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Reflections on the Commission on Race Ethnic Disparities: The Report

BTEG women share their views on racism in the UK

Payal Bhavsar, Communications and Engagement Officer for EQUAL:

The foreword for the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report, released on 31st March, positions the UK as “a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world” when it comes to racial equality.  One wonders if is this the same Britain which, just over two years ago, caused the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume, to remark in her report to the UN (page 7): “the harsh reality is that race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability status, and related categories all continue to determine the life chances and well-being of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable, and in many cases, unlawful.”?

The Report has turned against this moment of international scrutiny and authority, overwriting vital strides of progress organisations like BTEG, ROTA, the Runnymede Trust, Southall Black Sisters, INQUEST, the Stephen Lawrence Foundation and more, have been making to get race, representation, accountability and acknowledgment to the forefront of national debate and action.

If Tendayi was confounded by what she saw back in 2018, I’m confounded by the deliberate contortions of historical events (including euphemisms for the role of British colonialism and slavery), and of current data within The Report. Is this the same Britain, I ask again, which disproportionately imprisons more black men than the USA? Where black employees with degrees earn 23% less on average than white colleagues? Where Bangladeshi and Pakistani families are more likely to be living in relative poverty, in overcrowded accommodation and, along with Black African and Black Caribbean people, have suffered a disproportionately higher COVID-19 mortality rate? The evidence is all there: a shame, I think, that I need even repeat it.

What jars is that it follows on so quickly from last year’s Black Lives Matter movement. It’s shocking to think that it was just last year that some politicians were seen taking the knee; admitting to their own complicity and racial bias, making pledges to address racial discrimination within their own circles and institutions. Momentously, as I write this, the USA has just declared Derek Chauvin guilty for killing George Floyd on all three counts and President Joe Biden has remarked that 'systemic racism is a stain on our nation’s soul.' I am both relieved at the verdict and saddened so few police officers have been held accountable in the USA. I am reminded too that police officers in the UK very rarely  get the same measure of scrutiny. How far has the UK diverged from its transatlantic neighbour, one it has, for so long, liked to compare itself to? We’re experts at pointing our fingers at the USA and saying: “at least we’re not like them”. We’re not. But even the most racially complex and contested terrain in the USA is making strides to address its systemic problems and not cover it up as we have done.

The act of publishing this report (rebutted by the BMA, the TUC, faith organisations and the Coalition of Race Equality Organisations), has, therefore, shown that conversations around race and racism are still disputed territory, and that the views of black and brown communities are often dismissed because they are seen as subjective - rooted in a perceived sense of injustice (i.e., our own sensitivity and not reality).

But the wilful way in which the report manipulates narratives around race and racial history, and the denial of our worlds and views is not new. And perhaps this will repeat whilst we fail to take responsibility for why race disparity exists. For this reason, those individuals and organisations working closely to empower and strengthen black and Asian communities need to listen and direct their energies elsewhere. We need to take strength in all the things that we’ve been doing right: working for those who care to hear our truth; providing spaces for real, lived dialogue; changing the narrative on race for ourselves and not giving in to narratives of victimhood.

We need to be wary of adopting the divide-and-conquer rhetoric which is quite brazenly being aimed at stunting cross-cultural solidarity between black and Asian communities. The Report has ignored and exhausted us, but I know that in the long history of resistance and race, we will continue to work together and agitate for change from the bottom up like we’ve always done.

The UK that I am familiar with - where whiteness and its related structures aren’t the sole source of meaning and authority, and multicultural dialogue provides true spaces of support - is the ‘beacon’ of hope and resilience I will turn to.

Shona James-Bennett, Employer Engagement and Communications Intern, Moving on Up:

Following the release of The Report, I found myself questioning whether I live in the same country that had been analysed. To claim that there is “no” evidence of institutional racism in a country that has built itself on imperialism and is still thriving from the exploitation of former British colonies is absurd to me.

The report failed to acknowledge structural and institutional racism. Rather ironic that on the day it was released pupils at the Pimlico Academy in London protested new policies the school sought to enforce1including banning afro haircuts that would "block the views" of other pupils in class and rules against the hijab. Parents and students were rightfully outraged at the racist and Islamophobic policies.

To add to the insult, this occurred during a national lockdown where all barbershops and hairdressers had been closed- many people, including myself, had no choice but to embrace their afros.

Conclusions found in the report dangerously belittle and minimise the levels of discrimination that black, Asian and mixed heritage children have to endure in the UK.

This report contradicts the realities faced by me and many others every day.

At BTEG I work on the Moving on Up (MoU) project, an employment initiative helping young black men to find jobs and careers in London. Here, I am presented with research that illustrates the racial injustices black men face in the UK, but I also have the privilege to engage with people who are not so far removed from the truth.

In the UK, young black male graduates are more than four times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Men with the same credentials and expertise seem to not have access to the same jobs or are not being hired in the same way. Surely institutional racism must be a factor here.

Black graduates are not able to network in the same way as their white counterparts, nor do they have the connections that will ensure they have a job secured before they throw their mortarboard. Taking the time to deconstruct and breakdown the lived experiences of black and Asian communities in the report seemed to go amiss, resulting in a document that lacks the scope, breadth and empathy to understand the everyday lives of the vast majority of black and Asian  people in the UK.

Phoebe Georgestone, Project Support Officer:

A year into a pandemic that has disproportionately cost the lives of black, Asian and mixed heritage communities in the UK, the Report is nothing short of a slap in the face.

Against the backdrop of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the start of uncomfortable but necessary conversations on race and racism, it seems this report was deployed – in contradiction to decades of evidence – to arrest mass mobilisation and shift the responsibility for taking action away from the Government.

As a young black woman working in the non-profit sector to action race equality, I feel entirely let down by this report: as though my lived experiences of racial bias and prejudice have been belittled and swept under the rug. I find the report’s claim that there is no evidence of institutional racism in the UK absurd. If this is true, then why are young black men nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police? Black women four times more likely to die in childbirth? People with black and Asian sounding surnames required to write nearly twice the number of job applications than their white counterparts to receive a call back?

Pinning systemic racial injustice on individual, “anecdotal” cases of overt racism completely absolves the government and UK institutions of any responsibility in perpetuating racial inequality. This trope of racism being down to ‘a few bad apples’ undermines the magnitude and urgency of the issue.

The report regurgitates the old rhetoric that if you work hard enough and get good grades, you’ll be ok. This ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ approach is untrue and unhelpful. On average, black African children are performing better in school than their white British counterparts, yet we are not seeing this translated into better paying jobs and more senior roles. Instead, 2019 figures show 26% of black African young people are unemployed compared to 10% of young white people. (Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report, p.109)

This shows us that – as has always been the case – it is going to be down to those of us truly committed to driving change to do the legwork. Despite being chronically underfunded for years, the black and Asian voluntary and community sector remains crucial in supporting black and Asian communities poorly served by mainstream public services.

From my work with the national race equality charity BTEG, I have witnessed the opportunities that can arise when organisations work collaboratively to bridge this gap in funding and prioritisation. I am thrilled that BTEG has been able to act as an intermediary partner to large funders such as Comic Relief so that small black and Asian-led organisations can access funds they may not otherwise be able to reach.

Another recent BTEG project has facilitated commissioning opportunities for black and Asian charities with the National Probation Service London. Initiatives like these, which work with grassroot organisations dealing with the real, lived experience of being a person of colour in the UK today, give me hope for bringing forth an honest conversation about race and stimulating robust action on racial inequalities – even amidst government denial.

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