The Sewell commission is a game-changer for how Britain talks about race

March 30, 2021

“This Commission finds that the big challenge of our age is not overt racial prejudice, it is building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years. This requires us to take a broader, dispassionate look at what has been holding some people back. We therefore cannot accept the accusatory tone of much of the current rhetoric on race, and the pessimism  about what has been and what more can be achieved.”

That single paragraph perfectly sums up the Sewell commission report on race in Britain published today. No single Government commission report can usually claim to have significantly changed the political narrative. But a few were big enough to stick in the collective memory—Beeching on railways, Fulton on the civil service, Scarman on Brixton riots, Taylor on football stadiums.

Let’s hope that Sewell’s name joins that pantheon. For it is the liberal-minded but honest, evidence-based story on race that many of us who have been thinking and writing about this subject for many years have been waiting for. There is intelligent common sense on almost every one of its 264 pages and although it has its flaws, of which more later, it powerfully challenges the pessimistic identity-politics-based race narrative that has become so influential in recent years.

The report pays proper homage to that other great report on race, the Macpherson report of 1999, on the Metropolitan Police’s failures over the Stephen Lawrence murder. But it also draws a line under it not least in its scepticism about the casual use of the term institutional racism, that was popularised by Macpherson, and in its rejection of the subjectivism about race that was also legitimised by that report.

A brief history. The Sewell commission was called into being last summer at the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations by a nervous Government that was not by instinct friendly to the protests but was keen to be seen to be doing something.

The anti-racist left has deplored the commission ever since one of their most powerful opponents, Munira Mirza, an ex-radical now running No 10 Downing Street’s policy unit, chose a comrade from the free-thinking ethnic minority intelligentsia, the British Caribbean educationalist Tony Sewell, to head it. Of the 10 commission members (only one of whom is white, and five of whom are Black Caribbean or Black African) there is not one who might be described as having orthodox left-liberal views on race.

This is the minority report for ethnic minority Britain inspired by a group (described here by Dean Godson) which challenges the standard leftist account and which has been growing in size and influence in recent years with some clout in the current Government, partly thanks to Mirza.

Some are capital C Conservatives, others are politically centrist or centre-left but just concerned that the account of race in Britain reflects reality and contributes to positive change. (Trevor Phillips, a loyal Labour man, though recently chucked out of the party for reasons that are hard to fathom, is the father of many of the ideas. I recall chairing a meeting with him ten years ago on why the ethnic minority population is now far too diverse for the BAME acronym to be much use.)

One of the strengths of the report is that it is written from the inside, from experience, and does not get bogged down in the sort of abstract, academic, theorising which marred the Parekh report of 21 years ago. It acknowledges the persistence of racial biases and welcomes the greater sensitivity to racism among a more assertive younger generation but is more interested in tackling particular obstacles—for example the “affinity bias” (the tendency to appoint and promote people like yourself) that can block the progress of minority professionals or the excessive criminalisation of black youth—rather than waving around generalised accusations of systemic racism.

But if any of those BLM activists dip into the report they will find their most cherished beliefs gently shredded by an older generation of accomplished ethnic minority professionals, who pat the youngsters on the head and say this: “Our views were formed by growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And our experience has taught us that you do not pass on the baton of progress by cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed.”

 “And nor do you move forward by importing bleak new theories about race that insist on accentuating our differences. It is closer contact, mutual understanding across ethnic groups and a shared commitment to equal opportunities that has contributed to the progress we have made.”

But the report is not just a counter-polemic to the BLM rhetoric of endemic racism and white privilege, it is a serious multi-footnoted, evidence-rich, case for shifting the debate about race and racism onto a new and more objective footing.

Will it cut through? It is important that it does because last summer’s eruption illuminated just how large the gap had grown between lived reality and a racism discourse, including in the BBC and much of the business and political establishment, that verges on the paranoid.

Many of us familiar with the data about ethnic outcomes found ourselves shouting at our TV sets last summer as this relatively open country was constantly mis-described as a racist tyranny. Do you not know, I bellowed, that almost all big minority groups outperform White British pupils in school? That there is a higher proportion of ethnic minority people in the top social class than White British people? That Black Caribbean women earn on average more than White British women? That Black Africans are one of the groups rising fastest up Britain’s education league table? That 40 per cent of NHS consultants are from ethnic minority backgrounds?

 All of these factoids and more are on prominent display in a report that celebrates the, often underplayed, story of ethnic minority achievement, especially in the past 20 years. It also stresses how differentiated the minority experience has become, hence the report’s well-trailed advice to dump the BAME acronym.

But what is so radical about the report is not just the optimism and the myth busting—for example it says hate crime is falling not rising, and health outcomes are often better for minorities—but rather the explanation for ethnic minority failure.

Racial disadvantage, the report says, is real but not generally caused by white racism. There can be racial disadvantage without racists because of a legacy of distrust and lack of opportunity in the past. And it often overlaps with social class disadvantage.

Disadvantaged White people, especially from the ex-industrial and coastal towns, are held back by many of the same obstacles and most recommendations in the report are sensibly aimed at disadvantaged people from all groups.

Moreover, as everyone knows but is rarely stated, least of all in official Government ink, different group outcomes are heavily influenced by the histories, parenting styles, educational aspirations of the different ethnic groups themselves. Or as the report puts it: “Our experience of ethnic minority Britain from the inside makes it obvious to us that different groups are distinguished in part by their different cultural patterns and expectations, after all that is what multiculturalism was supposed to be about.”  

It is not a coincidence that British Indians and British Chinese are at the top of all the education and average earnings tables and are storming en masse into the higher professions. 

It is also not just a coincidence, as the report says, that the family life of those two groups is overwhelmingly characterised by stable, two-parent families, while in two of the least successful groups, British Caribbeans and poorer White families, around two thirds of children are being raised in one parent families.

The report is unusually honest about crime too. How often does one read reports about disproportionate levels of stop and search in black communities without any mention of the disproportionate levels of violent crime in the same communities? Not here.

Indeed, one can feel a barely suppressed anger in the crime section about the scourge of knife and gang violence and the lack of leadership from black politicians on these issues. The report has sensible suggestions about preventing the criminalisation of young black men, reforming stop and search and recruiting more people from ethnic minorities into the police.

The report could be criticised for being rather too black and London-centric, reflecting the background of Sewell himself, and rather too little concerned with anti-Muslim prejudice, though the commission was charged to look at race and ethnic disparities not those related to religion. There is also nothing on mixed race Britain.

But London is clearly a factor in ethnic minority success. Ethnic minority Brits benefit from being disproportionately based in the richest and most dynamic corner of the land, with 41 per cent London-based there compared with just 9 per cent of the White British. Though this also works the other way round with White Brits in London pulled up educationally by the impact of aspirational minorities. It is probably significant that the one big minority group not to be over-represented in the capital are British Pakistanis.

A useful brief account of the extent of regional inequality points to the fact that while the sharpest socio-economic disadvantage is still concentrated in the least successful minority groups—Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Black Africans and Black Caribbeans—in sheer numbers the poor White British are disadvantage kings. Just under 10 per cent of White British people live in the bottom 10 per cent of the most deprived areas according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation in England compared with 31 per cent of British Pakistanis, but that translates into 3.8m White British people compared with 346,000 British Pakistanis.

The report is suffused with a generous spirit of trying to ‘fix the problem for everyone’ which is one of the reasons it is so sceptical about much of the unconscious bias training on offer. The commissioners are well aware that people of all backgrounds have biases and prejudices and tendencies to favour the familiar and members of in-groups. This is not something that is the special preserve of white people, though in white majority societies their biases and prejudices will obviously carry more weight.

Indeed the report perhaps misses a trick in saying nothing about the overt prejudice within some minority communities about other minorities, that remains much less taboo than when it comes from white people. There are well established tensions within racial groups, between Black Africans and Black Caribbeans for example, and sometimes these reflect class differences such as those between middle class, urban Pakistanis and those from rural Mirpur.

There is little academic work or data collection in this field but we do have UK hate crime figures that show a significant over-representation of black people and small over-representation of Asian people among perpetrators. And according to the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES) there are somewhat greater reservations about partnering “out” among most British minority groups than among the White British. According to the Social Integration Commission of 2014 there is also evidence of higher inter-ethnic distrust than that between ethnic minorities and the White majority.

The report writes insightfully about the corrosive impact of prejudice spewed out on social media and how the very intimacy of our gadgets makes the abuse even more damaging. It also points out that contrary to all the other survey evidence available about declining prejudice social media bigotry spreads the false impression that Britain is becoming more racist.

We have handed a declining number of bigoted people a massive megaphone and this is reflected almost daily in newspaper reports following up on celebrities and others being hounded by them. It therefore baffles me why the report did not lend its weight to the demand that social media companies make it much harder for people to operate online with complete anonymity and therefore impunity.

The Sewell commissioners nevertheless deserve our thanks for producing an excellent report. Will it have the impact on the national debate that it should? Much of the left will reject it before reading it but will it take the sensible centre with it? I think it could. It has got the facts on its side and the very ethnic minority success that it describes will surely over time promote the greater sense of belonging and equality of stake that the report advocates, and almost everyone favours.

In the most detailed recent survey of ethnic minority Brits almost exactly half do not think their race has been an obstacle to their personal advancement. Responding to the question ‘Do you think your race has or has not directly prevented you from being able to succeed or pursue opportunities in your own personal life?’, 40 per cent of ethnic minority people said it has and 38 per cent said it has not.

If the trends described so clearly in this report continue that number can only go one way.


David Goodhart’s book Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (Penguin) is just out in paperback. David is an EHRC commissioner but writes here in a personal capacity. 

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