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TONY SEWELL used to have a reactionary, barely literate weekly column in the Voice, Britain’s black newspaper, which was birthed by the iconic Brixton uprising of the youth against police oppression 40 years ago. The uprising came three months after the New Cross Fire that claimed 14 young black lives and the unprecedented Black People’s Day of Action.
Sewell’s views chime with conservative elements in the black community. That’s why the equally backward Trevor Phillips also used to have a column in the paper, before I was brought in to edit and revamp it.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to have at first tried to get Phillips then settled on Sewell to chair his discredited racial disparities in the UK commission, the government’s response to the justice demands of the magnificent Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
Sewell is of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Booker T Washington school of right-wing, middle-class black thought. But as the saying goes, “we have no boots.”
Sewell is very selective with his “research.” Indeed, so dishonest are the findings in the summary of the commission’s report released last week that some people quoted in it went public to say they were not even contacted to take part in what has widely been denounced as a whitewash.
It is a clear example of the right-wing Johnson government’s divide and rule using an “us and them” framing of a race debate to appeal to one camp and scold the other. The report looked into “institutional racism” and effectively declared that it does not exist. Britain is extolled as a beacon in the world of “white majority countries.”
The report provides the Tories with a playbook of arguments and rhetoric to be used to dismiss allegations of structural racism. It casts these as the wild imaginings of a “race relations industry” that is desperate to hang on to victimhood.
The Sewell report, which Grassroots Black Left has angrily denounced as the “sewage report,” says the government and its supporters should look to “geography, family influence, socio-economic background and culture and religion” as reasons for racial inequality.
The report has shockingly generalising statements such as “well-meaning ‘idealism’ of many young people who claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by evidence.” Yet the lived experience of African, Asian, Caribbean and other people of colour, whom I refer to as black, gives the stark evidence that refutes Sewell’s findings.
Sixty per cent of the deaths of doctors, nurses and other front-line health workers at the beginning of the pandemic were of black people. Black men are stopped and searched at a rate that is nine times higher than for white men.
Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. African Caribbeans make up 3 per cent of the population but are 8 per cent of police deaths in custody.
The government’s “hostile environment,” exposed by the Windrush scandal, continues to target migrants and refugees. But Sewell’s race commission does not highlight these uncomfortable facts. The report emphasises only what it wants the public to see.
Sewell has made a name for himself as an institutional racism denier on the right-wing Tory fringes. His report’s outlandish assertions that claims of institutional racism were found to be “not borne out by evidence” are therefore unsurprising.
The universal backlash to his report from leading black and white commentators, including in the labour movement, was predictable and greeted with glee by cheerleader Johnson.
A deeply offensive theme of the report is the idea that there will always be those who “absorb a fatalistic narrative that says the deck is permanently stacked against them” and resist telling the “story of our country’s progress to a successful multicultural community — a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world.”
Thus, the government casts anti-racist campaigners, whom they smear as “woke,” as the problem – not racism.
The post-Brexit Conservative Party is deliberately dog whistling on race. It’s jingoistic, Union Jack flag-waving has been wrongly copied by Labour’s “Black Lives Matter was a moment” leader Keir Starmer, and his so-called “constructive opposition.”
We must counter the “sewage report” by continuing to present the facts about racism, marshalling them into a counter-narrative of a country that still has much work to do and give our support to community organisations, including trade unions and grassroots black groups.
The Tories, since Thatcher, have successfully spun a narrative of individualism over the collectivism on which our movement is based: revisionist academic “Dr Tony Sewell” CBE is an example of that ideological rot.
As black people, we refuse to be silenced by those in our midst who would sell us out in return for establishment crumbs.
Grassroots Black Left believes the best way to combat the government’s cynical race report and defeat racism and the far right is for us to join together to help build a black-led liberation movement that unites black and white people.
Marc Wadsworth is co-founder of Grassroots Black Left. The new edition of his book Comrade Sak, Shapurji Saklatvala MP: a political biography, is available at www.mstar.link/comsak.
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