BASW comments on the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities Report March 2021
‘A government gaslighting initiative with little merit’
Ruth Allen, BASW CEO; Shantel Thomas, BASW Anti-racism lead Wales/Cymru, Northern Ireland and Scotland; Narinder Sidhu BASW Equality and Diversity Lead – UK; Wayne Reid, BASW Anti-racism lead, England.
The report has left me feeling angry, frustrated, let-down and mistrustful – it totally minimises the experiences of people from racialised groups.
The report made no real attempt to understand racism in all its forms; instead, it will be used by the government to sweep the issues under the carpet so as to avoid accountability/ responsibility. It is absurd to deny the existence of structural/institutional racism and to expect the ‘victims’ to remedy the situation.
David Lammy’s report and Theresa May’s Race Disparity Audit (2017) outlined clear evidence of systematic racism – ultimately, this report does not deserve a response as it is not based on fact, research, or evidence. It is based solely on propaganda with the sole aim to legitimise the government’s racist policy agenda.
The recent report from the government’s Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities lays out a largely regressive agenda based on a false assessment of progress in tackling racism across society and a minimising perspective on people's real experiences.
Boris Johnson set up the Commission in summer 2020 - early in the pandemic, when racial inequalities in health outcomes were becoming well known and after the international outpouring of anger at the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and all which that represented at home and abroad. He appointed Dr Tony Sewell to Chair the Commission of ten members from diverse ethnic backgrounds to investigate the state of race relations and ethnic and racial ‘disparities’ across education, employment, crime and policing and health.
It is now seems clear from the report that the Commission was established to create a reactionary, sunny-uplands counter narrative to the growing strength of feeling and evidence of racialised disadvantage across the country which has included the growth of the Black Lives Matter campaign, the surge of interest in the history and legacy of slavery and colonialism, multiple pieces of rapid research into Covid’s effects on health, mortality, poverty, mental wellbeing and work insecurity and in rising concerns about the government’s plans to undermine human rights legislation and implement ‘tougher’ approaches to immigration and asylum in the post-Brexit era.
While not denying racism exists in various forms, the report uses data very selectively (much of it apparently from Cabinet Office large data sets) to create an impression of progress that is refuted by other evidence. For instance, Professor Michael Marmot’s highly regarded work on health inequalities and race is selectively referenced from 2010, while his more recent work from 2020 which presents more evidence on widening disparities is not cited at all. He criticises the report’s contention that health inequalities should be considered an outcome of factors such as deprivation and poor housing ‘instead of’ ethnicity, pointing out that such socio economic conditions are themselves often the result of longstanding inequalities and structural racism. Class and race intersect.
Some of the overarching messages of this report are that institutional racism doesn’t exist or certainly is well on its way out; that poverty and poor educational attainment in predominantly white communities is more intractable than amongst Black and minority ethnic communities and (in effect) this should reduce the policy focus on race and racism; that class and family formation are often now more important than racism and ethnicity in shaping people’s life chances and experiences and that people – Black and white – often don’t believe the ‘data’ or stories of progress and success of Black and minority ethnic British people and of positive change in powerful institutions like the police.
Of course we want to recognise real progress for organisations and individuals and some of the data in the report on shifting societal attitudes are important to note. But genuinely good messages in the report are undermined by flipping the need for more ongoing change in major organisations into a problem of ‘mistrust’ in institutions by Black people.
As BASW’s Narinder Sidhu has put it ‘it is a perfect well written government gaslighting initiative which has little merit’.
The report from the outset sets a scene that it ‘speaks to a new period, which we have described as the era of ‘participation’. We can only speak of ‘participation’ if we acknowledge that the UK has fundamentally shifted since those periods in the past and has become a more open society’. I hope we get to this ‘new period’. However, I believe at present we are so far from that destination. Those that continue to lead the way on that path will remain vigilant to such misleading tactics to avert from the real racism crisis across the UK. The Commissioners roadmap will lead only to further racial disparities. The systems which are referred to in the report are still rigged against ethnic minorities and will continue to be until Government and all institutions of power accept this and act.
Let’s think about Windrush, hate crime increasing after Brexit, a rise of nationalist and racist ideologies against refugees in Europe, Black Lives Matter, recent policing bill which clearly targets the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community and attempts to silence the voice of future demonstrators/speakers and organisations across the UK which lack diversity in their work force. The report seems to be out of touch with the ‘real-world’ to say the least.
Personal, systemic and structural racism.
From the language and concepts used in the first pages, it is evident this report has been written to quell dissent and undermine the legitimacy of contemporary protest against personal, systemic and structural racism.
It suggests Black communities since the 1950s have come through three ‘eras’; the ‘heroism’ of the Windrush generation and the ‘rebel’ era of protest in the 70s and 80s (both concepts borrowed from Linton Kwesi Johnson) and is now in an era which the report calls one of ‘participation’.
This concept implies the struggle for rights and justice is over because participation (on equal terms?) is now the norm.
This is wholly at odds with most other serious reports, research and lived experience accounts on race and persistent racism in Britain today.
The Commission paints the UK as an already ‘open-door’ society and the authors major on Black people’s individual, family and community responsibility for getting on with taking opportunities.
Agency and choices are always part of overcoming barriers and traumas in life. But the reality of disempowerment and layered disadvantage is massively downplayed in this report. And because key institutions such as the police and NHS now have more equality policies and may not be as overtly intentionally racist as they once were, the report implies they cannot be ‘institutionally racist’.
Yet cultural norms, unintended consequences, discriminatory taken-for-granted ways of doing things, dominant cliques, indirect exclusions and unconscious bias can all sustain racism and unequal outcomes for Black people even in organisations with better intent.
The high over-representation of Black people in detention in the mental health system, despite the growing numbers of Black staff including in senior roles and a host of initiatives to reverse the trend in detentions over years, is an example of an institution operating without (largely) openly racist intention but with persistent discriminations at all touch points in the system leading to outcomes that harm, blight and often shorten lives.
As an Association, we are mindful of racist propaganda being a distraction to the anti-racism movement. We must reflect fully and act robustly as/when required. White supremacy is often more palatable when it is communicated by people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Of course, the incentives of money and power are enough to seduce most human beings regardless of their ethnic background.
Sir William Macpherson (RIP) coined the term ‘institutional racism’ when reporting on the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1999. The report from the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities does not provide any credible evidence that institutional racism is eliminated. Furthermore, it is unclear how the panel are qualified to assess and conclude this. We will continue to combat ‘institutional racism’ and ‘racist policies’ and evaluate their contemporary relevance to Social Work.
‘The centre ground’
The report adopts a tone and content of ‘its ok – everything is going in the right direction’ . It also appeals to the ‘decent centre ground’ (p27). Such a concept on a matter like racism and racialised inequality inevitably - and very worryingly - implies that racists on one side and protesters against racism on the other are somehow equally ‘wrong’ for not taking an orderly position within a ‘centre ground’ of compromise.
As an anti-racist organisation, BASW believes a notion of ‘centre ground’ on racism as laid out in this report is utterly wrong. There is no ‘centre ground’ on racism, only committed actions and generous, open hearted motivation to reduce and end it. The centre ground is a dangerously distracting concept designed to appeal to constituencies of people who find anti-racism action and hard truths too threatening.
The report reproduces some of the red herrings that feed such white privilege fears. For instance, the report wrongly and objectionably mischaracterises ‘decolonising the curriculum’ in education as ‘banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement’. As Professor David Olusoga has written in his excoriating take down of the report (Guardian 02 April 2021) what is actually happening in universities is ‘curricula are being expanded to include the voices and the stories of formerly colonised people’.
Dangerously the report also suggests a focus on racism against Black and minority ethnic communities somehow takes away from dealing with the serious issues and inequalities amongst many white communities where poverty, poor educational attainment and lack of opportunities are ingrained. In doing this, and in the clumsy way sensitive issues are discussed, the report plays straight into white populism and divisive politics while professing to do the opposite and to be ‘inclusive’.
All social determinants of health and wellbeing should be addressed. None should be subordinated or less deserving of political will and none should be pitched against each other as if there is a finite supply of anti-oppressive action, compassion and commitment available to us as human beings.
The impact of the report – a platform for racism
The report is patronising particularly but not exclusively to young people asking difficult, piercing questions about previous generations’ inadequate progress in overturning racism. It is patronising towards those who have been outraged and protested for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, demanded educational curricula that reflect their lives, concerns and a more inclusive history, and asked the necessary hard questions about starkly elevated risk of harm and death for Black, Asian and other minority ethnic people in the pandemic.
The report has attracted widespread and immediate criticism from diverse commentators - and at least one of the originally cited authors have disassociated themselves from it.
Whether the authors intend it or not, it provides a platform to racism deniers and minimisers and is divisive particularly in how it seems to deny experiences of racism, and in seeing action on racism needing to be ‘balanced’ against the need to tackle white poverty and disadvantage.
This is a dangerous rhetoric based on a mangling of facts and nil sum thinking. Tackling racism and tackling socioeconomic and place-based deprivation are both priorities. Race and class (and many other societal divisions) both matter and intersect.
As social workers, we know all this only too well, supporting people’ rights and helping people to overcome complex realities of layered disadvantage every day. Always holding hope, but with a clear eyed view on the material challenges of baked in inequality.
BASW has made a priority of promoting anti-racism and anti-discrimination of all forms within social work practice and policy. This report is yet another motivation to push on and make change, keeping the focus on effective, real-world progress.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is the professional association for social work in the UK with offices in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We are the independent voice of social work. We champion social work and help members achieve the highest professional standards. With 22,000 members we exist to promote the best possible social work services for all people who may need them, whilst also securing the well-being of social workers working in all health, social care and youth justice settings. BASW works in partnership with a range of organisations in criminal justice; education and childcare; health and social care; local government; law enforcement and the private and voluntary sectors to promote the best interests of social work and social workers.