Racism Is Not a Culture War Toy – It’s a Fact of Life in Britain

On Windrush Day, the Tory government is once again downplaying the importance of racism in British society – but the evidence is clear: racism remains embedded in the institutions that structure daily life.

The report of the Independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities—published on 31 March 2021—caused justified outrage. Its attempt to obscure the role of racism in Britain has since been exposed as an exercise in cherry-picking evidence, poor research, and exclusion of lived experiences.

Today—Windrush Day—provides an annual reminder of how ruinous structural racism is. The ‘Windrush Scandal’, which was barely mentioned by the commission’s report, saw people wrongly detained, denied their legal rights, and threatened with deportation in the name of a discredited ‘hostile environment’ policy. It’s one example of structural and institutional discrimination, as opposed to the ‘personal responsibility’ the commission’s report so heavily focused on.

Even then, the truth is that racism doesn’t only exist in individual scandals. Windrush isn’t an ‘exception to the rule’, but reflective of the norm in twenty-first century Britain. Today, a new collection of essays published in the IPPR Progressive Review journal documents the ‘state of racism’ in the UK.

Collectively, the findings reveal a country shaped by structural racial inequalities – that is, injustice embedded and reproduced by our laws, institutions, organisations, and government policy. Britain remains in desperate need of transformative justice.

In the School Years

It’s tempting to think we’ve made progress on the impact racism has in the first years of people’s lives. To some, the practices of segregation, of barring Black children from certain schools, or sending them inappropriately to ‘special’ schools feel wholly confined to history.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Racism endures. School exclusions were used in a number of US states through the 1960s and 1970s to maintain racist education structures – and the same is happening in 2020s Britain. New analysis by Zahra Bei, Helen Knowler, and Jabeer Butt identifies a rise in a pernicious practice known as ‘off-rolling’, whereby a school removes a pupil without recourse to a formal ‘permanent exclusion’ (i.e. by pressuring the parent to remove their child).

In 2019, as many as 49,101 students simply ‘disappeared’ from school roles, without explanation. A disproportionate number of these pupils—a full one in seven—are from ‘Black ethnic backgrounds’ according to figures from the Education Policy Institute.

There are other, more subtle forms of exclusion at play in schools, too. Today, a child is eight times more likely to read a children’s book with an animal character than a Black, Asian, or minority ethnic person. And the design of the GCSE curriculum often means books by Black authors are entirely excluded in British classrooms. Much more needs to be done to ensure we recognise the diversity of modern Britain.

It’s a problem with tangible consequences. In the 2020 Windrush Lessons Learned Review, Wendy Williams concluded that the ‘Windrush scandal was in part able to happen because of the ‘public’s and officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history’. As argued in new research by Zaahida Nabagareka and Alba Kapoor, we must subsequently question why our children still do not get the opportunity to experience stories like Andrea Levy’s Small Island or the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson.

In them, children would experience not just mastery of English language, but also a British history true to the diverse reality of British lives, families, and communities. A decolonised curriculum could benefit everybody.

In the Workplace

The story of the Windrush generation—among many things—is a story of the exploitation of labour. The Windrush generation arrived in large part because they were invited by the ‘mother country’, to rebuild its shattered post-war public services. In almost every case, they were actively advertised a better life. But this quickly broke against the reality of racism in Britain. Many of their experiences of working in vital public sector roles—as doctors, nurses, bus conductors, and administrators—were of explicit racism.

As argued by the TUC’s Lester Holloway, one consequential trend has been that their children—the ‘second-generation’—have rejected the jobs that served their parents poorly. Again, injustice has evolved and endured, and their hopeful search ‘for something better’ has been derailed.

Today, the so-called ‘gig economy’ is disproportionately staffed by Black and minority ethnic people. Recent Transport for London estimates suggest 94 percent of private hire vehicle drivers in the capital are from non-white ethnic backgrounds. They are exposed to low pay, poor occupational health standards, long hours, and little recourse in the face of exploitation.

But racism is not just a problem of the gig economy, the private sector, and low paid work. Even in high-paid voluntary sector positions, discrimination can be rife. ACEVO’s annual survey found that, of 476 charity CEOs, only 3 percent were Black or minority ethnic people.

This trend of exclusion across the whole economy is not down to differential qualifications either. They are down to structural barriers and prejudice, as demonstrated by studies showing that minority ethnic applicants have to send 80 percent more applications to get a positive response from employers than people of White British origin. The 2017 McGregor-Smith review found that if the employment rate for ethnic minorities were commensurate with their qualifications, the economic gains would be worth £24 billion a year.

Racism and Criminal Justice

Experiences of injustice in schools and workplaces interact with oppressive experiences of the criminal justice system. In 2019/20, official government statistics show there were 577,054 uses of stop and search. Just 13 percent led to an arrest, and studies have shown a negligible impact on crime rates.

The others—disproportionately targeted at Black people, with Black males nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white males—did nothing more than further harm relationships between the people and a police system that is meant to anchored in ‘consent’.

In an interview for Progressive Review, Leroy Logan, whose story was recently retold in the BBC show Small Axe, argues this cannot be distinguished from institutional racism within the police itself. And that racism is getting worse. Logan argues that standards in the Met did see some progress in the 2000s but have since regressed to 1980s levels. That was a time when, Logan describes:

‘There was no framework in which you could register complaints. I remember the N-word being written on my locker, and I reported it to the chief inspector, but nothing came of it. It was just one of those things. They used to say, “If you couldn’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.”’

His alarming conclusion sits in contrast to the chief constable’s claims that there is no institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police – a view Logan has himself calls ‘nonsense’.

Building Transformative Justice

The search for radical change is ever more focused on decentralised campaigns outside Westminster. It has rallied around footballer Marcus Rashford, and his attempts to pick up the pieces of a broken food system. It has focused on decentralised movements like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. And it has focused on opposition to legislation that harms us all – including recent youth-led protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Against these movements, the political Right have looked to stoke a culture war, based on presenting the demands of one group as detrimental to others. When progressive campaigns gather momentum, they are often framed as an attempt to take security away from others living precarious lives. As in today’s education select committee report, marginalised groups are pitted against each other, in imagined competition – limiting our ability to achieve progress on unified demands.

Our success in delivering change will rely on our ability to bridge these artificial divides. Organisations like Race on the Agenda have helped define the right strategy: a relentless focus on explaining how racial justice benefits everyone.

We should note, then, that while the injustices in this article are focused on Black and minority ethnic people, they impact everyone. And that means solving them can benefit everyone, too. More inclusive education and a stronger curriculum stands to benefit poorer boys from white backgrounds, who are among the least likely to go to university. Ending workplace injustice stands to improve conditions for white workers too – such as the hundreds of thousands in low-pay, high-exploitation social care work.

There is clear evidence that structural racism exists. Our ability to translate this into transformational change will rely on rallying around unifying, popular demands – with a ruthless focus on monumental change and a fairer society for all.