The publication of the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a watershed moment. The inquiry forced the establishment to accept that institutional racism existed in contemporary Britain; it elevated its definition above the political fray and took it away from those who sought to defend the Metropolitan police at any cost. It illustrated how damaging it is when racial prejudice and stereotyping are allowed to go unchallenged in powerful institutions that exert control over people’s lives. It set a precedent that we should measure institutional racism – the “collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin” – not by the presence or absence of intent to cause harm, but by the impact on people’s lives.
This is the history within which the Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities needs to be located. The report, commissioned by the government in light of high Covid death rates among some ethnicities, and concern about the treatment of black people by police, is blighted by two serious failings that render it harmful to a constructive debate about racial inequality almost 30 years after Stephen Lawrence was murdered.
The commission accuses unidentified people of devaluing the term “institutional racism” through “linguistic inflation” . Yet even as it claims to affirm the Macpherson definition, it dilutes it from the first pages. It argues the term should be used only when “deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level” and implies that acts that are “well-meaning” cannot be racist. This enables it to bat away perhaps the most egregious example of institutional discrimination in recent decades – the Windrush scandal – because it did not “come about by design” and was “certainly not deliberately targeted”. Black Britons who moved here legally as children were unlawfully deported as adults, refused re-entry to the UK, denied access to lifesaving healthcare they had paid for through their taxes, and impoverished through employment bans. The report does not even mention that the courts have found that the “right to rent” policy that requires landlords to check the immigration status of tenants to be racially discriminatory. It passes no comment on the fact that the government is continuing to take decisions that put children born in the UK at risk of deportation as adults.
These omissions can only be explained by understanding the political motivations of this report. This is no independent review of the evidence on racial disparities: it is driven by an ideological belief that racial inequalities are down to individual failures rather than structural factors or institutional discrimination. This explains why the review waters down the definition of institutional racism, because to find instances where it still exists would interfere with its apparent belief that people of colour should stop complaining and be grateful for their lot.
It also explains the report’s second serious failing: the highly partial analysis of racial inequalities. From health to education, employment to criminal justice, the report ignores decades of research to assert that disparities arise primarily as a product of poor choices, rather than a complex mix of structural factors and individual agency. So it tells us that educational failure is chiefly a product of family breakdown. Poor employment outcomes are mainly a product of bad choices and ignorance. On health outcomes, experts have highlighted how the commission cherrypicked data to support a misleading narrative. On crime and policing, it ignores the Lammy review’s finding of “overt discrimination” in the criminal justice system and does not even mention that police were twice as likely to issue fines to black and Asian young men under lockdown regulations as their white peers.
The report caricatures mainstream antiracist discourse beyond recognition. To take it at face value would be to accept that everyone who thinks there is structural discrimination in the UK also believes that British people of colour are defined primarily through victimhood, or that no pockets of ethnic minority success exist, or that nothing has got better since the 1960s. The irony is that the commission commits the very sin it tries to tar mainstream antiracism with: it sloppily ignores evidence and reality in service of ideology.
Any good-faith analysis of racial disparities in Britain would acknowledge things have got better on many measures. But it would also explore why the disproportionate use of stop and search on black people has increased significantly since the Lawrence inquiry; why families of black victims complain they are not taken seriously by the police; why black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth; and what links exist between someone’s ethnicity and their likelihood of being poor, living in bad housing and suffering ill health.
But that is not what this government wanted. It pre-released headline conclusions that it knew would provoke the greatest upset. Boris Johnson’s race adviser resigned ahead of its publication, having criticised the government for pursuing a “politics steeped in division”. Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, was right to say this damaging report has moved the race debate backwards. The sad reality is that this is something Johnson and his colleagues have actively cultivated for their own political ends.