How can something so morally unjust sit comfortably as normalised social outcomes in Britain, despite successive governments wielding the means to address it? This is at heart the question that motivates researchers, activists and minoritized groups who continually identify the drivers of racial inequalities, and whom are long accustomed with the obfuscation that stymie change. William Smith and colleagues have characterised something of these dynamics as ‘racial battle fatigue’, and while the concept typically focuses more on interpersonal encounters, it nonetheless resonates in how our work on these topics was described in the recently published report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, as an ‘example of overly pessimistic narratives’ (p.30).
While much of the report might have been predicted, few of us nonetheless anticipated the Commission would seek to make a virtue of racial inequalities in presenting them ‘as a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world’ (p.8). In what the Commission is persuaded is an uplifting account, their report seeks to pivot from the required focus on social systems, structures and institutions to – as we are told from the outset – ‘the other reasons for minority success and failure, including those embedded in the cultures and attitudes of those minority communities themselves’ (p 11).
It does not require a trained eye to appreciate that ignoring a problem in order not to see it is methodologically unsound, yet this is an orientation long associated with the Commission’s chair, Tony Sewell, who has previously insisted that Black British African Caribbean children fare less well in schools not because of their treatment, since ‘even when faced with white racism, these black students are their own worst enemies’ (p. 55). Scaled up to the UK level (though largely focusing on England), and stretched across a variety of sectors beyond education, the Commission adopts an expanded version of this ‘cultural deficit’ view, but adds to it the purported role of compounding factors. Specifically, the report insists that racial inequality should be viewed a second order effect which cannot be uncoupled from class, geography, employment or education.
Both rationales inform the Commission’s stated ambition to move away from a discussion of institutional racism, and instead ‘look elsewhere for the roots of that disadvantage’ (p.41). Neither of these objectives bear scrutiny, as illustrated in the responses to the public call for evidence which overwhelming show the contrary. In chapter after chapter, moreover, specialist readers have observed a pattern of intellectual dishonesty, with academic sources being mis-glossed and mis-represented. Citing our earlier article on covid and institutional racism, the report says that
The increased age-adjusted risk of death from COVID-19 in Black and South Asian groups has widely been reported as being due to racism – and as exacerbating existing health inequalities. However many analyses have shown that the increased risk of dying from COVID-19 is mainly due to an increased risk of exposure to infection. This is attributed to the facts that Black and South Asian people are more likely to live in urban areas with higher population density and levels of deprivation; work in higher risk occupations such as healthcare or transport; and to live with older relatives who themselves are at higher risk due to their age or having other comorbidities such as diabetes and obesity (p.11).
This deferral of unequal exposure to COVID-19 to geographic, socio-economic, occupational, housing inequalities and comorbidities is at best a clumsy sleight of hand. It only becomes possible to divorce these inequalities from racism through a denial of history. As Smaje lucidly explained in the mid-1990s, if race/ethnicity is ‘simply emptied into class disadvantage’, we ‘desocialize and de-historicize the processes by which material factors affect the health of ethnic groups’ in the first place (p.153, 159). This is disingenuously at odds with the report’s stated wish to conceptually distinguish institutional racism (as applicable to an institution/organisation) from systemic (applying to interconnected organisations, or wider society) and structural racism (a legacy of historic racism) (p.36). The chapters fail to follow through with applying or considering these concepts any further.
In the health chapter for example, it seems to discount the Marmot Review on the grounds that ‘it did not answer why the social determinants of health are unequally distributed between different racial and ethnic groups’, noting that ‘This question was beyond the remit of the review’ (p.213). But if the commission were to seriously and honestly engage with ‘the drivers of ethnic difference in the UK’ (p.11) then this should have been precisely the question for the authors to focus on. They would have needed to go no further than the work of James Nazroo or Saffron Karlsen who have shown, since the mid-1990s, that social and economic inequalities, underpinned by racism, are fundamental causes of ethnic inequalities in health. Needless to say, such key work is not cited in the report.
Having emptied ethnicity into geography and class, where does the report go next? ‘If it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists then we need to look elsewhere for the roots of that disadvantage’ (p.41). Next up, therefore, in keeping with Sewell’s earlier work, is ‘cultural traditions, family and integration’ (p.41). Here, the commission notes ‘with great concern the prevalence of family breakdown’ (p.41). Despite repeated disclaimers that ‘The commission is not passing judgement…’; ‘To repeat, this is not allocating blame…’ (p.41, 42), the report constructs family breakdown as the fount of all ills, youth incarceration, under-performance at school, emotional and social incompetence among children, and families falling into the bottom income quintile. The sexist racial tropes deployed here are not subtle. It notes, predictably, that 63% Black Caribbean, 62% of Black Other and 43% of Black African children are growing up in lone parent families.
There is of course a long history of denigrating the matrifocal family, most famously in Daniel Moynihan’s depiction, as Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1965, of the woman-headed families of Black Americans as a self-perpetuating ‘tangle of pathology’. But as Marilyn Strathern observes, this bias tells us more about the prejudices of the observers than of the deficits of these modes of doing family: ‘the very category “matrifocal” implies an absence (no one really talks of patrifocal households)’ (p.29). Decades of research challenges the stereotype of Afro-Caribbean cultures as individualistic or as having weak sense of family – see no further than the work of Tracey Reynolds, Alissa Trotz or Adom Philogene Heron; although needless to say, none are cited by the report.
By contrast, South Asian families are represented as stable, even if the underlying ONS statistics cited on p.41 document that at 14% and 12% respectively, the proportions of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children growing up in lone parent families is not far off the 19% of White British children. Academic Dr Rakib Ehsan is attributed the authoritative view of Britain’s South Asian communities being ‘deeply family-oriented and intergenerationally cohesive’ (p.42), chiming with a chorus of male community spokespersons who pin the status of family and community to the containment of women. The problem for South Asians, according to the report, is not family breakdown but insufficient integration, obstructed by the women not working, not speaking English, and marriage migration, which ‘produces the so-called “first generation in every generation” issue, with full integration constantly being restrained by one parent with a foot in another country’ (p.43).
Again, a lamentable omission is Charsley and colleagues’ recent empirical study which completely debunks the idea that marriage migration is bad for integration. More problematic, however, is the ease with which the report recycles stock tropes identified by Sue Benson back in the mid-1990s – that ‘Asians have cultures, West Indians have problems’.
Having urged the government to investigate these issues further and look at initiatives that prevent family breakdown, the next section of the report is particularly deplorable. It argues that ‘racism is both real and social constructed’ (p.45). Here it doubles down on earlier statements that ‘both the reality and the perception of unfairness matter’ (p.27) but clearly tries to create an argument that racism is more perceived than real. So, when we shift from polling data about how much prejudice people think is out there against particular racial/ethnic groups, to data about specific instances of discrimination ‘those numbers often shrink’ (p.45). Perceptions of racial discrimination are also noted to vary between the different groups. So, the groups that have most success in British society (Indians and Chinese) see fewer obstacles and less prejudice, whereas the groups that do less well (Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people) ‘tend to see and experience more of both’ (p.45).
What meanwhile of the inequalities that are routinely found in the labour market? How might the Commission explain ONS figures showing the unemployment rate for Black African and Black Caribbean groups across the UK is more than twice the national average, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups have an unemployment rate of 10 per cent compared with 4 per cent for white groups? The social science evidence is robust and longstanding, and begins by focusing on labour market entry through field experiments. These universally illustrate how minoritized applicants in the UK are, other things being equal, less likely to receive a positive reply to their application than the white British majority. For example, in their study using data from field studies on labour market discrimination, set against the UK Labour Force Survey for comparable groups, Zwysen, Di Stasio and Heath have convincingly documented ‘a sizeable positive relation between the degree of ethnic discrimination recorded in field experiments and the overall disadvantage faced by ethnic minorities on the labour market’ (p. 15). They conclude that this ‘strongly suggests that ethnic penalties reflect hiring discrimination, and generally groups that experience worse hiring discrimination also have higher ethnic penalties in employment’ (p.15).
How is this large-scale peer-reviewed research treated by the Commissioners? As something that ‘cannot be relied upon to provide clarity on the extent that it happens in everyday life’ (p. 122). With that, more than fifty years of evidence that such research builds upon is put to one side in favour of an anecdote which further drives attention away from systemic explanatory variables. As such it is telling how the Commission’s view, that it ‘is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists’ (p. 41), unintentionally repeats the title of a highly critical and landmark text by the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva. In this the author explains how it is precisely the logic adopted by the Commission that sustains and proliferates racial inequality.
While striking to note, it is not surprising, given none of the commissioners has any recognised research competence in the study of racism, while the few qualified academics named in the report say they were not properly consulted. Refusing to build on the collective insights before it, the report ultimately is uncoupled from the experience of those is purports to focus upon.
Perhaps in the final analysis that is its purpose, as Baroness Doreen Lawrence has put it: to push ‘the fight against racism back 20 years or more’. As researchers, and however much racial battle fatigue this may bring, it is not a fight any of us should ignore.