Race equality think tank Runnymede Trust responds to the Sewell report

A new Government report says institutional racism isn't an issue, where its critics say it's sabotaging growing allyship forged since Black Lives Matter

A UK race equality think tank has responded to the findings of the Sewell report that suggested institutional racism wasn’t an issue in the country.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ new report that suggested social class and “family structure” had a bigger impact on peoples’ lives than race has received criticism from many different groups.

In an online talk moderated by Dr Halima Begum, Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, equalities activist Lord Simon Woolley, Windrush campaigner, Dr Patrick Vernon, and Michael Hamilton, Programme Director at African Diaspora social enterprise The Ubele Initiative, the report was discussed in-depth.

Responses to the report

Their biggest concern was the report’s denial of structural racism, which, they feared, would stall efforts to remedy racial inequalities. They also agreed the content of the report was less important than its implications for racial equality.

Vernon said the report was “styled in a way that said people of colour were victims of their own misfortune,” while those who were involved in the report, including prime minister Boris Johnson and educational consultant Tony Sewell, have been critical of the concept of institutional racism, making the report’s conclusion unsurprising.

Vernon criticised the report’s inference that talent was all young people needed to progress and referenced the fact that despite the high proportion of BAME employment in the NHS, very few people of colour make it to Chief Executive or Medical Director roles.

He also said the report “shouldn’t be taken too seriously” as those involved in its production didn’t understand “modern-day racism.” He also questioned whether the report would be implemented in any meaningful way.

Begum said the report inferred that “racism was something of the past”, adding that the killing of George Floyd by police and the impact COVID-19 on the BAME community show that conclusion to be questionable.

Woolley said the report was “steeped in denial” and wasn’t for BAME people but for the “white working class” and “Middle England” communities in a bid to win votes. He also said it was “pitting poor white people against poor Black people” in what he called “the politics of division.”

Allyship and Black Lives Matter

He called the report a ‘missed opportunity’ to have important conversations about race and human value, where the consciousness-raising among white people witnessing the Black Lives Matter movement and the realisation of gross inequalities have been wasted by a government that’s not ready to address these issues.

He also said the government wanted to rewrite the narrative about racism and remove “victimhood culture.”

He pointed to the facts that show Black people face inequality, where job candidates have to apply “eight times more just to get an interview.”

He then referred to the fact that stop and search for Black youths went up by 25% during the lockdown period last summer, calling these “systemic problems that have to be called out.”

Hamilton said the Black Lives Matter movement had sparked a positive consciousness-raising among “Middle-England,” where his social enterprise, Ubele, received calls from head-teachers and C-Suite leaders asking what they could do to help; he said the report was “arresting this movement.”

Woolley said allyship is key, as is communicating that equality for minorities is good for white people too, adding: “My win is your win too; we have to do this together.

“Never before in British society have senior business leaders said ‘if Black Lives Matter is to mean anything, what do I need to do?’ They are engaging in that process, and the government needs to catch up.”

He added that in Britain’s post-Brexit reality, the country will need all its talent to be unlocked and nurtured.

Begum then asked the speakers to explain “structural racism” to people that don’t know, which she added, can’t be confused for “imposter syndrome or microaggressions.”

Structural racism

Vernon said structural racism was linked to “power and privilege” where you only have to look at the Cabinet and the boards of FTSE 100 firms and see “only see one of or two people of colour.”

He also said the report was an extension of Boris Johnson’s “world view” that other ethnic minorities were ‘doing well’ compared to those of Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Hamilton said structural racism is a series of forces that “come together” to deny people of colour power and opportunity and “deny us the benefits of a society that we should be part of.”

Woolley said it is defined by “the order of white supremacy” and using the example of the NHS, where 40% of those working there are BAME, yet at a senior level “are less than 2%”. He called this “structural inequality” that says “we are better than you.”

In a separate response to the report, Debbie Forster, CEO of the Tech Talent Charter, said: “We are shocked by the findings of the new UK Government Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report. Our experience of working with more than 550 UK companies has shown that ethnic minorities are disadvantaged at almost every stage of the tech talent pipeline, and 58% of our members tell us that they are already focused on addressing systemic issues within their own organisations, a number we believe will grow.

“To lead with the finding that the UK does not suffer from systemic or institutionalised racism ignores the experiences of many ethnic minority communities and individuals, which fact itself highlights that we are not yet at a point of societal inclusion of their perspectives.

“While it contains many interesting and valid findings, we are extremely concerned that the positioning of this report will have a directly negative impact on important work being done to address inequality. It could result in a slowdown in momentum on diversity at a critical time when ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the negative economic outcomes of the pandemic.”

To watch the full conversation hosted by the Runnymede Trust, please click here.


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