Thursday, December 8

Waiting for racial justice from Boris Johnson’s government? You’ll have a long wait | simon woolley

ANDvery so often it pays to look in the mirror. Who are we as a country? What do we look like? And then perhaps to look at the mirror itself. Is the reflection a true one?

The government has been given that opportunity after being obliged to respond to the issues and assertions raised by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities released last March, otherwise known as the Sewell report.

It called for reflection on a massive scale. The Sewell report, we should not forget, was a response to the biggest and longest race protest in the UK in recent memory. It was also the most divisive, inaccurate and politically driven race equality report ever written.

With Sewell and his allies having failed to grasp the moment, and ministers mindful of the huge public backlash to the report having adjudicated, how should we see ourselves? In marginally better shape, perhaps. But in terms of equality, anti-racism and life chances, no one can plausibly say we are in good health.

There is good news. Let’s start with that. For the first time, the government has acknowledged that Black and Asian communities, who are some of the poorest in the north of England, could be beneficiaries of leveling up. It’s not much. But it suggests a dilution of the culture wars approach that said ‘taking the knee’, for example, is somehow against the interest of white working-class people.

How much of that recalibration is due to the fact that the driving force behind the Sewell report, Munira Mirza, the former policy adviser at No 10, is no longer in post? With her gone, has Sewell’s influence itself been diluted?

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I was one of the first to give evidence to his commission. For an hour and a half, Sewell clearly and unapologetically paid little attention to my plea for a comprehensive race equality strategy based on the glaring inequalities. Instead of listening to me, he paraded his own mindset. “Simon, it’s a class rather than a race thing,” he said. “That’s where our focus should be.” I, while not denying huge class inequalities, informed Sewell that his commission was tasked to deal with race inequality – which, if he bothered to look, stares relentlessly at us from every social demographic of Black, Asian and minority ethnic life in Britain, but particularly in working-class communities.

It is a measure of the report’s failure that even this illiberal government has sought to distance itself from it, but the fix devised by ministers is a mass of contradictions. They admit that racism exists but insist it’s not systemic, yet they then call for a systemic approach. They claim race inequality campaigners uphold race as the sole discriminatory factor. That is not true. It has never been true. The world is complicated and discrimination is multifaceted. When you consider the brutal violation of Child Q, the 15-year-old black girl so outrageously strip-searched by the police at school, you see violations of race, class and gender in one act, all at once.

There are reasons now to be relieved (but certainly not grateful). At last, the government demands better practices from stop and search; black youths are nine times more likely to be subjected to the humiliating order. Ministers talk about strengthening the Equality and Human Rights Commission to take on more race inequality cases. That sounds hopeful, but what about the money? I know as a former equalities commissioner that its budget was slashed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition from £70m to £17m. That was how much they cared then. Do they care so much more now?

And do they care about health, education and fair pay, as each affects minority communities? We don’t really know, because all are partially addressed: the subjects of warm words and partial promises.

There has been no giant leap. There is still no overall race equality strategy rooted in policy or direct action initiatives. What we have is hotch-potch assurances predicated on more research, which will probably take another couple of years. Were you hoping for sustainable equality or even a proper step towards it? You’ll have a long wait.

In May 2020, George Floyd was murdered. Global protests began and here in Britain, hundreds of thousands of young black and white protesters took to the streets. Some people, aping the words of Sewell’s report, patronized their “well-meaning idealism”, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. Surely it was realism – about where we are as a society and where we should be – that drove their calls for real racial equality and lasting change.

So after Sewell, after the government’s response, what do they now see when they look in society’s mirror? A different reflection from much of their country, a society still distorted by unfairness. It shames us that this disparity, in lives and perception, endures.

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