In March, the UK government released its highly anticipated report on race and ethnic disparities, commissioned in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of June 2020. Arguing that the UK is a “beacon” to the rest of the world, Dr Tony Sewell, who headed the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities responsible for the report, maintained that while there was anecdotal evidence of racism in the UK, there was no evidence of institutional racism.
According to the report, the UK no loanger has a system “deliberately rigged” against ethnic minorities, highlighting the growing diversity in professions such as law and medicine and the success of children from ethnic minority communities in compulsory education. However, the report has been widely condemned and accused by UN human rights experts of attempting to “normalise white supremacy” by framing slavery as part of the “Caribbean experience” and institutional racism as a myth.
Here, we look at instances of institutional racism in the UK in the past year, which contradict claims that the UK should be viewed as a “model for other white-majority countries.”
1. Police Treatment Of Missing People Of Colour
Data from the National Crime Agency indicates that Black people accounted for 14% of missing people in England and Wales between 2019 and 2020, over four times (3%) their relative population. In other words, there is a disproportionate number of Black people going missing in the UK.
There are also concerns over police handling of the cases of missing people of colour. A spokesperson from the Missing People’s charity told The Independent: “We are concerned that some families from Black and other ethnic minority communities have told us that they have faced discrimination in the response from agencies when they have reported a loved one missing, and in the media coverage of their loved one’s disappearance.” Sadia Ali, founder of grassroots north London charity Minority Matters, added that “no life is worth more than the other and Black and ethnic minorities parents feel that their sons’ lives aren’t valued the same.”
One recent example is that of Richard Okoregheye’s disappearance. After the 19-year-old student’s body was found in a pond in Epping Forest in April, his mother, Evidence Joel, lodged a complaint about her initial treatment by the Metropolitan Police and their urgency in launching a search for her son. In a statement released by the Metropolitan police, a spokesperson said the force “is committed to providing the best possible service to families of missing people”. They added that the families of missing persons “should always be treated with respect and dignity by officers, and have confidence that officers will make every effort to investigate the circumstances of the disappearance with a matter of urgency.” The police watchdog is currently investigating Joel’s complaint and will consider whether race played a role in the Met’s handling of Okorogheye’s case.
Okoregheye’s death is just the latest in a number of missing persons cases the police have been accused of mishandling due to race. Mina Smallman, the mother of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, who were killed in a park in June 2020, told the BBC that she felt her daughters’ race meant there was “no urgency” to the police search for them after she reported them missing. She said: “Oh absolutely, I’m convinced. I think the notion of ‘all people matter’ is absolutely right, but it’s not true.” Meanwhile, police handling of the death of Blessing Olusegun, who was reported missing and later found dead in September 2020, has sparked backlash. Her death has been ruled as “unsuspicious” but “unexplained” by police and a petition calling for further investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death has nearly 55,000 signatures at time of writing.
2. The Treatment of Britain’s First Black Archbishop
In October 2020, the government itself was accused of “institutional prejudice” after Britain’s first Black archbishop, John Sentamu, was refused a life peerage. Sentamu had initially been informed by Downing Street that he would automatically be entitled to a peerage after stepping down as Archbishop of York, like his predecessors. However, he was then told his name would not be included on the honours list. A No. 10 spokesperson claimed that Sentamu was simply excluded because numbers in the House of Lords needed to be kept down, despite the Prime Minister controversially including his brother, Jo Johnson, in the list. After widespread condemnation, it was announced months later that Sentamu would receive his peerage after all.
3. The Policing Of The UK Black Lives Matter Protests
A report released in November 2020 found that policing of Black Lives Matter protests in the UK was “institutionally racist”, citing excessive use of force, disproportionate targeting of Black protesters, and violent arrests as “commonly reported and well-evidenced.”
It’s by no means the first time that the British police force has been found to have a race problem. In 1999 the Macpherson report, commissioned in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, labelled the Met police response as “institutionally racist” and rooted in prejudice.
The BLM protests were later described by the Home Secretary Priti Patel as “dreadful” and attendees protesters were dismissed as “thugs”, further reinforcing pre-existing racist stereotypes and prejudices of the kind that particularly impact Black people. The police response to the protests came at a time when people from Black, Asian, and ethnic minority communities were 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus rules than white people in England.
The authors of the commission’s report have been accused of “cherry-picking statistics,” including those around policing, to contribute to a success story. Critics include prominent figures such as Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy, Black studies professor Kehinde Andrews from Birmingham City University, and Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. The report appeared to exclude data from 2019/20 which indicated that people from ethnic minority groups were over four times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than a white person, while Black people were nearly nine times more likely to be stopped.
4. The A-Level Results Scandal
The commission’s report claims that children from ethnic minority backgrounds perform as well, if not better, than white pupils in compulsory education, with Black Caribbean pupils being the only group to perform “less well.” But in 2020, the A-Level results scandal provided evidence that the opposite is true. When A-levels and GCSEs were cancelled for students across the country, an algorithm was used to determine the grades of thousands of students. However, it focused on predicted grades, when Black applicants’ predicted grades are known to be systematically underestimated by their teachers. It resulted in the downgrading of millions of results, and hit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (which statistically comprise more people of colour) the hardest. Ofqual insisted, however, that there was “no evidence of systemic bias” and later reverted to predicted grades which, as previously mentioned, are known to be affected by teacher bias.
5. Black Women’s Maternal Mortality Rate
Black women’s risk of death in pregnancy is up to four times higher than that of white women. While further research into the exact causes is still needed, campaigners and experts have suggested that the healthcare system is not designed to adequately meet the needs of Black people and people of colour more widely. This manifests in a variety of ways, many of which are linked to systemic racism.
Among the possible contributing causes for the elevated mortality rate are harmful myths about Black people held by medical professionals, particularly around their sensitivity to pain, which several U.S. studies have found can affect their treatment. Another is Black women being more likely to be affected by socioeconomic problems. This increases the risk of maternal mortality and can make them more likely to have complicated healthcare needs that require specialist care which in turn they are less likely to have met. It also increases the risk of early death. A third is reduced likelihood of self-advocacy which a 2006 study found was more common among American Black women, and there is anecdotal evidence and expert opinion that suggests even when Black women do self-advocate they are still dismissed by medical professionals.
No wonder medical mistrust among British Black people is so high, with a ClearView research study finding that 60% of British Black people feel their health is not equally protected by the NHS in comparison to white people. By preferring to highlight the growing diversity within the profession of medicine, the commission’s report shifts the focus away from salient issues such as maternal mortality and medical mistrust onto the narrowing of income gaps and “success” stories to sustain the illusion of institutional racism as a myth. All despite the fact that most healthcare workers of colour in the NHS are in lower grade and lower paid positions.
6. The Windrush Compensation Scheme
In 2020, an independent inquiry by Wendy Williams found that the Home Office demonstrated “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race” in the handling of the Windrush scandal, which saw British citizens not only stripped of their rights and livelihoods — dismissed from their jobs and unable to access NHS care — but also wrongfully deported. Williams made explicit the link between the scandal and colonialism in her inquiry. She wrote: “The Windrush scandal was in part able to happen because of the public’s and officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history.”
In June 2020, a poll of British people found that 55% of Black respondents and 39% of white ones didn’t trust the government to prevent another similar scandal. Even the compensation scheme hasn’t escaped accusations of racism. Last year, the most senior Black Home Office employee partly responsible for the Windrush compensation scheme resigned, describing the scheme as systematically racist and unfit for purpose.
Just over a year after the Windrush inquiry, far from acknowledging the realities of colonialism and its legacy of institutional racism, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report dresses Britain’s crimes in the language of progressive inclusivity, framing slavery as part of the "Caribbean experience” and not simply about “profit and suffering”.
Following criticism, the commission amended the line referring to the slave trade with a footnote that states: “this is to say that in the face of the inhumanity of slavery, African people preserved their humanity and culture. This includes the story of slave resistance.”
7. The Impact Of Coronavirus On People Of Colour In The UK
While the report acknowledges the growing diversity in medicine, it neglects to mention the thousands of healthcare workers of colour left vulnerable due to the government’s failure to provide adequate PPE during the pandemic. Two thirds of the healthcare workers who died were from ethnic minority groups, and a frontline healthcare worker told Vogue she felt race may have been a factor in determining how PPE was allocated in her workplace. The high proportion of key workers of colour, heightened levels of socio-economic deprivation among people of colour, and the prevalence of intergenerational housing in communities of colour were all contributing factors in the higher rates of deaths and positive COVID-19 tests in Black and Asian ethnic groups. Instead of acknowledging the institutional racism at the root of this, people of colour were subjected to victim-blaming, with Conservative MP Craig Whittaker claiming the “vast majority” of Black and ethnic minority communities in his constituency weren’t taking the virus seriously.
8. The Composition Of The Commission
Finally, it’s worth looking at who headed the report and their stances on racism. Previously, Sewell has described evidence of institutional racism as “flimsy” and described the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year as a “lower middle-class revolt.” Director of Number 10’s Policy Unit, Munira Mirza, who established the commission, has also questioned the existence of institutional racism and condemned previous inquiries as cultivating a “culture of grievance”. In 2018, Mirza defended Boris Johnson’s comparison of Muslim women who wear burqas to “letterboxes and bank robbers”, maintaining that Johnson was “treating Muslims as equals.” Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, also part of the commission, has argued that teaching “white privilege” as an uncontested fact is breaking the law.
Several charities have questioned whether the report can be truly impartial given the views of its leads. Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading race equality think tank, stated that the people involved in this commission “had no interest in genuinely discussing racism,” highlighting that “the least the commission could have done is acknowledge the very real suffering of Black and minority ethnic communities here in the UK”. Rehana Azam, the national secretary of the trade union GMB, said in a statement given to the Guardian: “Only this government could produce a report on race in the 21st century that actually gaslights Black, Asian, minority and ethnic people and communities.”
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