about 4,500 incidents of violence with injury. But the commission fails to put hate crime in a wider social and political context of racial violence which has become normalised.
As Liz Fekete has convincingly argued, in reality hate is not an abstract category, and cannot be delinked from the material act, whether it is discrimination or physical violence. And hate is not merely the prejudice shown in individual encounters, but the verbal and physical working out in aggression of racist ideas imbued in individuals by a wider political framework that demonises minorities. Racially aggravated hate whether verbal or physical, is most often accompanied by violence, ranging from a public order offence on the street or on buses or trains to physical assault on individuals and criminal damage to religious and community centres.
Stop and search has been a major issue for the black community for years causing great resentment against the police amongst black youth. In almost every police force area, Black people had the highest recorded stop and search rate. In the Metropolitan Police force area where 60 percent of the black population resides, 80 percent of the searches target black people. The commission takes the view that Stop and Search is “a critical tool for policing when used appropriately and lawfully” – which is in agreement with the police who justify it for drug possession and knife crime.
The commissioners feel that is important to acknowledge other factors, in addition to racism, when considering disproportionality between ethnic groups in policing. So as an example, instead of asking the police why black young men in London are up to 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched, it wants the focus on why so many black children are brought up by single parents.
On ‘knife crime’, drug offences and gangs, the report does not offer us any ground-breaking analysis. It does not set out to analyse the extent to which the media and politicians distort the public perception and trigger panic. Such crime cariesy heavy racial connotations, with politicians linking it to the gang, drug and music culture of black youth.
Teenage knife crime is an episodic obsession with the tabloids’ front pages, blaming the ‘feral youth’ who run riot in our cities. For each family, it brings a tragedy. Vigils follow for the victim and public indignation rises. There are appeals from the police, mayoral statements, knife amnesties, a new charity in the name of the fallen and interventions by the politicians. All these efforts have little effect because positive interventions are dwarfed by austerity-driven decisions to cut youth services, underfund child mental health services and swingeing cuts to education and policing.
The complete failure by the commission to investigate how joint enterprise has been used by the police to arrest and imprison youth, not on the basis of committing a crime but solely for being associated it. A survey of 250 serving prisoners in 2016 found that three-quarters of the black and minority ethnic prisoners reported that the prosecution claimed that they were members of a ‘gang’, compared to only 39 percent of white prisoners. This apparent ‘gang’ affiliation’ was used to secure convictions, under joint enterprise provisions, for offences they have not committed. This searing injustice is one of the most intolerable for the nearly 4,500 families whose sons have been locked up without committing a crime.
The commissioners want us to recognise that the challenges the police face when dealing with both victims and perpetrators of crime are complex as the causes are beyond their control. In their view great strides have been made by the police towards becoming a service that can fairly police a multi-ethnic society. There is no attempt made to suggest how the police service should be made democratically accountable to the community, apart from the need for clarity and consistency in police communication for communities to understand the drivers of police activity.
Past injustices forgotten
The report observes that past injustices still loom large in perceptions of the police for some ethnic minority Britons, especially Black Caribbean people. Yet it does not recount what these injustices have been, nor that they are still going on.
There has been a deadly silence over black deaths in police custody over decades. There is a roll call produced by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) of deaths from 1978 to 2002. Their most recent covers the cases of 509 people from BME, asylum seeker and migrant communities who have died in custody, in suspicious circumstances, between 1991 and September 2014. Such violence occurs on many sites – on police patrol, home raids, on arrest, at the police station, in prisons, in hospital custody, etc. The families of those killed have formed a coalition to fight for justice and have reasonable demands that have still to be addressed by the government.
Britain’s industrial decline in the 1970s led to an increase in racist violence on the streets, including the deaths of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall (1976) and Altab Ali in London’s East End (1978). This led to the establishment of the Asian Youth Movement (AYM) to defend communities from racist attacks. Recently, the memories of the cruel killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 at Stockwell station are still fresh in people’s mind. The shooting of Azelle Rodney in 2005 was later found to be unlawful by an enquiry in 2013. The shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 by the police in Tottenham led to widespread riots in London and beyond.
This year we mark the 50th anniversary of the Mangrove Nine trial on charges arising from violent clashes with the police during a protest march. After 55 days at the Old Bailey, the Mangrove Nine were acquitted and forced the first judicial acknowledgment that there was “evidence of racial hatred” in the Metropolitan police.
The report mentions the significance of events such as the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 which shaped race relations legislation in the United Kingdom but fails to recognise that black struggles went from resistance to rebellion to change British society. From 1958’s Nottingham riots to 1981’s St Paul’s riots, followed by Brixton and five cities during Thatcher’s rule, these drew attention to the discontent of black people. There were more to follow 1985 (Handsworth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm), 1987 (Chapeltown), 1989 (Dewsbury), 1995(Brixton), 2001(Bradford), and 2011 (English cities following the shooting of Mark Duggan).
Great Britain the beacon
The commission’s eagerness to sell ‘Britain as a beacon’ is peppered throughout the report. It begins with the well-rehearsed Olympic opening ceremony as a metaphor for the unity and diversity of British society. Accordingly, Britain has fundamentally shifted from the past and has become a more open society entering a new era of ‘participation’. It has become a more ‘open’ and inclusive society.
This serves the government’s agenda after Brexit to portray the British nation as a beacon of good race relations and a diversity model for ‘white majority countries’. It claims that incremental progress has been made beyond doubt and that building on this progress is more important than refighting the battles of the past.
For this it is prepared to distort, sanitise and erase the history of black people’s struggle for justice and equality in the country which transformed it into a multicultural society. It finishes the job started by the Scarman Report of ethnicising minorities, with different ethnic minorities having nothing in common. In doing so, it seeks to advance the state’s drive to detach ethnic minorities from their history and prevent them from uniting.
The report fails to fully explore the intersection between class and race in Britain because for the commissioners these are invisible. It is blind to the exploitation of the labour of ethnic minorities who are vulnerable and occupy the lowest rungs in the labour market.
Hence all the all the contradictions that exist in British society are brushed under the carpet – the increasing social inequality, the class divisions between bosses and workers, the racial tensions fostered by the media, the existing institutional and popular racism, the warehousing of refugees, the unbridled executive power, the lack of democracy at local level, the draconian police powers, and the criminal justice system that does not provide justice for the many.
In its “Making of Modern Britain”, the report argues that black students should reclaim their British heritage. Yet when Black people do recover the contributions of their ancestors to British history and culture through struggles by bringing marginalised black communities and figures into mainstream history, the report patronisingly labels these as “tokens of black achievement”.
It envisages that the stories of different ethnic groups could be linked to create a unifying sense of ‘Britishness’. Further, it could contribute to a wider understanding of how the UK with its regions and four nations, as well as the Commonwealth and former colonies, are mutually connected in defining ‘Britishness’. Such a preoccupation with ‘Britishness’ would place limits on learning about the histories of the Caribbean, African countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc., in the making of the interdependent world which we share.
Astonishingly, the only “great example” it comes up is “a dictionary or lexicon of well-known British words which are Indian in origin.” For such a history to be truthful, it would need to include the history of resistance against oppression by colonial powers, of national liberation, of independence struggles, of insurgent politics, of the men and women who led such struggles, of the works of fiction that capture these. Such understanding seems to be beyond the commissioners.
Black struggles made invisible
The commission finds the biggest challenge for our age is not overt racism but building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years. Yet, at no stage, does it include the experience, resistance and struggles of black and ethnic minorities which produced the multi-cultural society here.
There were struggles against fascists attacking communities, struggles to make the police protect people against such attacks, struggles against the ‘Sus’ laws that criminalised black youth, struggles against deaths in police custody, struggles against Afro-Caribbean students classified as Educationally Subnormal, struggles for children not to be bussed out of schools, struggles to include other histories in the educational curricula, struggles to teach the roots of racism and much more. Ignoring such a rich history of struggles as a foundation cannot take us forward in building policies.
The commissioners deserve contempt in the way they portray anti-racism as “bleak new theories about race that insist on accentuating our differences” and an “increasingly strident form of anti-racism thinking that seeks to explain all minority disadvantage through the prism of white discrimination”. Anti-racist campaigns and intellectual ideas over the last 50 years made a real difference. There would not have been an inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder without the relentless six-year campaign to force the government to set it up.
There are giants of anti-racist analysis whose legacy continues to influence black activists – C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Claudia Jones, Stuart Hall, Darcus Howe, Sivanandan amongst others. They did not fight “white discrimination”, they fought the embedded systemic racism in unity with many white activists. They wanted to create a plural tolerant society for the common good of all where black and white working classes are united. There are activists like Cecil Gutzmore (Brixton Defence Campaign) who witnessed the Brixton uprising, Suresh Grover (The Monitoring Group) who was involved in defence of Southall against National Front attacks in 1979 when Blair Peach was killed, and many more who are still alive to tell stories of resistance and self-defence.
There is a remarkable absence of calls for the accountability of institutions, of those who exercise power, including the government. Instead the report is an instrument for providing the narrative to mould social reality. It is essentially a conservative manifesto to manage ethnic minorities in the years ahead and maintain the status quo.
Its anodyne recommendations about trust, fairness, partnership and transparency are in the government’s comfort zone. They may be useful but are largely regulatory and do not touch fundamental issues such as the hostile environment, racist immigration laws and regulations, injustices under counter-terrorism laws, police accountability, injustices in the criminal justice system or the free play of media racism.
Furthermore, the report is remarkably consistent with the historical amnesia and vicious historical revisionism of colonialism pedalled by the far right. In line with this, the report mischaracterises the demands of ‘decolonising’ as the ‘banning of white authors’, a crude attack line often used in the culture war agenda. This also promotes the idea of white victimhood and discounts race inequity as a lesser problem. It adds credence to the false binary that the nation faces a choice between addressing racial inequalities or class disadvantage.
The report is deeply marred by its misuse of data to pursue polemical points to push its own agenda. It castigates those who see institutional racism as a significant factor and promotes an illusory meritocracy, where individuals are wholly responsible for their own success and Black and ethnic minority students must simply work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they are to succeed.
Developments have already left this report behind. Racism does not stand still but changes according to the economic, social and political framework. Globalisation has fuelled the displacement of people, both through war and economic capture of the global South through neo-liberalism. The racism that is meted out to asylum seekers and migrants who may also be white, particularly from Eastern Europe, is an amalgam of xenophobia and the existing racism, a xeno-racism as defined by Sivanandan.
The last two decades have seen the rise of a new racism, that against Muslims across Europe, the US and elsewhere. This new racism sees the two trajectories of the war on asylum and the war on terror converge. It is, in the words of Sivanandan,
“a racism which cannot tell a settler from an immigrant, an immigrant from an asylum seeker, an asylum seeker from a Muslim, a Muslim from a terrorist. We are, all of us blacks and Asian, at first sight, terrorists and illegals. We wear our passports on our faces or, lacking them, we are faceless.”
As far as the struggle against racism goes, the report is irrelevant but we have to fight its pernicious underpinning ideas which would set us back by 20 years. We have to fight the existing racism at all levels and the far right that is continually raising its ugly head. Whether it is the control of borders, the immigration laws or the terrorism laws, the state is behind this racism which shows its different faces in the form of the institutional racism of government ministries, local government, the media and the popular racism they foster.
We need to support all campaigns fighting against racism and for justice such as the Black Lives Matter UK, the United Families & Friends Campaign, Stand Up To Racism and many others. We need to support those campaigns and organisations that are monitoring and researching racism and collating data to provide us the material to fight with.
We need to oppose the stigmatisation of communities by the newspapers and join campaigns for media reform and accountability. We need to build a broad coalition of activists, students, academics, lawyers and artists to fight against racism, against the demonisation of migrants, against deportation, and to defend human rights, the fundamental rights to protest, freedom of association, freedom from state surveillance, the right to fair trials and much more.
Saleh Mamon is a retired teacher who campaigns for peace and justice. His research interests focus on imperialism and underdevelopment, both their history and continuing presence. He is committed to democracy, socialism and secularism. He blogs at https://salehmamon.com/
Image: Author: Mike Phipps
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts