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State-sanctioned gaslighting

The government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is simply the latest pathetic PR stunt in the government’s divisive culture wars aiming to individualise attitudes to racism rather look at systemic realities, writes CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

DURING the inspiring Black Lives Matter protests last year, I did not see a single sign asking for yet another inquiry into racial inequalities. People of all ages and ethnicities across the country took to the streets to demand long-overdue action, not yet more fact finding.

There have been countless reviews and reports into structural racism in recent years; there were 35 recommendations in the Lammy review into criminal justice; there were 110 recommendations in the Angiolini review into deaths in police custody; there were 30 recommendations in the Home Office review into the Windrush Scandal, and 26 in McGregor-Smith’s inquiry into workplace discrimination.

Rather than embarking on another consultation, the government should have introduced these “oven-ready” recommendations. Yet instead, they have been preoccupied with creating a new narrative in which minorities are blamed for the systemic disadvantages they face.

By denying the existence of institutional racism, the government’s long-awaited report on race and ethnic disparities was a slap in the face for African, Asian and minority ethnic communities and all those affected by racism.

The claim from the report that Britain is a world-leading bastion of racial progress was nothing short of state-sanctioned gaslighting, and the patronising dismissal of young people’s “idealism” was a disgraceful attempt to distract from the government’s failure on issues of equality.

The fact that the report dismissed the legacy of slavery as a “Caribbean experience”  and even tried to put a positive spin on its brutality demonstrates how utterly unserious the government is about addressing racial inequality.

The government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was doomed from its conception, in which the government’s bad faith approach was abundantly clear. The commission itself was set up by No 10 adviser Munira Mirza who has repeatedly cast doubt on the existence of institutional racism and condemned previous inquiries for fostering a “culture of grievance.”

She was also one of the few people to attack the 2016 Lammy review into inequalities in our criminal justice system. Likewise, Tony Sewell, chair of the commission, has long expressed scepticism about the existence of institutional racism and argued that it creates a victim narrative to cover personal failures.

By marking its own homework, the government was working backwards from a preconceived conclusion that institutional racism does not exist. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s most senior black adviser, Samuel Kasumu, resigned just days after the report after accusing the government of pursuing a “politics steeped in division.”

The report also failed to address or incorporate the views of the public; the government admitted that thousands of individuals and organisations who responded to the consultation used terms such as “systematic,” “systemic,” “structural,” “institutional,” “internalised,” “inherent” and “cultural” racism to describe what they considered to be the cause of ethnic disparities.

This proves the falsehood of the government’s claim that there is “no evidence” of institutional racism – as to find such evidence they would only have had to look at the response to their own consultation.

Yet the government cannot wish away the reality of institutional racism. In Britain, the brutality of institutional racism affects us in all walks of life from police use of force to unfair immigration detentions to the disproportionate number of black children who go to bed hungry.

Discrimination is deeply ingrained in our social, political, and economic structures. The scourge of institutional racism results in unequal access to quality education, healthy food, liveable wages, and affordable housing – which are the foundations of health and wellbeing.

It is beyond dispute that Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on African, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Black people disproportionately suffer from police use of force in Britain, are over-represented in the prison population and are more likely to be sent to prison than white offenders. In my home city of Leicester, a black person is five times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person. Yet the report makes no mention of these realities.

The report rightly criticises the use of the acronym “BAME,” but then continues to obfuscate the hugely different experiences of African, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

For instance, the report claims that “education is the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience.” Yet severe racial disparities exist across educational attainment, discipline and university admissions.

For example, Black Caribbean students are twice as likely as white students to be temporarily excluded from school and nearly three times more likely to be permanently excluded. Two thirds of the current government were privately educated, yet create policies that racially discriminate and plunge millions into poverty; that is not success but theft and privilege. Again, the report obscures these realities.

The report’s claims that “socio-economic” factors, not institutional racism, are to blame for severe racial disparities is bitterly ironic. It is true that class and race intersect in a pernicious way, which has been especially apparent in the disproportionate number of African, Asian and minority ethnic workers who have died during this pandemic.

Yet this government of the super-rich has normalised poverty in our communities and overseen an upwards transfer of wealth and power that has enriched the few at the expense of the many. For them to produce a report that preaches the predominance of class issues over racism is beyond parody.

After the inspiring Black Lives Matter protests, it has never been more important for us to learn from the history of racial oppression and to end the injustices that exist to this day. Yet at this historical moment, the government is instead pretending that racism is an individual failing, not a systemic experience which is driven by powerful institutions.

The fact that an overtly racist individual, such as Boris Johnson, can ascend to the nation’s highest office is proof enough of the corrosive legacy of empire within the British establishment. It is also somewhat hypocritical of a government led by a man on his third marriage, with an unverified number of children, to publish a report that mentions “family” twice as much as “bias” and identifies “family breakdown as one of the main reasons for poor outcomes.” According to this government, family breakdown is only a problem for poor non-white families, not rich white Etonians.

Given the Prime Minister’s long history of racist comments, there remain legitimate concerns regarding his personal commitment to tackling racial inequalities. To assuage these, he could begin by apologising for his repeated use of racist and insensitive language – something he has yet to do. There is a litany of urgent actions that his government could take to show that it is taking this issue seriously.

It could implement the recommendations from the existing reviews. It could reform Britain’s racist criminal justice system. It could deliver justice for the victims of racialised state violence, including Grenfell Tower and the Windrush generation.
The government must ensure that, when a black person dies in police custody – as they disproportionately do – the incident is thoroughly investigated, and the police involved face justice.

It must transform our education system to teach the reality of colonialism, imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade. It must address the severe racial pay gap. It must end racist policies like No Recourse to Public Funds and the hostile environment. Accepting that these are structural problems will be the first step in this process.

The report is simply the latest pathetic PR stunt in the government’s divisive culture wars. Its aim to individualise racism and to claim that discrimination is no longer a societal issue is the expression of the Thatcherite dogma that “there is no such thing as society.”

Yet this is a crisis that requires collective solutions. As Fred Hampton put it, we do not fight racism with racism, but with solidarity. That is the mission that faces all of us on the left today, to reject this government’s attempts to divide us up and to fight for a world free of racial and class inequalities.

Claudia Webbe is MP for Leicester East. You can follow her on Facebook @claudiaforLE and on Twitter @ClaudiaWebbe.


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