A Christian response to the Government's troubling report on race and ethnic disparities

(Photo: Unsplash/Arthur Osipyan)

On Wednesday, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and the Baptist Union (BU), brought over 500 people together on a Zoom webinar in response to the Government-sponsored Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report launched last month. The event was titled "A Moment of Dishonour? Racism, Sewell and the Christian Response".

As you may know, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set up the Commission in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd and the massive Black Lives Matter protests that took place last summer.

In the two weeks since the report was launched, it has been thrashed by journalists, academics, and activists up and down the country. And why? Well, after less than nine months (an incredibly short time for what was promised to be a significant report) of fact-finding and consultations, the Commission concluded that the UK is not 'institutionally racist', and that the story of the country's progress to a 'successful multicultural community' should be a 'beacon to the rest of Europe and the world'.

Hosted by Richard Reddie (CTBI) and Wale Hudson Roberts (BU), the panel included Professor Robert Beckford, Lord Simon Woolley, and Archdeacon Dr Rosemarie Mallet from the Church of England.

Professor Beckford provided a theological introduction to race, culture, and the biblical imperative to treat people fairly as image-bearers of the divine and our responsibility to pursue justice (Micah 6:8). Lord Woolley's contribution was salutary. Borne out of working closely with the government (former Prime Minister Theresa May put him in charge of overseeing the Race Disparity Advisory group in 2018) and as director of Operation Black Vote (OBV) for over two decades trying to get more Black people into politics, he argued that the report was a missed opportunity to tackle institutional racism in key sectors of the economy and society.

Lord Woolley echoed the assessment of Baroness Doreen Lawrence (mother of the Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racists in Eltham in 1993) of the report, namely, that it gives a 'green light' to racists and put race relations back 20 years.

Although there were piercing and informed questions to the panel, I felt there should have been a brief overview of the report, its recommendations, and the politics of the Chairman, Dr Tony Sewell. And this is particularly the case because I felt many of those who had commented on the Sewell report had not actually read it. They were responding to media headlines, especially those that were spouted from government communications at Number 10.

In the days that followed, it became apparent that not all Commissioners (the other 10, including the astronomer Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocook MBE and the economists Dr Dambisa Moyo) had sight of the Chair's 'Foreword' before it went public; and there was even the suggestion that those working inside Number 10 had rewritten parts of the report. Doubtless, we will hear more of this in the coming weeks.

Let me say a few things briefly about the report and the provenance of Dr Sewell's politics of race.

The report has 24 recommendations across four themes: building trust (5), promoting fairness (9), creating agency (5), and achieving inclusivity (5).

Taken as a whole, the recommendations make interesting reading; and there are some that should be taken seriously by the Government and policy makers. Interestingly enough, it seems rather odd that in trying to 'build trust' the Commission's first recommendation is to throw more money at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to 'use their compliance, enforcement and litigation powers to challenge policies or practices that either cause significant or unjust racial disadvantage'.

I have not heard too many commentators talking about the Commission's take on the need to 'improve transparency and the use of artificial intelligence': here the Commission is concerned (Rec 3) about how algorithms are applied and how they impact decision making that significantly affect individuals.

In essence, they are asking critical questions about ways in which the Equality Act comes into play - impact assessment on BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) citizens. By the way, the final recommendation is to 'move away from the use of the term "BAME" so that a more 'granular' understanding of the disparities among specific ethnic groups can be focused on. And very few people would disagree with the recommendation to reduce crime and divert young people away from the criminal justice system (Rec 12), including more support for youth justice agencies.

Dr Sewell is no stranger to controversy. As a popular columnist with the Voice newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s, he penned articles and views that many found superficial and at times objectionable. There is nothing new, or fresh, in Sewell's thinking about racism and its challenges in the UK.

To summarize, if you haven't read any of his writing, Dr Sewell pathologizes black families and their parenting skills for the educational and other failures. His argument is that Black children (especially Caribbeans) do badly not so much because of racism in education, but rather because they don't do their homework and don't pay attention in class.

Furthermore, they have imbibed, as he stated in his 2012 chair's Foreword to the Mayor of London Education Inquiry: Going for Gold –Turning Achievement into Excellence in London's Schools, 'a culture of excuses' where students with potential for academic excellence 'have been allowed to buy into the discourse of victimhood'.

It is a very short distance from the educational and political terrain occupied by Dr Sewell (not forgetting Boris Johnson's trusted adviser, Munira Mirza, who worked as his Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture when the PM was Mayor of London) now and where he was over a decade ago. So much for the Commission's 'journey of discovery'.

One could have done a 'cut and paste' job on Dr Sewell's cultural politics and his take on racism and education, and simply put them into his chair's Foreword to the report. In an October 2010 Spectator article, he argued thus:

"My challenge to these claims is that times have changed. What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers... Young black boys are constantly on edge, feeling that the world is against them but unable to find the real source of their trouble. We have a generation who have all the language and discourse of the race relations industry but no devil to fight."

No surprise, therefore, in the Commission's chairman espousing the beliefs and values he has always held, namely, that Black people especially should stop crying 'institutional racism' for their failures in society, for there is really no such thing any more. Britain has, changed, we are more open (and by the way, here is the good news: the 'snow is melting' – look at the 'greater presence' and the 'onward march' of minorities in the government, the opposition, and positions of power and responsibility in professions such as law and medicine.

The conclusion that the UK is not 'institutionally racist' should not come as a surprise with a chairman who has persistently denied its existence. This was the point that Dr Joel Edwards made last Friday when he spoke on Premier Christian Radio. Lord Woolley made a similar point when he argued on Wednesday night that it would be like asking a Holocaust-denier to chair a commission on antisemitism.

And where do we go from here? The National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF) put out one of the first statements on the report encouraging Christians to engage with its recommendations; a similar exhortation was given on Wednesday by the young theologian Eleasah Louis and the Christian apologist Clare Williams.

Christians must engage critically and intelligently with this report. They must expose some of the methodological shortcomings of the report and its contradictory position of claiming that the 1999 Lawrence definition of institutional racism (in the Macpherson report) 'has stood the test of time' while not fully appreciating the weight of the characteristics its defines as constituting 'institutional racism', including attitudes, behaviours, and 'racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people'.

The launch of a government-sponsored report on race and ethnic disparities in the same week as the trial got underway in the US of a police officer for the murder of George Floyd; and which claims that institutional racism in the UK does not exist, and that we no longer 'see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities', appears to fly in the face of the lived experience of thousands of our UK citizens!

Of course, there have been changes over the last fifty years, but often the system (and 'institutional racism' is about the system and processes) militates against Black achievement and flourishing. Not to acknowledge this is disingenuous. And to say that those who still feel the sting of institutional racism are guilty of entertaining 'a fatalistic narrative' does not help. In fact, it is condescending and offers little hope in creating a fairer and more cohesive society.

There is a lot of anger out there directed toward the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and its chairman. Saint Augustine reminds us that 'Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.'

We all have much work to do.

Dr R David Muir is Head of Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, and Senior Lecturer in Public Theology & Community Engagement. He currently convenes the Pentecostal Network, is an executive member of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR), and Co-Chair of the National Church Leaders' Forum (NCLF). In 2015, he co-authored the first Black Church political manifesto (2015).