A landmark report on racial disparity has criticised the use of the term “institutional racism” and says other factors, such as family influence, socioeconomic background and religion, have more “significant impact” on life chances than the existence of racism.
The report, by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, has been described by race equality campaigners as “deeply cynical”.
The review behind the report was set up by Downing Street to investigate racial disparities in the UK in response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and it marks a significant shift in government policy, stating its findings “present a new race agenda for the country”.
The commission’s report notes that while racism and racial injustice do still exist “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.
The commission has been widely criticised by campaigners and unions, with some accusing the review of denying the experiences of black and minority ethnic people.
The 258-page report calls on the government to fully fund the Equality and Human Rights Commission, improve training for police officers and include a local residency requirement for recruitment. Within 24 recommendations it advocates establishing an office for health disparities, opening up access to apprenticeships, teaching an “inclusive curriculum”, and putting a stop to use of the term BAME.
It also pushes for a move of focus away from institutions and more towards “the extent [that] individuals and their communities could help themselves through their own agency, rather than wait for invisible external forces to assemble to do the job”.
In an open rebuff to the arguments of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd in the US, the report says the “idealism” of “well-intentioned young people” promoting the dominant feature in society as being institutional racism, achieves little “beyond alienating the decent centre ground”.
Simon Woolley, who was head of No 10’s race disparity unit until last summer, slammed the commission for disrespecting and disregarding people’s lived experience.
Lord Woolley said: “If you deny structural race inequality then you’ve got nothing to do and that in of itself is a huge problem. There was structural racism before Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, in all areas and all levels of our society. There are shocking disparities and shocking outcomes in health, education and housing. That’s why we set up the race and disparity unit in the first place.
“Covid-19 laid bare these structural inequalities in such Technicolor and made them worse, where [BAME communities] are dying in greater numbers, becoming severely ill in greater numbers, and losing their jobs. Then to be not only in denial, but saying: ‘What are you complaining about? We live in a society that is much better than it was 100 years ago’ is monumental disrespect and disregard of people’s lived experiences, but above all a lost opportunity for systemic change.”
Responding to one of the most contentious passages in the report, which argues that a “new story” needs to be told about the slave trade, which would highlight cultural transformation of African people, Marsha De Cordova, the shadow equalities minister, said: “The government must urgently explain how they came to publish content which glorifies the slave trade, and immediately disassociate themselves with these remarks.”
The commission focuses significantly on education, which it describes as the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience, where children from many ethnic communities do as well or better than white pupils, with black Caribbean students the only group to perform less well.
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the commission had “chosen to deny the experiences of black and minority ethnic workers”, adding that institutional racism trapped people in poverty, insecurity and low pay.
“Institutional and structural racism exists in the UK, in both the labour market and wider society,” she said. “Black and minority ethnic workers are far more likely than white workers to be in low-paid, insecure jobs such as temporary and agency jobs or zero-hours contracts.”
The conclusion of the report notes that while most of the Black Lives Matters protesters are young, the bulk of the commission are from “an older generation whose views were formed by growing up in the 1970s and 1980s”. But it states that because of the progress that has been made over the past 50 years “a degree of optimism is justified”.
Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, said: “Black and Asian Britons in our society today face less prejudice than their parents or grandparents, they may well fare better than those in many other countries. But such comparisons make little difference to the lives of ethnic minority Britons in 2021.
“There’s an important success story in education that can rightly be celebrated. But if a graduate in Manchester with an ethnic-sounding surname still gets fewer job interviews than a white classmate with the same cv, why should they feel lucky that the odds might be worse in Milan or Marseille?”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said he was disappointed by the findings from the summary of the report published, insisting there were structural problems that needed to be addressed.
Rehana Azam, the GMB national secretary for public services, said: “Only this government could produce a report on race in the 21st century that actually gaslights Black, Asian, minority and ethnic people and communities. This feels like a deeply cynical report that not only ignores black and ethnic minority workers’ worries and concerns but is part of an election strategy to divide working-class people and voters. It’s completely irresponsible and immoral.”
In response to the report, the Institute of Race Relations said: “From what we have seen, [the] reports fit neatly with the government’s attempts, post-Brexit, to portray the British nation as a beacon of good race relations and a diversity model, in the report’s words, for ‘white majority countries’ across the globe.”
The Institute of Race Relations added that the report signalled “the post-Macpherson narrative on institutional racism that the government will be most eager to sideline”.
Tonight: join Guardian journalist Joseph Harker and guest speakers for an online event, the Brixton riots 40 years on: What has changed for Black Britons? Exploring four decades of protest and resistance at 7pm BST/8pm CEST/11am PDT/ 2pm EDT. Book at gu.com/guardianlive