Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: A Review. # 25 13/04/2021

Out of Many, One People

Controversy around the Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has been the biggest news story in the six months that this blog has been running. Accordingly, this review will be longer and more detailed than previous blogs. Also because of the importance of the topic I have had the temerity to forward it more widely. Apologies if this is an unwanted intrusion. The unsubscribe button is easy to find.

The Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: A Review.

The CEEC video ‘One’ (reviewed #13) begins by saying that in 1 in 4 of people of colour live in serious poverty, as opposed to 1 in 10 white people; and that black men are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than white men. These are just two items in a national torrent of statistical disparities, which rarely get further comment but with an assumed direct link from disparity to racism, and then on to demands for often unspecified change. But how secure is that direct link? The Commission was set up to investigate the soundness of the connection and the source of disparities.

1. Understanding Disparities – ‘Binary’ or ‘Complexity’ Paradigms.

At the centre of the Commission’s Report is the conviction that ‘the roots of advantage and disadvantage for different groups are complex’; they then list a variety of ‘drivers of ethnic difference’ in addition to ethnicity (p 10). In his conclusion the Commission’s chair, Tony Sewell, opposes ‘Too many people in the progressive and anti-racism movements (who) offer solutions based on the binary divides of the past which often misses the point of today’s world’ (p 233). In similar vein, one of the Commissioners, the Trade Unionist Kuale Olulode, speaks of being  ‘acutely aware of how the lack of diversity of thought is crippling serious debate on social policy issues, particularly Race’. Behind all the storm over the Report, therefore, there lies a serious conceptual issue of how we are to think of race and racism in modern British society. An article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (Vol 44, 2018/2) on super-diversity comments ‘binary language . . . does not permit adequate analysis of the socio-cultural and demographic complexity that underpins super-diversity’. (See my Blog 6 ‘Newlyn Road, N17 and Super-Diversity). The Report, then, is part of a growing tendency to put the ‘binary’ (or two-sides) view of race on the back foot.

The binary view of race has been baked into British understanding since race first became a topic of controversy in the 1950s. The beginning of large-scale minority ethnic migration to Britain coincided with the high point of the Civil Rights movement in the USA, and demands for self-government in the empire. This led to an easy correlation of black/white with poor/rich and oppressed/oppressor; and this view that assumes that all disparities are caused by the single variable of race/racism has held the field, but is now challenged by the Report, which writes of ‘a wider, repeated use and misapplication of the term ‘racism’ to account for every observed disparity’ (p 34).

It is this dispute over a contested understanding of race in our society that accounts for the critical, hostile, at times quite simply abusive reception of the Report, along with very serious misrepresentations, mis-readings or even non-readings; and also the failure to engage with any seriousness the 24 Recommendations the Report actually makes.

It is important to be clear about the nature of the dispute. It is not a case of the critics saying the issue is ‘racism’, versus the report itself saying ‘other factors’. Rather, whilst the critics say the issue is racism (as a ‘catch-all explanation’ to quote Sewell, p 8); the Report says that it is racism plus a list of other factors (to be examined below at 4.1). Contrary to allegations such as by the Runnymede Trust that the ‘Commission had no interest in genuinely discussing racism’, in reality the Report alludes to it frequently. (For starters: ‘Bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding, but they still have the power to deny opportunity and painfully disrupt lives’ (p 36); exemplified in bias in hiring and at board level - 121-3; being declined for lending – 132; fear of being attacked – 141; as a cause of criminal behaviour – 155; the experience of Sikh policemen – 191.)

In short, the controversy is centred not on what the Report denies, but on factors that its critics deny. Much of the anger comes from the anti-racist establishment having its hegemony contested, leading to attempts to suppress it, rather than a statesmanlike engagement with it. Misrepresentations (as over its treatment of institutional racism – see at 2.2 below) have replaced serious discussion with polarisation. When Baroness Lawrence says the Report ‘gives the green light to racists’, the critics have scored an own goal. It is their groundless assertion that we have an official report that denies the existence of racism which will comfort racists, not the Report’s own closely examined exploration of the specific contours of race and racism in Britain.

In this sense the report is the work of heretics. The government advisor, Munira Mirza, is widely regarded as being behind it. Daughter of a Pakistani labourer, one-time member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, with a Ph D in sociology from the University of Kent – a very exemplar of far-left progressivism, she is now the queen of apostates, who appointed like-minded heretics as commissioners. A much needed debate, which in the USA has been led by black conservative economists and sociologists such as Professors Thomas Sowell and Glen Loury, has now also in Britain disrupted the progressive monopoly of morally serious debate about race. Now we need to keep calm, listen, think and discuss.

2. Why is the battle so fierce?

2.1 A very weak treatment of history.

In an otherwise crisp and clear Introduction to the main themes of the Report, Tony Sewell suddenly lapses into incoherence in discussing the ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource, stressing the interplay of Britishness and the Commonwealth, but making the feeble suggestion of a lexicon of Indian loan words in English usage, and a rather garbled call for ‘a new story about the Caribbean experience’ (p 8). This issues in a call to ‘the government to set school leadership expectations around political neutrality’ amidst fears over materials that give ‘a biased picture of historical and current events’ (p 92). But what is ‘biased’ and what is ‘neutral’ are not easily and certainly not permanently established in history. They depend on what perspective you are seeing things from; and the Report, and its Recommendation 20, seem determined to steer the discussion away from critical and negative views of Britain’s past.

The Report commends a geography curriculum resource based on a study of diversity and urban change in Liverpool, but which seems to neglect the major role of the slave trade in Liverpool’s history. Older readers may remember the classic scene from ‘Fawlty Towers’ where John Cleese, with Germans visitors expected, anxiously urges ‘Don’t talk about the War’. The Report doesn’t quite say ‘Don’t talk about slavery’, but it does seem to want to steer the conversation away. (See my Blog 4 on Slavery, History and the National Trust).

At this point more than any other the Report seems shaped by a desire not to displease the Government; who possibly are wary of approving anything that could fuel demands that Britain pays reparations for slavery.

2.2 Institutional/Systemic/Structural Racism.

This has been another major basis for the abuse poured on the Report, though in this case the evidence is less clear. The Runnymede Trust fulminates that ‘The very suggestion that government evidence confirms that institutional racism does not exist is frankly disturbing’. The Trust and others (sadly including Christian leaders) who repeat the claim appear not to have read the Report, which in fact gives qualified assent to the term: ‘We have argued for the term ‘institutional racism’ to be applied only when deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level, and not be used as a general catch-all phrase’ (p 8) Indeed on p 36 the Commission has an attempt to propose a ‘framework to distinguish between different forms of racial disparity and racism’ including defining the three labels listed above. 

But it also recognises that the terms help generate ‘linguistic inflation’ and so the need for ‘more precise language’, because institutional racism ‘is now being liberally used, and often to describe any circumstances in which differences in outcomes between racial and ethnic groups exist in an institution, without evidence to support such claims’ (p 34). The Report recognises both ‘the reality and the perception’ (p 27) – as regards the former disproportionate deaths in childbirth (p 218) and inadequate mental health treatment (p 224) are recognised, and are covered by Recommendation 11 to ‘Establish the Office for Mental Health Disparities’. But the promiscuous misperceptions of institutional racism also need to be recognised. The Report recognises the distortion of using the terms to give a false impression of sociological authority to unproven allegations. 

For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s admission that the Church of England was ‘institutionally racist’ was made without any evidence. (My Blogs of 14 & 22 January and 25 March provides such). But simply stated baldly the term is as useless as a doctor saying ‘You are sick’. It is only when symptoms, diagnoses, and cures come into the discussion that intelligent or constructive discussion can begin.

At other places the Report’s discussion is unsatisfactory. The ‘bad apples’ explanation of why the Metropolitan Police in particular lack the confidence of many black people (p 163) is an evasion of wider institutional issues. To briefly mention the Windrush scandal in the Conclusion, connected to a dismissive ‘refighting the battles of the past’ (p 234), is to seriously down-play a most appalling example of governmental institutional racism, which needed much higher profiling in order to understand Black Caribbean negative attitudes to life in Britain. As regards both the Windrush scandal and the Grenfell tragedy the Report says ‘Outcomes such as these do not come about by design’ (p 27), but that is facile. They do come about by lack of close attentiveness and serious concern to the rights and well-being of ethnic minorities, and so are clear examples of institutional racism

The Report also bungles its understanding of ‘white privilege’ as though it refers only to white attitudes and behaviour rather than to white people possessing the unavoidable advantage that not being part of a visible minority means that your identity and performance are not subject to the incessant scrutiny that comes with being ‘other’.

3. What does the Report’s ‘Complexity’ emphasis achieve?

3.1 It broadens the canvas to include disadvantaged white people.

The Report recognises a solidarity in disadvantage between White and minority people. Only the paranoia of the Runnymede Trust could cast this as ‘The Commission continuously uses rhetoric which pits the white working class against ethnic minorities’. There is no evidence of this in the Report. 

Rather it explicitly identifies its intention that ‘the best and fairest way to address disparities is to make improvements that will benefit everyone, targeting interventions based on need, not ethnicity’ (p 53). In education it identifies white students on free school meals (FSM) as a particular category, so that ‘White working -class children trail behind their peers in almost all ethnic minority groups’ (p 29). Other disparities are that ‘ethnic minority children with parents in routine manual roles were much more likely to achieve upward mobility compared with their White peers’ (p 112). Whites are the least likely to go to university (p 93), though that may not subsequently disadvantage them in the labour market.

In adults, deprivation (including amongst whites) is a greater driver of health inequalities than ethnicity, with ethnic minorities generally scoring better than white people across a wide range of health issues, especially cancer (pp 203-4), so that ‘some ethnic minorities have longer life expectancies despite being poorer that White people (overall)’ (p 200). It also notes a large intra-white difference for life expectancy of 10 years between richer and poorer areas. 

This perspective means that Britain clearly does not consist of a stack of layered ethnicities, getting whiter as you move to the top; rather there is a churn of ethnic movement across the social scale with cross-ethnic affinities at different levels. The observation of Sunder Katwala of the British Future think tank, that ‘Britain is doing much better on race than on class’ (p 31) deserves serious attention, not least by the Church of England.

3.2 It notes the greatly varying outcomes for different ethnic minorities.

The Report notes stark differences in such matters as hourly pay (p 110), and especially education. One of the Report’s most startling charts is on p 59, looking at attainment levels for different ethnic groups across progression through school. At 4/5 years Bangladeshi, Black African and Black Caribbean children are all at a similar level with 67 or 68% achieving expected development standards; but by age 18 whilst 7.8% of Bangladeshis have got at least 3As at A-Level, only 3.4% of Black Caribbean pupils have. Both Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean pupils have a background in peoples who came into booming post-war Britain in the 50s and 60s to fill gaps at the bottom end of the labour market, with Bangladeshis having the additional disadvantages of a different language and religion. That their descendants should be more than twice as successful at A-Level as Black Caribbean pupils raises an important challenge for this group. If gender distinctions were applied the statistics for Black Caribbean boys could be even more distressing, given that significantly more African Caribbean girls expect to go to university than boys (73.3% to 58.5%). Nor can this be simply due to anti-black racism – 6.1% of Black African pupils got three As at A-Level (see 3.3 below).

There are two consequences of making such distinctions. Firstly, the term BAME is rightly seen as obscuring rather than illuminating, so great are the differences between ethnic groups; and is rightly seen as in need of dropping. (See my Blog 1 of 28/10/2020).

Secondly, as the Report is perhaps unique in affirming, multi-ethnic Britain can become a sort of laboratory in which we can perceive, and learn from, different ways of living – so it advocates research ‘to understand and replicate the underlying factors that drive success of high-performing groups’ (p 13). As regards health, ‘The Commission believes that more should be done to learn from those ethnic minorities that have better health outcomes despite being more deprived to improve health for all ethnic groups, including White ethnic groups’ (p 214). Rigid compartmentalisation, whether from racist white arrogance or minority identity protection, can prevent the confident and relaxed exchange that brings learning, change and growth.

3.3 It notes important differences between Africans and Black Caribbeans.

‘We were impressed by the ‘immigrant optimism’ of some of the new African communities. They are among the new high achievers on our education system. As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classrooms, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement’ (p 7). Similarly as regards school exclusions, having observed that ‘the rates of exclusions and suspensions are complex and multifaceted, and can not be reduced to structural racism and individual teacher bias’, the Report went on to note that ‘in 2018/9 Black Caribbean pupils had a permanent exclusion rate of 25 in 10,000, compared to 7 in 10,000 for Black African pupils’ (p 79). So too, as regards experiencing life in Britain ‘Black African people are considerably more positive than black Caribbean people. (p 45).

Such statistics give the lie to the claim that simple skin colour and consequent racism is the main driver of ethnic disadvantage. Overwhelmingly white people are unable to distinguish between black people of African and Caribbean backgrounds; consequently differences such as those noted above come from factors internal to those groups rather than external racism in the wider society.

4. What questions does the emphasis on ‘Complexity’ give rise to?

4.1 What are ‘the drivers of ethnic difference’ (p 10) apart from racism?

The Report notes the role of ‘social class, ‘family’ culture and geography’ (p 10) as being significant. So educational achievement is substantially more influenced by whether or not parents have a degree than by any ethnic indicator (p 64, including Table 2). Core cities outside London and Bristol have marked deprivation so that ‘Geographical inequalities also afflict a significant section of the South Asian population who live in the former mill towns and the ex-industrial Midlands’ (p 37). Other noted factors are age, with ethnic minorities being of younger average age, or health conditions in country of origin.

Ignored in both this and other surveys is the salience of pre-migration contexts, so that the waves of migrants from the Caribbean and specific rural areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 50s and 60s who came in order to fill low paid jobs in post-war Britain, have fared far worse than the descendants of migrants who came later as refugees (especially East African Asians, and later Sri Lankan Tamils) of for educational or professional reasons. The distinction has continued - significantly it is men from these three ethnic groups alone who are ‘not level with white ethnic groups in terms of occupational class’ (p 112).

More controversial is the emphasis on families. Tony Sewell’s Foreword notes ‘This is also the first government-commissioned study on race that seriously engages with the family’ (p 6). The theme is continued in the Introduction: ‘It is clear, however, that there continues to be a need for more explicit public policy promotion of parental and family support. We reject both the stigmatisation of single mothers and the turning of a blind eye to the impact of family breakdown on the life chances of children’ (p 11) – leading on to Recommendation 19: Undertake a ‘support for families’ review. ‘For families with children (of all ethnicities) only 45% of those in the bottom income quintile are married compared with 84% in the top quintile’ (p 42)

However while the Recommendation looks for ‘more complex understandings of fatherhood in different ethnic groups’ (p 24), the proper desire not to stigmatise single mothers ought not to rule out highlighting the harm done by irresponsible fathers. Whilst this is not exclusively an ethnic issue nor should we turn a blind eye to the fact that whilst 14.7% of all UK families were lone parent, this rises to a disastrous 63% for Black Caribbean children living with a lone parent, as well as a rate of single parenthood for Black Africans of 43% - compared to 6% for Indians (p 41). The sad undertone of loss that runs through the comment of Dwaine Maynard, Marcus Rashford’s older brother: ‘There was a lot of love in our home, but it was a broken home. It wasn’t a mum, a dad and the children. We didn’t really have a father figure’ (WSJ Magazine, Spring 2021) speaks of a loss – however disguised - widely spread across a whole ethnic group, especially young men. It is a deprivation so widespread that it inevitably diminishes the achievement level of the whole ethnic group – ‘children who experience family breakdown are more likely to underperform at school’ (p 41). Aspirations for some sort of averaged out equality of outcome for Black Caribbean people will be unachievable until the issue of absentee fathers is recognised head-on and the ethnic group itself become the agent of change. It is unacceptably timid not to link this issue with the wider facts of lower levels of Black Caribbean achievement. The problem was noted back in Katrin Fitzherbert’s 1957 book ‘West Indian children in London’. It should not be still ignored.

A related area of analysis should be the negative impact on men’s sense of worth and self-esteem when their role in their child’s conception never develops into a long-term responsibility and privilege.

4.2 How significant are these factors over against racism in contributing to ethnic disparities?

How you balance out the competing explanations is partly a ‘glass half full/glass half empty’ decision. The Henry Jackson Centre Report on support for Black Lives Matter noted that whilst most black respondents did not support its specific aims the majority did feel that Britain was a racist country. (See my Blog # 17). If the outrage in the response to the Report is partly from anti-racist professionals having their toes trodden on, there is also a much wider, generalised sense that the Report needed to have given stronger expression to the pain racism generates, whatever technical language is chosen, and where micro-aggressions create a bitter environment. The Report makes no mention of the Press, yet its negative tone – highlighted by Raheem Sterling when he was allegedly racially abused by Chelsea supporters in December 2019, and then again in the coverage of the Duchess of Sussex – is likely a negative influence on how minority ethnic, especially black people, feel about life in Britain.

In answer to the question ‘Do you think your race has or has not directly prevented you from being able to succeed or pursue opportunities in your own personal life? 40% said it has and 38% said it has not’ (p 46). Respondents from the ‘low paid labour’ immigration streams (Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) saw the greater obstacles and prejudice. Clearly the optimism in the Report is only one side of a complex picture.

But overall the Report has chosen to tell a ‘glass half full’ story to the chagrin of its critics, chiefly because it believes the direction of flow to be in a positive direction. Yet its positive appraisal finds objective data to support it –  such as that African Caribbean women now earn more than white women. The Report notes that lobby groups working from identity politics can ‘tend to have a pessimism bias in their narratives. . .They tend to express the ‘lived experience’ of the groups they seek to protect with less emphasis on objective data. It is not surprising therefore that mainstream public debate about race sensitises minorities to discrimination, but does less to highlight minority self-reliance and resilience’ (p 31).

It is disappointing therefore that criticism of the Report has thus far made little attempt to engage with the ‘objective data’ but has relied heavily on emotive, rhetorical appeals to lived experience. In resisting ‘the gravitational force of dominant narratives (that) tends to point our attention in negative directions’ (p 29) the Report has deliberately chosen to give an up-beat narrative, both because it sees many and increasing positives in Britain as a multi-racial society, and also because it believes that such a positive mind-set will in itself more likely generate a better future for people of all ethnicities in Britain.

As Christians approach the Report we do so committed to both justice and hope. A Report which cries ‘Peace, peace, where there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 8:11) merely protects injustice. For some critics this is what the Report has done, but this review has identified numerous points at which it actually identifies racism and continuing racial disparities, including criticism of the present government over breaking its commitment to lengthen the school day (p 85). Misinformed disputes over words ought not to obscure its commitment to recognising and countering racism. The very fact that it has made 24 Recommendations, which have met with little engagement from its critics, means that it is serious about its work.

At the heart of the Christian response to ethnic diversity is the inspiring heavenly vision of unity in worship gathered round the Lamb of God. In this age, that means a desire for and a delight in the loving interaction of very varied peoples united by a common salvation, a shared commitment to God’s kingly justice, and one voice of praise. If the Report is right in seeing a more just and hopeful and less divided multi-ethnic society appearing on our horizon then it is to be welcomed.

Next week: what the Church of England can learn from the Report.