Change without challenging the status quo

2nd April 2021

Fighting “the battles of the past” as the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities would see it

The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published this week, has reignited the debate about the extent of institutional and structural racism in Britain.  The headlines screaming from the popular press, following selected conclusions from the report released 24hrs ahead of publication were clear.

“Scrap use of BAME label”, said the Telegraph.

“Britain is not ‘institutionally racist’”, proclaimed the Daily Mail.

“PM pledges fairer society as race report says UK is role model”, bellowed the Daily Express.

As part of its conclusion the report states,

“Beneath the headlines that often show egregious acts of discrimination, the Windrush scandal most recently, incremental progress is being made as our report has shown beyond doubt. Through focusing on what matters now, rather than refighting the battles of the past, we want to build on that progress.”

This statement is symptomatic of the approach taken in the report, which emphasises the ‘evidence’ from survey and official data but gives a secondary role to the lived experience of those facing discrimination in Britain today.

The report seems to miss the point that what it regards as “the battles of the past” may actually be “what matters now” for many experiencing the reality of discrimination and prejudice today.   Even accepting the report’s assertion that “incremental progress is being made” it remains incremental, and the barriers which ethnic minority communities face in health, jobs, education, policing and day to day discrimination are still unacceptable and require urgent action.

Any progress which has been made is as a result of constant struggle against discrimination and prejudice. Outrages such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, flare ups in black communities against poverty, oppression and heavy handed policing, the Grenfell disaster, the Windrush scandal, trade union activism to support black workers.  Little of this is acknowledged in the report which no doubt categorises these as “the battles of the past.”

The report does acknowledge that “in some places in the UK, especially in Black inner-city communities, historical wrongs by the state and police have left a deep legacy of mistrust” and recognises that the outpouring of outrage following the murder of George Floyd in the United States, with the associated upsurges in activity around the Black Lives Matter movement, was the trigger for the Commission being established.

However, the actions of those protesting against police violence and reacting to their own experience of racial discrimination is immediately patronised as the report goes on to say,

“We understand the idealism of those well-intentioned young people who have held on to, and amplified, this inter-generational mistrust. However, we also have to ask whether a narrative that claims nothing has changed for the better, and that the dominant feature of our society is institutional racism and White privilege, will achieve anything beyond alienating the decent centre ground – a centre ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities.”

In a nutshell the report has summarised it position.  Solutions without conflict, change without challenging the status quo, middle class maxims for the minorities who have made it.  Hope does not lie in such contradictions and the history of all struggle shows that social disruption is necessary to inspire any kind of progress.

Where the report does implicitly touch on the makings of a strategy is the recognition that the white working class face many of the same challenges to life chances as their ethnic minority brothers and sisters, although race remains an exacerbating factor.  A common stand against oppression and prejudice by a united working class, recognising that they share more in common than what they may perceive as dividing them, would be a real challenge to the status quo, building on the gains of the past and looking to a more equal future.  The report does not go there.

The report inevitably shies away from any detailed analysis of class difference and prejudice.  That would require a more detailed assessment not only of the whiteness of the Monarchy, Houses of Parliament, Boards of corporations and City of London high flyers, but the limited circle of privilege in terms of social class from which the occupants of these positions are drawn.  In that sense we can see, in spite of the occasional black face, White privilege and, more significantly, class privilege at play.  

The Commission report has served its political purpose.  It has garnered the headlines about institutional racism that Boris Johnson and his government will feel that they can bask in.  The commissioners were drawn from a range of ethnic minority backgrounds and the government will no doubt point to this as evidence of the credibility of the report.  It has produced a range of recommendations which the government may choose to action and against which it may also choose to measure ‘progress’ in tackling discrimination, or as the report would have it, ethnic disparities, in Britain.

A range of academics, cited in the report as having provided evidence, have already come out and said they were not consulted, from the King’s Fund to the London School of Economics to leading experts on black British history, one of whom said he was “horrified to see his name listed.”

Black Young Professionals (BYP) Network is also cited as one of the report’s stakeholders, but a spokesperson said: “The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report’s ‘findings’ implies that it is ethnic minorities’ own fault for lack of progression, that disparities are due to social class and this is categorically untrue.”

A report on the causes of racism, commissioned by a government not adverse to playing the race card itself if it sees an advantage in doing so, was never going to come up with an objective analysis of the real problems facing the ethnic minority populations in Britain today.  If nothing else the report has reinforced that truth and may at least compel people to take more direct action in order to bring about change.

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