On 31 March, the government published the report from its Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparity. It had briefed the headlines the day before and did a full media round before journalists, let alone the general public, had had a chance to read the full report. That is always a suspicious tactic, indicating that you don’t have confidence that the full report and the evidence contained within it will quite support the narrative you are hoping to create.
And it would appear that the narrative is what the report was interested in. We have had significant reports on racial inequality in the past five years (notably those undertaken by David Lammy and the May government’s own Race Disparity Audit) and we seem to be better at commissioning reports than taking action. However, this new report seems designed not to address the underlying inequalities it mentions but to try to explain those away as having nothing to do with race.
‘Its whole ethos seems to be about explaining away racial disparities as having very little to do with race.’
As the report itself states, ‘explained racial disparities: this term should be used when there are persistent ethnic differential outcomes that can demonstrably be shown to be as a result of other factors such as geography, class or sex’ (p. 36).
This normative basis means that even the rigorous and interesting research commissioned for the report, such as that by Steve Strand, is used to make the case that things are better than they are. To take this example, there is no disputing Strand’s findings that ‘the overwhelming picture is therefore of ethnic minority advantage in relation to educational achievement at age’, but the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparity report merely uses that to reinforce its overall message without asking two fundamental related questions. The first is why the one clear exception to this exists – namely that Black Caribbean and Black African boys from high socioeconomic status (SES) families score lower than comparable White British high SES boys. The report alights on the ‘class, not race’ argument without considering the intersectionality of the two. It perhaps should have paid some attention to the work of Nicola Rollock and colleagues (2014), who have documented the way in which the two interact. This is reinforced in a report published earlier this year by the Runnymede Trust (Treloar & Begum, 2021) which argues that ‘we cannot dissociate poverty from ethnicity if we are to have a series of successful policies that address these issues… We live in a society where both “race” and “class” drive inequalities, sometimes independently of one another but often in tandem’ (p. 4).
The second failing of the Commission is that it does not look at future trajectories. While school-based disparities have indeed closed, white pupils with the same educational outcomes as their black counterparts are still more likely to have better employment opportunities and social mobility. Another recent report reinforces Strand’s findings but also finds that ‘white working class boys outperform the ethnic working class boys in terms of income‘(p. 1). The Commission cherry-picks the data from Strand because it fits its narrative but ignores research on the latter because it does not.
In looking to eliminate ethnicity as cause of inequality and looking longitudinally, the Commission not only undermines any serious attempts to address inequalities but also effectively gaslights those who face that inequality by implying it’s all their own fault. The outcomes of the 2017 Race Disparity Audit stated very clearly that ‘throughout people’s lives, and across the various aspects of their lives, experiences and outcomes often vary with the ethnic group they belong to’ (p. 8), but this Commission seems to argue that ethnicity is almost inconsequential to that variance. This is the main subtext of the whole report – that minorities are facing inequality because of their own choices. The arguments in the report are that in some cases these relate to family structures, while in others it is a lack of ambition or poor careers advice. This simply ignores the evidence – well documented recently by Kalwant Bhopal (2018) among others.
Arguing away racial disparities like this is all part of the Commission’s seeming aim to move away from the concept of institutional racism as defined in the Stephen Lawrence report (Macpherson, 1999). Disparities are seen as the results solely of economic or personal decisions and not discrimination in society or institutions. This victim-blaming approach is perhaps best exemplified by the report’s assertion that ‘there is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain’ (p. 8). This claim, along with much of the report, is preposterous and offensive. It also ignores the swathes of research to the contrary – a narrative in search of evidence. If the Commission was really looking at the evidence, as it claims, then perhaps they needed a trip to Barnard Castle to test their eyesight.
This blog has been written in a personal capacity.
Aoki Y, Battu H and Massa P (2019), The Intergenerational Mobility of White Working Class Boys: A Quantitative Analysis, University of Aberdeen
Bhopal, K. (2018). White privilege: The myth of a post-racial society. Policy Press
Lammy, D. (2017). An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system. Cabinet Office. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report.pdf
Macpherson, W. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Home Office
Race Disparity Audit (2017). Cabinet Office. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/686071/Revised_RDA_report_March_2018.pdf
Rollock, N., Gillborn, D., Vincent, C. & Ball, S. (2014). The colour of class: The educational strategies of the Black middle classes. Routledge.
Strand, S. (2020). Effects of ethnicity and socio-economic status on attainment. University of Oxford.
Treloar, N., & Begum, H. (2021). Facts don’t lie: One working class: Race, class and inequalities. Runnymede Trust.