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The Sewell Commission should be scrapped, but thankfully the government usually ignores its own race reports

The report has insulted every person of colour in the country.

12 Apr 2021

The ‘race report’ was a masterclass in government-level gaslighting. I don’t know in whose world the UK is a “successful multicultural community”, but it certainly isn’t in mine. Just today, figures show that 40% of young black people are unemployed, triple the rate of white people the same age. Yet earlier this month, the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) ignored all evidence of institutional racism. It told me and all other racialised people that we’ve misunderstood our own lived experiences.

Over a week on, most of us are still reeling. There is so much wrong with the race report that it’s hard to know where to begin. Unsurprisingly, given the line-up of those commissioned to write it, it is a script written with a clear political agenda, and there have even been accusations that Downing Street rewrote the document, “bending” its work to fit their particular political ideologies. From its use of racial tropes to its expertly manipulated data, the government has insulted not only every person of colour in this country but the vast majority of the UK population. That a commission convened in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement shirks the government’s responsibility for Black lives says all we need to know.

By tossing aside over 20 years of credible, welcomed and rigorous investigations into race and racism, such as the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and Marmot and Lammy Reviews, the CRED has shown just how committed it is to a divisive government narrative that does nothing to solve anyone’s problems – white, Black or brown. One ironic comfort, if history is anything to go by, is that the recommendations from similar enquiries are yet to lead to the tangible change we all expected. As the New Statesman pointed out, 16 of the race report’s 24 recommendations have been made before. While there have been mounting calls to withdraw the report altogether, the hope, therefore, is that the same pattern will follow with some of the Sewell Commission’s more divisive findings.

Historical reports

Last month, Sir William Macpherson, chair of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, died aged 94. His groundbreaking report, published in 1999, boldly spotlighted institutional racism in our criminal justice system and across the public sector. It is perhaps a blessing that he didn’t have to see our government put us right back where we were 22 years ago. Despite his inquiry, Black men are still 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white peers. Black women are still four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white peers, and 70% of Bangladeshi families are still living in poverty.

The Marmot Review, published in 2010, looked into health inequalities in England and proposed a policy action plan around social justice, health and sustainability. Michael Marmot himself has come out in indignation that the CRED cherry-picked sections from his report while conveniently ignoring the findings of his 2020 follow up, in which he claimed that the disproportionate death rate from Covid among ‘BME’ communities can be attributed to overcrowded housing in deprived areas and more exposure to the virus both at work and at home. These conditions, he claims in the Guardian, are “themselves the result of longstanding inequalities and structural racism”.

In 2017, David Lammy published the Lammy Review, looking into discrimination within the policing and criminal justice systems, which found clear evidence of racial bias. In February, he said that if he was commissioned to do the report again today he would go further than he did five years ago. The reason? Disproportionate representation of people of colour in the criminal justice system has gotten worse since it was published. Four short years later, and not only have the recommendations from the Lammy review not been implemented, but the CRED is also actively trying to debunk its findings by claiming that, “We no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.

Mobilising together

This race report must be understood from the context in which it lies. It is bound up in the realities of the ‘hostile environment’, the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell tragedy, culture wars and an imminent set of policies that will permanently entrench racial inequality in Britain for the foreseeable future.

This summer, we are due to see the introduction of mandatory voter ID at polling stations, which will effectively disenfranchise millions of ethnic minority people. The Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill will remove the single available voice to those excluded from traditional political systems, and instead hand them catastrophically disproportionate sentences that will worsen the “social time bomb” Lammy once warned of. All while Priti Patel’s new immigration policies are set to tear up refugee law that has been in place since the UK signed up to the Refugee Convention in 1951.

While the future may seem bleak, it is remarkable to see how people can mobilise together. An open letter to the prime minister, put together by a coalition of civil society organisations, was been signed by over 22,500 people in just over 48 hours last week. The letter calls on Boris Johnson to withdraw CRED’s report and instead implement the recommendations of the Lammy, Marmot and Macpherson reviews, albeit long overdue. In a similar move, a group of prominent Windrush campaigners, including activist Patrick Vernon, lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie and survivors of the scandal, have submitted a five-page letter to Tony Sewell, calling for the report to be scrapped.

Even though the government has form on ignoring recommendations that might help the plight of people of colour in this country, we have to move forward with hope. The race report dismisses the “idealism” of young people who claim the UK is institutionally racist but I for one cherish this ‘idealism’. It’s a force to be reckoned with. A force that will continue to shape the future of Britain and provide other young people like me with hope, with or without the support of our government.

Rohini Kahrs is the Communications Officer at Runnymede.