Today
Sun 25 July 2021

While many agree with a recommendation to disaggregate the term ‘BAME’, the director of the Institute of Race Relations warns that this aims to create a new set of norms about how race and racism are conceptualised – and to divert attention away from structural racism

Enough has been said by others about the ideological approach, farcical methodology and flawed conclusions of the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report; never mind the process itself, which has been ridiculed by so many supposed consultees.

But, irrespective of whether Boris Johnson accepts all of its recommendations, the report has already served its post-Brexit ‘anti-woke’ purpose. For it will ensure that the narrative of British exceptionalism, and the focus on our unique and glorious island story, will roll on and on – like the proverbial stone that gathers no moss.

At the same time as appeasing the ‘patriotic instincts’ of the Government’s white working-class supporters in northern constituencies, the report tells black and ethnic minority communities that they too should fly the Union Jack with pride because the UK is the diversity model for “white-majority countries” across the world. 

Even though it is by now quite clear that the entire process around this report lacks credibility, this does not mean that there will not be any implications – particularly in the area of research. If the report’s recommendations are accepted, research into structural racism could become virtually impossible for those in receipt of public funds: in the Civil Service, at universities and third sector research.

One recommendation that the Government has already indicated that it will accept is the abolition in data collection of the concept and terms ‘BAME’ or ‘BME’ (an ironic development, given that the terms were advanced in the 1980s by the Conservative Government to promote ethnicity so as to undermine cross-racial solidarity against racism).

While these are far from perfect categories – and alternative terms are used by communities to express solidarity with each other and explore common ground – as a limited statistical research tool they have been useful to identify and analyse common patterns of discrimination across ethnic groups in service delivery or discriminatory policing such as Stop and Search. In relation to the latter, the Sewell Report is quite emphatic that disproportionality in Stop and Search has nothing to do with discrimination or structural matters, but everything to do with criminality in young people from specific ethnic minority communities.

The Commission’s recommendations – which include calls for all those in receipt of public funds to adopt a new set of ethnic data categorisations, as well as to follow its rigid framework for distinguishing racial disparities from racism – seem set to insulate the Government from any potential criticism on policy. A government that has set itself up as defender of academic freedom and free speech on campuses is being urged in a report commissioned by the Prime Minister himself to control the funding of university research in line with a particular ideological view of how race should be conceptualised. 

Ultimately, what we at the Institute of Race Relations fear is that 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.

Tony Sewell, the Commission’s chair, has form here – and we already see this in his report, contrasting good parenting techniques and enterprising family structures in the black African community with family dysfunction or breakdown in other communities, most notably the black Caribbean.

Liz Fekete is director of the Institute of Race Relations

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