Today
Thu 24 June 2021

Brian Cathcart provides his analysis of today’s report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which found that institutional racism does not exist in Britain

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which reported today, may sound like a lofty enterprise, especially with that echo in its title of the grand Royal Commissions of decades past. But it is nothing more than a committee hand-picked for a purpose by Boris Johnson’s Government.

Its overt mission, too, may appear constructive and timely, like much of the language in which the report is couched. But, make no mistake, this could hardly be more political. 

Whatever the commission members thought they were doing – and their report is more nuanced than ministers and media have implied – they have supplied this far-right Government with the tools it wanted to counter the narrative of Black Lives Matter. 

Taking only the lessons they choose, they will now throw them in our faces at every opportunity: institutional racism is dead as a concept; ethnic minorities are doing fine, indeed better than in EU countries; where they have problems it’s their own fault; poor white people are the ones to worry about. 

In all of this, the commission members are almost bystanders because anyone who has been listening knows that ministers already believed all of these things. Their role, as with the army of others serving on panels across Whitehall in these frantic times, appears as if it was simply to supply a veneer of respectability to the sinister thinking of those in positions of power. 

That’s all very well, you may say, but what matters is not why or how these things are said, but whether the commission’s findings are correct. So is it true that institutional racism does not exist, as the commission’s chair boldly declared?


Glaring Examples

Bear in mind, first, that institutional racism was defined by the Macpherson Report in 1999 as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It is not necessarily malicious, therefore. It can simply be a failure to acknowledge difference and different needs, and accepting policies that put minorities at a disadvantage.  

Now look, for example, at an industry I know well: the national press. Virtually all of the national newspapers (including the Guardian and the Financial Times) adhere to the Editors’ Code of Practice, which contains a clause relating to discrimination written in such a way that never once has a newspaper been found in breach of it for reasons of race or religion. 

Think about that. Many thousands of people have complained under this clause and it defies all logic to suggest that there has never been an instance of racial discrimination in the press. But no complaint has ever been upheld because the Code makes that virtually impossible.

That is institutional racism. If you are very charitable you might consider it to be an oversight or an unfortunate by-product of freedom of expression, but it is, without doubt, a collective failure to provide an appropriate service to people because of their race or ethnic origin.

Look, too, at the police’s powers to Stop and Search, where the racial disparities are so glaring. Perfectly innocent black and Asian people are stopped by police every hour of every day without reasonable grounds. The life experience of black men in particular is altered in consequence. That is institutional racism. It exists and denying it is wrong. 


Getting the Answers It Wants

Is the entire report wrong? Almost certainly not. Though when you look at the manner of its production and publication, it is hard to believe that the Government has any great faith in it.

For one, it was leaked exclusively to friendly journalists who cherry-picked exactly the messages that ministers want to hear. Would they do that with a robust piece of work? 

Perhaps more importantly, despite its heavyweight tone, the report was not peer-reviewed before publication. Leading organisations and scholars working in the field of racism for many years – and packing a great deal more specific expertise than the panel members – had no advance sight of it and were not given the opportunity to scrutinise, comment and correct. 

In acting in this way, the Government knew exactly what it was doing: launching upon the public a tendentious document draped in the trappings of authority and hustled out in such a way that the chosen headlines would have such impact that the truth could never catch up. 

Perhaps the most chilling thing about this is that it perfectly fits a pattern of behaviour by this Government across the whole range of its activities. Ministers are steamrolling debate by setting up half-baked committees and panels designed, in this way, to produce specific results and to facilitate specific policy outcomes. 

Forget any idea that these bodies are genuinely independent or that their true purpose is to guide policy by revealing truths in an open-minded and honest way. These are cynical exercises – as can be vividly seen when they fail to come up with the answers that governments want to hear. 

A case in point is the ‘Independent Panel on Administrative Law’ that reported last week. This was another hand-picked group, set the task of proposing changes to the judicial review system, which has been causing the Government so much inconvenience. 

When it failed to recommend the far-reaching changes that ministers wanted to see, the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland scarcely paused for breath. He promptly launched a new attack from a different angle, ordering a public consultation on the matter which he clearly expects to reach different conclusions. Not only that, but in announcing it, he misrepresented the panel’s conclusions.

The Government will continue asking the question about judicial review until it gets the answer it wants. Something similar is happening over at the Home Office with regards to ‘Asian grooming gangs’. 

Successive Home Secretaries have made no secret of their view that British men of Pakistani heritage are especially prone to engaging in the organised rape of white girls. In December, however, a two-year investigation by a Home Office team itself – which on this occasion was peer-reviewed by recognised authorities in the field – found that there was no evidence to support this racist, or at least racialised, view.  

So what did Priti Patel do? She announced in a foreword to the report that she was “disappointed” by this outcome and immediately initiated a new process intended to produce – for her – a more satisfying outcome. As one expert put it, “policy-led evidence” is replacing “evidence-led policy”. 

Across Whitehall, a stampede of panels, commissions and inquiries is working in the same spirit and at the same breakneck pace. Many are billed as ‘independent’ when they are nothing of the kind – just carefully selected clusters of passably respectable names, under even more carefully selected chairs, working to tortured terms of reference and presenting reports that are aggressively and shamelessly spun to a friendly media – with the advantage of ministers always front and centre. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)

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