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The Sewell Report Is Just the Latest Weapon in the Tory Culture War

The government-backed Sewell Report has declared Britain free from institutional racism. Its findings are laughable, but it was never intended as a rigorous study – it is just the latest weapon in the Tory culture war.

It is no more surprising that racism-deniers would write a report denying the existence of institutional racism, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, than it is for climate change sceptics or flat earthers would twist the facts to support their predetermined theory.

And so it was that Boris Johnson instructed Number 10 aide Munira Mirza, a vociferous opponent of multiculturalism, to oversee a new report in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

Johnson, who described African children as piccaninnies and Muslim women as looking like letterboxes, appointed Tony Sewell, also a long-term denier of institutional racism who has been accused of homophobia, to head the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

Its new report was laughably launched with a Daily Mail frontpage effectively declaring racism over. In an overshoot so dramatic it destroyed any vestige of credibility from the start, this post-racial topline declared Britain to be a beacon to ‘other white-majority countries’.

The report itself is long (253 pages) and rambling. It cherry-picks data to suit a predetermined narrative, and sets out to gaslight people of colour with a dismissal of their lived experience.

It states: ‘Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. Racism has become one of the most potent taboos in the UK, which was not the case 50 years ago. Some argue this has just driven it underground where it operates as powerfully as ever to deny equality to ethnic minorities. That assumption is at odds with the stories of success that this report has found, together with survey evidence of dwindling White prejudice.’

That finding is at odds with NatCen research which shows that one in four Brits self-declare as racially prejudiced – a figure that has barely shifted in two decades.

The gaslighting goes on to dismiss the legacy of enslavement. As Tony Sewell writes in his foreword: ‘There is a new story about 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.’

The report also states that: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’

This is saying that racism is a figment of people’s imaginations and they should get over it – an incredible statement given the mountain of evidence of disproportionate black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BME) unemployment and poverty.

Astonishingly, they even suggest a new almost criminal standard of evidence to prove institutional racism, arguing: ‘If accusations of ‘institutional racism’ are levelled against institutions, these should be subject to robust assessment and evidence and show that an institution has treated an ethnic group differently to other groups because of their ethnic identity.’

Not content with dismissing lived experience and hard data, they go on to patronise ‘the idealism of those well-intentioned young people’ on Black Lives Matter protests, ‘who have held on to, and amplified, this inter-generational mistrust.’

The narrative of labelling protesters as being hung up on the past for no good reason is a well-worn record that will not quell calls for change. Most people know that institutional and structural racism are not myths and it was notable that few public figures beyond right-wing a few ideologues were defending the report on TV and radio.

The closer the inspection, the more it falls apart. This commission was never seen as legitimate by many organisations who boycotted its consultation. Veteran activist Patrick Vernon appeared on BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show wearing a Star Trek t-shirt because, he said, the report came from another universe.

Yet while the credibility of the report itself may be crumbling, the post-racial, post-factual narratives it pushes are set to be used by the government and right-wing media for some time to come.

Central to this is the attempt to divide communities by inserting cultural judgements. Witness Sewell on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme contrasting school exclusion rates of African versus Caribbean children, and the exam results of Bangladeshi girls in London versus in Bradford. The story he was pushing was that there is something wrong with Caribbean and Northern Bangladeshi culture that brings disadvantage on itself.

This ignores local efforts and investment to tackle racial disparities, and the fact that educational attainment does not translate into equivalent increases in accessing top universities or employment success and income due to barriers of structural racism.

The Sewell Report is clearly part of Number 10’s culture war with the so-called Red Wall in mind. It will be used to cut funding from BME initiatives to try and appeal to the white working class. That is why it is so important to repeat class/race narratives that highlight the common barriers working class people of all backgrounds face, to build solidarity, and to name the enemy.

Britain’s elite is 97 percent white, but it doesn’t include the white working class. The advantage that private school pupils have over everyone else contributes to inequality facing white and BME working class people alike, so it’s no wonder that the Tories continue to resist calls to activate the ‘socio-economic duty’ of the Equality Act which would provide protection against class discrimination, lest the working class use it to hold power to account.

The entire multicultural working class is being levelled down, and all workers stuck in low-paid precarious work are viewed by the elites as expendable because they are easier to fire. BME workers are twice as likely to be on zero-hours contracts, but it is in all our interests to fight the racial injustice.

The Sewell Report tries to claim that racial disparities can be explained away by class and place, but the evidence shows that BME people face racism regardless of geography. And the message that if you just work hard enough everything will be okay is not how Britain works for anyone; we are not a meritocratic society. That truth becomes even starker with added racism.

While the report fails to recognise institutional racism, it does admit to ‘overt racism’. This is code for individuals who get caught saying something incontrovertibly racist on Twitter or down the pub. Needless to say, perpetrators this stupid are unlikely to have the hiring and firing power which actually causes the racial disparities: racism that does most damage is mostly covert—self-aware, sly, covering its tracks—and privileged.

Racism is more than ‘anecdotal’, as Sewell says. It is more than ‘a few bad apples’ – as the police used to say before the Macpherson public inquiry that introduced the concept of institutional racism. Racism is entrenched, systemic and everywhere we look, as the government’s own racial disparity audit found.

Perhaps one thing the new report got right is its conclusion that Britain is not institutionally racist. After all, Britain is not an institution in itself – but it is full of institutions that are. Britain has a climate in which racial inequalities thrive, and that is structural racism.

Far from being a ‘model to the world’, the United Nations special rapporteur for racial equality has said that Britain’s levels of inequality are so bad that it amounted to a ‘threat to democracy’.

Tory peer Ruby McGregor-Smith was commissioned by this government to investigate racism in employment. She found: ‘There is discrimination and bias at every stage of an individual’s career, and even before it begins. From networks to recruitment and then in the workforce, it is there.’

Her report is currently gathering dust in Whitehall, alongside the Windrush Scandal report, Dame Elish Angiolini’s review into deaths in custody, and David Lammy’s review into the criminal justice system. The Sewell Report is intended to move these from the shelf to the bin.

It is the politics of division, driven not by conservatives but by right-wing ideologue disrupters, who seek to burn down and remake the world in the image of their own prejudices. Their agenda on race, part of the wider culture war, fits into a post-Brexit fantasy of Britain as a deregulated, low-wage tax haven sustained by xenophobia and nativism – a beacon, as the Sewell Report says, for white-majority nations.

They wish to sell a vision of a simpler time before unconscious bias training, critical race theory, and pesky reports containing inconvenient evidence of structural racism. People of colour are being told to stop complaining, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or, if they don’t like it, leave the country.

These disruptors, headed by Johnson, will continue to turn the clock back on race as they ramp up their war on woke. Every time another piece of evidence shows the fires of injustice burning, ministers will wave their hands in the air and declare ‘nothing to see here’.

As flimsy, flabby, and utterly ridiculous as the Sewell Report is, it is a portent of things to come – regressive policy, divisive rhetoric, emboldened ‘overt racists’, and relieved covert ones.

There are many battles ahead, and this report will not prevent Black Lives Matter campaigners from organising. As Martin Luther King said: ‘We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’