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Sewell report denies institutional racism to obscure how the system works

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Issue 2748
Institutional racism means black people are stopped and searched more than whites
Institutional racism means black people are stopped and searched more than whites (Pic: Guy Smallman)

There’s no such thing as institutional racism. That’s the entirely predictable conclusion of the Tory-commissioned report on racial disparity published on Wednesday.

Boris Johnson knew what he was getting when he handed Tony Sewell the job of heading the inquiry. The charity boss had already described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “lower middle class revolt” and a “sideshow”.

And, he had rejected the idea of institutional racism as “flimsy”.

Sewell’s report puts school education at the centre of its claims that racial discrimination is largely imagined.

It says that children from most ethnic minorities do as well or better than white pupils, with black Caribbean pupils the only group to perform less well.

The political aims here are simple. The first is to establish that years of effort to improve the grades of ethnic minority children have in turn disadvantaged white working class pupils.


For Sewell and his collaborators, educational achievement is a zero-sum game where if some groups advance others must be left behind.

This fits a narrative once confined to the far right, but now deeply embedded in the mainstream, that the “white working class” is specifically disadvantaged as a result of being white.

The second is to say it is pointless to see black and minority ethnic people as having anything in common.

But even the most cursory glance at Britain over the last year can prove how wrong-headed that assumption is.

Walk into any workplace where low pay and insecurity is a feature and you are struck by the way the jobs are disproportionately filled by ethnic minorities.

Black workers are concentrated in low paid sectors and always have to fight for justice
Black workers are concentrated in low paid sectors and always have to fight for justice (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Think about frontline key workers in bus garages, supermarkets, hospitals—and then remember that black and minority ethnic workers have been far more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, and far more likely to die than their white counterparts.

Asked for her view on the commission’s suggestion that Britain is not institutionally racist, Dr Halima Begum of the anti-racist Runnymede Trust, said, “Tell that to the black young mother who is four times more likely to die in childbirth than her young white neighbour.

“Tell that to the 60 percent of NHS doctors and nurses who died from Covid and were black and ethnic minority workers.

“You can’t tell them that, because they are dead.”

Damning report exposes racist school discipline measures
Damning report exposes racist school discipline measures
  Read More

That Sewell’s report deliberately sets out to attack the idea of institutional racism shows just how worried the state is. For a growing number of people, institutional racism best explains why it is that patterns of prejudice are repeated throughout capitalist society.

It tells us why the police are up to 19 times more likely to stop a black young man than a white one. It explains why prisons are disproportionately filled with black and Asian people. And it explains why the poorest ethnic groups are concentrated in the worst, and most overcrowded homes.

Rather than saying that individual prejudice is to blame for this phenomenon, institutional racism says the problem is systemic—that it is built into the capitalist system.

The truth that the report can’t acknowledge is that the lives of most black and ethnic minority people are blighted from birth by the interaction of race and class.

All Sewell’s nonsense about stopping the use of the acronym BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and preventing funding of unconscious bias training is designed purely to disguise that central fact.

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