LONDON — Commissioning a report that endorses your existing approach on race is one way to deal with the Black Lives Matter movement.
That appears to have been the Boris Johnson tactic — revealed when a government-ordered commission on race and ethnic disparities reported on the state of race relations in the U.K. on Wednesday.
The 256-page document — albeit written by an independent group of appointees that includes the head of an educational charity, a space scientist and a businessman — reads like a long-form version of the government’s world view. It can be summed up thus: racism does exist, but ignore the “woke warrior” arguments that Britain is a racist nation.
“Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” the report said. “The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.”
It’s an idea other European leaders, grappling with their response to the Black Lives Matter protests, might be tempted to take up. But the Johnson approach left no suggestion Britain’s debate about race will be put to bed anytime soon — and sparked claims the prime minister, whose top team have long argued that racism in Britain is not the force it once was, is trying to downplay serious problems.
The report argues racism is still a “real force” in the U.K. but that class, geography, family, culture and religion all have a “more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism,” mirroring arguments put forward by ministers.
It was not all plain sailing for Johnson, however. The report makes a string of recommendations he will have to consider, including better equipping the separate Equalities and Human Rights Commission to take on racism in institutions; more training and accountability for police over controversial stop and search practices; and getting to grips with an ethnic pay gap in the National Health Service.
A dedicated office should meanwhile be set up to track health inequalities that have been thrown into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic.
Other suggestions are more controversial. A rejigging of England’s school curriculum should tell a “new story” about the British Empire, it argues. Employers should ditch “unconscious bias” equality training that the government has previously argued is ineffective.
And the report proposes a fresh approach to the “Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.” Marsha de Cordova, equalities spokesperson for the opposition Labour Party, branded that an attempt to put a “positive spin on slavery and empire.”
War on woke
Yet the report follows the government playbook in its pointed attacks on anti-racism campaigners. It accused BLM of dividing society and being “fatalistic” in its suggestion nothing has improved on the discrimination front.
“We understand the idealism of those well-intentioned young people who have held on to, and amplified, this inter-generational mistrust,” it read. “However, we also have to ask whether a narrative that claims nothing has changed for the better, and that the dominant feature of our society is institutional racism and white privilege, will achieve anything beyond alienating the decent center ground — a center ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities.”
It said “well organized single-issue” groups peddling identity politics and appealing to emotion rather than data had made a lot of noise but were wrong. And it claimed the accusation of racism has become diluted through overuse, with terms like “white privilege” and “microaggressions” only serving to alienate.
It’s a familiar refrain from Johnson’s government. Earlier this year, Equalities Secretary Liz Truss argued the debate on race and discrimination had become “dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices” who prefer lived experience to data.
Tony Sewell who was appointed to chair the commission, had argued in the past that “much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy,” a concern echoed by Johnson’s top policy adviser Munira Mirza. Sewell told the BBC on Wednesday morning he was not part of a “war on woke.”
Yet the government did not help to quell suspicions with the launch of the report. It sent out a press note to journalists the night before, featuring limited extracts that trumpeted a promising picture in education, and told reporters who agreed to receive the embargoed material from the report they could not solicit views from campaign groups before publication — classic techniques to control the narrative.
Sewell was then sent out for interviews in the early morning before the report was published, meaning he could not be questioned on its full findings. Downing Street looked as though it was spinning the document in its favor.
Culture war continues
No-one thought the report would put the racism debate in Britain to bed, and it arrives in a social media frenzy that can elevate emotional arguments.
But the risk for Johnson is that its dismissal of institutional racism in Britain, and its attacks on campaigners, only raises the temperature. Halima Begum, chief executive of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, told the BBC “institutionally, we are still racist,” and said it was “deeply, deeply worrying” for a government report to deny that.
Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said the report had “chosen to divide us once more,” telling his LBC Radio show Johnson had chosen to bend the arc of the moral universe “backwards.”
It will be no loss to Johnson that the report creates a fresh headache for Labour too. Lammy is one of the party’s most prominent voices on race. But Labour’s leader Keir Starmer is split between a left-wing metropolitan support base seen as sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, and socially conservative voters who tend to dislike “woke” culture, including many in the party’s former heartlands it needs to win again.
On a visit to Leeds this morning ahead of its publication, Starmer lamented that the report was expected to deny racism in Britain is “structural.” But it was telling that the leader himself made no public pronouncement in the hours following its release.
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