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OPINION: Here's everything Britain's report on racism got wrong

by Halima Begum | Runnymede Trust
Thursday, 1 April 2021 16:14 GMT

A demonstrator speaks through a megaphone during a Black Lives Matter protest in London, Britain, July 5, 2020. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A government-commissioned report says Britain is now free from institutional racism. It just shows how far we have to go.

Dr Halima Begum is CEO of the Runnymede Trust, the UK's leading independent race equality think tank.

This week was supposed to be a seminal day for race relations in the UK. Except it never was. And truth be told, it was never going to be.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country, Boris Johnson announced he was forming an independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to examine the state of racial inequalities and possible solutions.

Its report this week, which claims that Britain does not suffer from institutional racism and is in fact a model for racial equality, is an insult which shows just how far the country still has to go. Worse still is the prospect that any government policy could follow out of its conclusions.

The report clearly got a lot wrong. The very idea that government evidence confirms that institutional racism does not exist is frankly extremely disturbing.  A young Black mother is four times more likely to die in childbirth than her white friend. A young Black man is 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Met than his young white neighbour.

As we saw in the early days of the pandemic, 60% of the first NHS doctors and nurses to die were from our Black and ethnic minority communities. For Boris Johnson to look the grieving families of those brave dead in the eye and say there is no evidence of institutional racism in the UK is nothing short of a gross offence. 

One of the report’s most disturbing features is the use of racist tropes throughout. Absent Black fathers. The ‘cultural attitudes’ of South Asian women. Pitting the ‘good’ African immigrant against the ‘bad’ Caribbean immigrant. Even suggesting the slave trade should be re-evaluated to highlight what a good opportunity it was for those slaves, six short years after taxpayers finished paying off slave owner families for the trouble they were caused when slavery was abolished.

What is also consistently evident throughout is the missing evidence from grassroots organizations working to improve the lives of ethnic minority people in the UK. Whether malevolent, calculated or inept, the Commission has failed to do its job.

The Runnymede Trust has been leading work to address racial inequality in Britain since 1968, and we have plenty of evidence to show that, no, we are not beyond institutional racism.

The report is a huge missed opportunity, by denying the very existence of structural racism at a moment of reckoning when the nation at large supports action. The death of George Floyd and the conversations it has started have posed a challenge over how we can make our societies racially equitable which many – from teachers to corporate firms and schoolchildren – are eager to take up.

We could have supported the bold efforts to teach history and empire in our schools or read books by authors of colour or hold schools to account for the disproportionate exclusions of Black boys in schools or excessive stop and search measures on Black and ethnic minority young people. The report could also have recommended mandatory reporting on ethnicity pay gaps which will have helped to take the necessary action to make workspaces equitable, or to make parliamentary structures more representative.

It’s clear that our government is standing on the wrong side of history on racism. But the anger at this whitewash has only strengthened the resolve of our communities, Black and white, to stand together and make a commitment to end institutional racism.