The Runnymede trust has just submitted a new report to the UN’s International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The Trust’s submission concludes that Britain has failed to meet its ICERD obligations, is ‘deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities’ and that ‘racism is systemic in England and impacts the enjoyment of rights of BME groups.’
This contrasts with the findings of the ‘Sewell Report’, published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in March 2021. The report notes that unsubstantiated overuse of concepts like ‘systemic racism’ to explain all race-based disparities can be antithetical to advancing equality in the UK.
If we wish to understand disparate outcomes between groups, we must analyse the multiple variables that may influence that outcome. For example, amongst children on free school meals, 52 per cent of Black African children progress to higher education, whilst only 24 per cent do from black Caribbean backgrounds. Pupils of Black Caribbean heritage are also notably more likely to be handed an exclusion (fixed-period and permanent) than their co-racial African-heritage peers. How can we explain these stark contrasts amongst the UK’s black population? Racism obviously cannot account for these disparities, so what else is going on?
DDU believes that to understand outcomes, we must examine multiple inputs – such as socio-economic background, family structure, cultural norms, and geographical inequality. The progression and development of ethnic-minority groups in the ‘host country’ can be heavily influenced by the level of socio-economic resources possessed by first-generation migrants. Mono-causal explanations of disparity that refuse to consider a diversity of factors are likely to impede equality by failing to address root causes. This fundamental error is replicated throughout the Trust’s ICERD submission. Disparities in outcomes relating to education and pay simply do not support a tale of enduring and deeply entrenched racism at every level of society, or even within all levels of a single institutional sphere.
The Report raises some genuine issues of concern, such as the persistent pay penalty in black male graduate pay. But concludes that the fact that pay penalties with no other explanation persist ‘exposes how well embedded race discrimination is.’ But there is much more data suggesting a complex picture. According to data from 2018, London, at 21.7 per cent, had the largest pay gap between white and minority ethnic groups, but ethnic minority employees from the North East had average earnings that were 6.5 per cent higher than the average earnings of white employees. Moreover, the pay gap between white and other minority ethnic groups was less for younger employees ages 16-30, than for older employees. This suggests that pay gaps have been decreasing over time. This does not disprove the existence of racism as one possible factor in accounting for pay disparities, but it does raise serious questions about the idea that race discrimination is the dominant, or sole, contributing factor.
With regards to educational outcomes, again the simplistic tale constructed from highly selective interpretations and weak conceptualisations obscure rather than elucidate deeper, persistent problems which may cut along lines of race. For example, Runnymede’s criticism of the Timpson Review as a lost opportunity to expose underlying institutional racism is not supported by empirical evidence. The rate of temporary exclusions for black pupils has fallen from 5.65 in the year 2006-2007, to 5.36 in the year 2018-2019. More significantly, the rate of temporary exclusions for white pupils in the same year was 5.8, which was second to the rate for mixed pupils at 6.29. Similarly, in relation to educational outcomes by qualification, in 2020 the CRED commissioners found that 26.9 per cent of Black Caribbean pupils achieved a strong pass in GCSE Maths and English compared to 44.3 per cent of African pupils, a higher percentage than their white peers. Or if we look to the figures for Attainment 8 results from 2019-2020, the year when grades were centre assessed rather than through national examination, the score for Black Caribbean pupils was 44.0, for Black African pupils it was 50.9 and for White pupils it was 49.7. The weakly conceptualised term ‘institutional racism’ simply fails to speak to the complexity of disparities that exist.
The Trust was not always this way inclined. Its 2000 report, led by Lord Parekh, argued encouragingly that race relations in Britain were the best in Europe and that the notion that the country has severe racial problems was a “skewed and partisan” view. A view replicated by opinion poll after an opinion poll on UK attitudes towards race and equality. And in 2018 the Trust’s then Director, Omar Khan, wrote a eulogy to Ambalavaner Sivanandan which praised the late thinker’s nuanced views on the need for self-organisation of some groups while eschewing identity politics.
The current Runnymede Trust overarching narrative of a wholesale institutionally racist Britain is contradicted by one of the most comprehensive public opinion surveys ever conducted in human history, the EU’s 2019 report, Discrimination in the European Union. This showed that the UK is one of the least racist societies on earth. On political leadership, 88 per cent of UK citizens were comfortable with a person of different ethnicity holding the highest political position; on being comfortable working with somebody from other races, 95 per cent. More instructive, 86 per cent of UK citizens stated that they would be perfectly comfortable if one of their children were in a loving relationship with somebody from a different race. This is now reflected in the fact that the UK has one of the world’s highest per capita mixed-ethnicity households. None of this denies the possibility of discrete examples of racist acts or prejudiced attitudes continuing to exist, but it does give lie to an emerging anti-democratic narrative that sees the demos of Britain as de facto racist and in need of major cultural change. While there has been much conversation about systemic racism in policing, a survey by Hope Not Hate found around two in three British ethnic-minority people believe the police are a force for good on the whole and that racism in policing is down to a few problematic individuals.
To advance equality for all UK citizens, we need more nuance and understanding. Not simplistic narratives that argue any negative disparity between groups indicate a systemic racial conspiracy. At DDU, we were highly critical of the Sewell report in many areas. Still, we recognised both its significant contribution in examining the multiple factors that go into shaping life chances for the UK’s multi-ethnic population and for rejecting simplistic narratives on race that have barely moved on from where the UK was forty years ago. We also recognise that public domestic policy, in general, needs to consider potential effects on citizens of a national polity rather than citizens as members of a particular ethnic group. There may be times when policy is legitimately directed at specific racial groups, but these would need to be subjected to wide public scrutiny and strict delimitations of scope and duration.
There is much to do, but we believe that recognising what works and what does not is the best way to advance equality in the UK today. There is an urgent need to recognise the fullest range of possible influences that shape the existence and distribution of material and cultural disadvantages today. Without this not only will public policy-making suffer, but any hope of building a democratic national narrative through which a level of social solidarity is maintained, is weakened. This poses problems for those newcomers to Britain who wish to make a life here for themselves and their families. Without some kind of positive, inclusive culture, what are they being asked to integrate into? A narrative defined by racism alone, irrespective of empirical evidence, will be unconvincing at best, and, at worst, can exacerbate resentment and cynicism in our multi-racial democracy.