There has been much press attention on the long-awaited Sewell report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Whilst it may be an official report, we should take its suggestions that the UK is a multicultural green and pleasant land with a grain of salt.
By now, countless articles have been published on the Sewell report with many different takes, some much hotter than others. The report itself is nearly 300 pages long and a quick headline can easily lose the nuances and details of such an extensive document, so we have read the entire report to summarise and respond to some of the key points from the perspective of a BAME women’s charity staffed primarily by women of colour.
No doubt one of the most infamous findings from the report is the lack of structural or institutional racism in the UK, which is, instead, hailed as “a successful multicultural community – a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world” (p.8). Whilst the ethnic diversity of the Commission should be acknowledged, this should not be taken to equate to a lack of blind spots. Everyone is vulnerable to being blind to their own privilege. A simple Google search or mental trawl of memories of comments prominent politicians and figures in the UK have made about ethnic minorities, including individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds, will produce an endless number of instances of racial discrimination.
The report notes that the term “institutional racism” is only accurate where there is “deep-seated racism”, not for “any microaggression, witting or unwitting” (p.8). Those of us who have been victims of microaggressions know just how profoundly damaging and overlooked such behaviours can be, the impacts of which are by no means of a micro size. Furthermore, whilst intentional microaggression could be argued to be a conscious individual decision, any “unwitting” microaggression, i.e. subconscious or unconscious, by default must stem from engrained instinctive habits, and racial discrimination is only engrained through being accepted in society.
This is without even mentioning some of the flagship policies of the current government and its predecessors, many of which we have long campaigned in favour of abolishing. Such policies include:
- the ‘hostile environment’ that pits citizen against citizen to remove the ‘wrong sorts’ of immigrants from the country, which results in ethnic minorities being targeted, most notably through the Windrush disaster;
- extremely restrictive immigration and refugee policies that contravene international law;
- ‘stop and search’ measures that are massively disproportionately used on Black men and boys;
- and the Prevent counterterrorism strategy — much lauded (by the government and supporters) but also much criticised (by charities and activists) for its Islamophobic effects.
The tone of the report is at best paternalistic and patronising, and at worst downright insulting, by repeating the entrenched and extremely harmful tropes that ethnic minorities should be grateful for what they have and that our communities would be fine if they only “[helped] themselves through their agency, rather than wait for invisible external forces to assemble to do the job” (p.7). Ironically, these external forces would, in fact, be the forces of antiracism to counteract the original forces that put these communities into a greatly disadvantaged position to begin with.
Black Lives Matter is dismissed as youth idealism and “inter-generational mistrust”, whilst arguments on White privilege are slammed as accomplishing nothing “beyond alienating the decent centre ground” (p.27), with the implication that decent people do not care to think about White privilege. Similar suggestions that one ethnic minority is better or lazier than the other, or that “there is a new story about the Caribbean experience [of]… the slave period” (p.8) beyond being tortured, oppressed, objectified, and treated as property, do not deserve any attention beyond awareness being drawn to their existence in a report by an ‘independent’ organisation tasked to analyse racism in the UK. Nevertheless, these sentiments seem to typify institutional racism.
The document is inconsistent and incoherent on many levels. In this same report that denounces antiracist movements, racial equality is discussed in the lens of expectation, with current ethnic minorities being ‘praised’ for having “higher expectations of equal treatment” and not “tolerating” racism (p.11). Apart from racial equality being a fundamental right rather than an expectation, the constant active voice used is entirely at odds with the realities of racism, when ethnic minorities are subject to racist abuse from individuals and discrimination from society and institutions. The latter reduces many minority communities to passive victims with very few options beyond trying to continue to speak out.
Even more concerning is what happened behind the scenes, which we are unlikely to ever know. Experts cited in the report have expressed their surprise at being quoted without their prior knowledge and fury at having their research misrepresented for ostensibly political purposes. The controversy surrounding the findings and conclusions, and extremely restrictive pre-publication release embargo — which all but guaranteed positive press until people got round to reading the report in full — have also led many to question the political motivations behind the report. Some have suggested that the report was specifically geared towards the government’s political interests, whilst others have suggested that the report was and is being used as a mechanism to distract from other government failures, most notably the ongoing response to the pandemic.
Regardless, JAN Trust will continue to speak out against all forms of racism and empower our marginalised minority communities. Whilst the report sees “objective data” as superior to lived experiences that bias research against “minority self-reliance and resilience” (p.31), we give a voice to those whose voices are often ignored or belittled. To paraphrase a well-known phrase, one million may be dismissible as a general statistic, but there is no denying the tragedy of even one individual suffering from the effects of racism. Please see more information on our work on our website and donate to support us in our mission to speak truth to power.