Today
Thu 24 June 2021

As Buckingham Palace conducts a ‘diversity review’, Hardeep Matharu explores how the focus on ‘opportunity’, minority recruitment drives and Boris Johnson’s ‘most diverse’ Cabinet actually sidesteps the issue of tackling systemic racism in Britain today

In the aftermath of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey – in which the couple said that concerns had been raised within the Royal Family about “how dark” their unborn son’s skin might be – news emerged that Buckingham Palace is conducting a “diversity review” which may include the appointment of a ‘diversity chief’.

According to the Mail on Sunday, it began before the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s comments were made and will be a “major drive” in collaboration with ethnic minority people, the disabled and those from the LGBT community. The Palace “is looking at new ways of approaching all issues of diversity within the royal households,” the BBC reported.

How this begins to tackle, or opens up a wider public conversation about, the systemic issues of racism and white supremacy embedded in our culture, politics and society – of which the Royal Family is the result and ultimate expression – is doubtful. Increasing ‘diversity’ does not, in itself, tackle racism when the actual issue is a cultural and historic identity in which racism is embedded. To the contrary, it can act as a smokescreen.

What is concerning is not the issue of diversity per se but how it is increasingly being used to sidestep the systematic problems of race in Britain – which are being voiced more loudly and regularly than at any point in the past two decades.

How a diversity chief in Buckingham Palace would, in any meaningful way, help tackle the systemic nature of British racism must be questioned – given that it cannot be an issue from which the Royal Family is immune. On the contrary, for all of us living in modern Britain, deep-rooted ideas of race, class, hierarchy and identity are the very water we swim in – even if we are not conscious of this. And, as the head of state, the Queen and her family are meant to be the quintessential representation of the type of country we are.

But, in its response to Harry and Meghan’s interview, the Royal Family made clear that it would not be using this uncomfortable moment for the institution to lead or contribute to any wider societal discussion about what systemic racism is or how it manifests. The issues raised by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would be “addressed by the family privately,” it said.

If the monarchy can openly champion issues such as the stigma around mental health, support for former members of the armed services or the issue of racism in football, why can it not do the same for systemic racism beyond mere mentions of diversity?

The telling nature of this omission was not dispelled by Prince William’s simplistic assertion that “we’re very much not a racist family”. Four years earlier, Princess Michael of Kent turned up at a Christmas lunch attended by Meghan Markle with a blackamoor brooch pinned to her coat.

Harry and Meghan’s interview also saw the couple label coverage of Meghan by the British tabloids as racist and speak of the “invisible contract” that exists between a monarchy fearful of unfavourable news reports and the right-wing press. 

In a rapid response, the then executive director of the Society of Editors Ian Murray announced that “the UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account” – despite a number of its members disagreeing. Murray later stepped down.

In response to his statement, more than 160 journalists of colour signed an open letter saying that the organisation not only needed to recruit more minority reporters but also “to start an open and constructive discussion about the best way to prevent racist coverage in future”.

While getting more people from varied backgrounds into newsrooms is vital – and not just at entry level, but in top-level positions where all the key decisions are made around commissioning and editorial positioning – this in itself cannot be the solution.

As Brian Cathcart has observed in these pages: “If we see this dispute reverting to the discussion of measures to improve the recruitment of ethnic minority journalists, without firm action against racist journalism, we will know that those who protested have capitulated. That talk is cheap and, in the past, it has been a mere fig leaf to cover inaction… it is right and vital that the news media employ minority journalists and action must be taken to drive that change – but this must not be used to distract attention away from actual racist content appearing every day and every week in our national news media.”


Diversity But Disproportionality

Nearly 30 years after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in south-east London, systemic issues of racism within the criminal justice system remain – despite politically-lauded recruitment drives.

In the wake of the teenager’s death, Sir William Macpherson found that the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder had been “institutionally racist”. He defined this as a “collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin… in processes, attitudes and thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.

When her two daughters were found murdered in a Wembley Park last June, Mina Smallman said that the police did not immediately respond when they were reported missing because they were “making assumptions”.

“I knew instantly why they didn’t care,” she said. “They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was. A black woman who lives on a council estate.”

A spokesperson for the Independent Office for Police Conduct confirmed to Byline Times that an “investigation into how the Metropolitan Police Service handled a number of calls from the family and friends of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry who were concerned about their whereabouts between 6-7 June, remains ongoing and it is following further lines of enquiry” and that “one officer has been informed that their conduct is under investigation following an indication they may not have progressed these reports appropriately”.

When told of the allegations that two Met Police officers took “inappropriate” photographs of the sisters’ bodies at the murder scene, which were then shared with others in a WhatsApp group, Mina Smallman said it made her think of the “Deep South when they used to lynch people and you would see smiling faces around a hanging dead body”. 

Although the percentage of police officers in England and Wales from every ethnic minority group has increased in the past decade, according to the latest Government figures, police forces are still not representative of the populations they serve. More problematically, concerning attitudes and outcomes continue to prevail.

As a local reporter for the Epsom Guardian in 2013, I was memorably told by the then Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner that Sir William Macpherson had been suffering from “post-colonial guilt” when he drafted the landmark report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder. 

Four years later, David Lammy’s independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, black and ethnic minority people in the criminal justice system uncovered disparities at every level – from Stop and Search to arrests, trials, sentencing, prison and deaths in custody. The disproportionate effect of the criminal justice system on minorities is still reflected in Government statistics today.

In his annual 2020 report, Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Thomas Winsor said: “One of the stated aims of the 20,000 officer uplift programme is to improve diversity in policing. But disproportionality in Stop and Search risks alienating some sections of society, particularly young black men. Many people who are stopped and searched have committed no crime. So efforts to improve diversity may be at risk of being thwarted by a well-intentioned but potentially misguided approach.”


The Politics of Gatekeeping

The use of diversity as a smokescreen is perhaps most prominently on display in Boris Johnson’s current Cabinet, with the Prime Minister praising the Conservative Party for its spirit of ‘opportunity’, through the inclusion of Priti Patel as Home Secretary and Rishi Sunak as Chancellor – while an increasingly authoritarian, hard-right agenda is pursued. In its ‘War on Woke’, the ‘othering’ of unpatriotic ‘lefties’ and movements such as Black Lives Matter is a key plank. 

Last June, as BLM protests swept the UK following the death of George Floyd in America, Matt Hancock – when asked why there were no black MPs in the Cabinet – said that it was “one of the most diverse in British history” and that “the most important thing is that we have that diversity throughout the Government and the key thing is taking action to ensure that people have equality of opportunity”.

That same month, Priti Patel told the Daily Mail: “The fact you are sitting here speaking to me, a woman from an Asian minority background, shows we have such great opportunities in this country. It pains me to hear people talk our country down. If this was a racist country, I would not be sitting where I am.”

The point is not a personal one, focused on Patel’s character and what ‘kind of minority’ she is or is expected to be – a concept she has said she finds racist in itself. Rather, it is the ‘cover’ that such politicians provide which is significant. 

“The assertion that the political figure in question could not possibly be criticised for regressive policies against a particular racially marginalised group, because they themselves are members of that group,” is how Musa Okwonga has described the concept of ‘racial gatekeeping’ in these pages. “The racial gatekeeper is a crucial role because it allows a group of white people with racially regressive views to say ‘look at us, we have found a non-white person who agrees with us, our policies therefore do not have racially regressive effects’.”

When in 2018 Boris Johnson compared Muslim women wearing the hijab or niqab to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” in a Telegraph column – the latest in a long line of racialised jibes about “flag-waving picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” – the then Chancellor, Sajid Javid, of Muslim heritage himself, refused to condemn the remarks, saying that Johnson had “explained why he used that language – it was to defend the rights of women, whether Muslim or otherwise”.

No wider review into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party is due to take place. And no one in Johnson’s Cabinet has condemned the Prime Minister’s contribution to fostering a culture in which a serving Member of Parliament can be killed in the street by a far-right terrorist shouting “Britain First” during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign.


Avoiding the Issue

It is easier to speak of “opportunity” and discuss numbers and recruitment drives than it is entrenched inequalities and how to tackle the culture in which they thrive. But shifting that culture means shifting the discourse. We have seen how this can happen – with much positive impact – around the #MeToo movement and mental health.

The starting point, though, is that uncomfortable truths must first be acknowledged.

One of these is that it is easier, and less threatening, for those not directly affected by systemic racism to tinker around the edges than deal with the complexity and discomfort of the real issue head-on – and admit that we may just have a problem.

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