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Wed 29 September 2021

A recommendation to disaggregate the term ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ risks creating a ‘league table’ of stigma of different minority groups, say campaigners and academics

Anti-racist researchers and campaigners have raised concerns that a recommendation in the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ Sewell Report to disaggregate the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) could undermine research into structural racism and lead to the creation of a league table of ethnic groups, increasing stigmatisation. 

While ‘BAME’ has been criticised as flattening difference and making some racialised communities invisible, campaigners and academics argue that its usage can be helpful in allowing them to identify patterns of discrimination.

The Sewell Report also considered “whether a set of ethnicity data standards might be useful to raise standards… for all organisations in receipt of public money”. This has led to fears that researchers who wish to examine structural racism or discrimination using the analytical framing of ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ could be denied funding in the future and that the implementation of the recommendation could therefore constitute an attack on academic freedom. 

The Sewell Report calls for new definitions of structural, systemic and institutional racism because “it is now possible for any act, including those intended to be well-meaning, to be classified as racist”. It continued: “Without clearer definitions, it will be harder to measure the true extent of racism.”

But campaigners worry that any new data set will therefore become a ‘proxy’ to enforce the Government’s ideological view on how race should be conceptualised. 

NHS England’s communications office has advised staff to observe Cabinet Office Guidelines that remove racialised categories in favour of “ethnic minority”. In emails seen by Byline Times, staff have raised concerns that shifting from a focus on race in favour of ethnicity could prevent the NHS from communicating honestly and effectively about the concerns of black, Asian and ethnic minority workers and patients.

This is of particular concern when it comes to measuring the impact of the Coronavirus on NHS staff and patients. It is estimated that 95% of medics who have died of COVID-19 are black, Asian or from ethnic minority communities.


Attack on Academic Freedom

While campaigners recognise that the BAME framing is far from perfect, historically it has been used to promote solidarity between ethnic minority groups. The grouping has also helped researchers to create a collective picture and to identify patterns of discrimination in education, health and criminal justice. 

Experts are now concerned that demanding publicly-funded bodies to use an, as yet undefined, new set of ethnicity data standards would remove this ability to see patterns and would instead only seek to understand the impact of discrimination on individual ethnic groups.

This would make research on structural racism “impossible” and would “insulate the Government from criticism on policy,” says the Institute of Race Relations.

For example, analysing police Stop and Search powers in terms of its disproportionate impact on the BAME community enabled researchers to demonstrate a pattern of racial injustice, allowing campaigners to fight for political change. 

Professor Emeritus Lee Bridges, of the University of Warwick and StopWatch, who has carried out research on the use of Stop and Search policing techniques, told Byline Times that “the idea the Government should use its funding to stop people conceptualising their research in this way is a fundamental attack on academic freedom”. 

Professor Bridges explained that, while some groups within the BAME framing are disproportionately impacted by Stop and Search, “what comes out clearly in all of it is that all the [minority] ethnic groups” are more frequently Stopped and Searched “than the white community”.

“It’s legitimate to say there is a common problem in ethnic groups,” Professor Bridges added. “In particular, if you introduce class into the analysis, the problems between the working-class of all those groups are similar across the patch in terms of employment, education etc. The Commission clearly doesn’t like that.”  

Professor Bridges is now concerned that the Commission’s recommendation would mean that understanding these kinds of patterns of discrimination “should be discouraged”. 


Destabilising Solidarity

The disaggregating of the BAME term could increase stigma and undermine solidarity between ethnic groups.

An NHS staff member, in response to the Commission’s recommendation that the term should no longer be used, said that it allows people from diverse ethnicities to speak with a united voice. 

Liz Fekete, the Institute of Race Relations’ director, told Byline Times that the risk is “such disaggregated, ethnic-specific data will be used to create a kind of league table of good and bad, successful and failing groups. A variation of the ‘good migrant’, ‘bad migrant’ scenario. A kind of stigmatisation via comparison”.

In terms of Stop and Search, Fekete said that the Sewell Report is “emphatic” that disproportionality is not related to “discrimination or structural matters” but “everything to do with criminality in young people from specific ethnic minority communities”.  Disaggregated data could therefore lead to a situation where specific communities are stigmatised with specific behaviours, while campaigners and researchers are unable to use data to demonstrate patterns of discrimination.

This too would make it harder to hold the Government and policy-makers to account for disadvantage in marginalised communities.

“The very idea that the Government should be dictating the way we research these things is just anathema,” Professor Bridges added. “This is a Commission trying to assert that they don’t like this idea of solidarity.”

NHS England did not respond to a request for comment.

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