Britain is no longer a country where the “system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, according to a landmark review that has been criticised as insulting and divisive.
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities said geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion all impact life chances more than racism, in a report commissioned in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It also criticised the “confusing” way the term “institutional racism” has been applied, saying this should only be used when deep-seated, systemic racism is proved and not as a “catch-all” phrase for any microaggression.
Commission chairman Dr Tony Sewell told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the commission did not find evidence of institutional racism in Britain.
Labour said the report was a “divisive polemic” which has insulted people by downplaying institutional racism, while unions said the report was “deeply cynical” and denied the experiences of black and minority ethnic workers.
Former Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman David Isaac said a focus on whether there is institutional racism is a “distraction”, and the report’s recommendations are “sensible”, but that major inequalities still need to be addressed.
In a foreword to the report, Dr Sewell said some communities are haunted by historic racism and there was a “reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer”.
He said the review found some evidence of bias, but often it was a perception that the wider society could not be trusted.
Dr Sewell wrote: “Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.
“The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.
“Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.”
The commission said it takes racism seriously and does not deny it is a “real force” in the UK.
But it said there is an “increasingly strident form of anti-racism thinking that seeks to explain all minority disadvantage through the prism of white discrimination”.
This, it says, diverts attention from other reasons for disparities of outcome.
Shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said: “To downplay institutional racism in a pandemic where black, Asian and ethnic minority people have died disproportionately and are now twice as likely to be unemployed is an insult.”
Labour MP David Lammy said the report was an “insult to anybody and everybody across this country who experiences institutional racism”.
But Conservative MP Ben Bradley said the report reflects what he believes to be the view of the majority of people in the UK, calling it a “very welcome evidence-based addition to this conversation on inequality”.
NHS Providers said it disagreed with the report’s conclusions and said there is “clear and unmistakable” evidence that NHS ethnic minority staff have worse experiences and face more barriers than white counterparts.
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery said that denying the link between structural racism and health inequalities is “damaging”, adding: “Concrete action is needed to tackle structural racism, bias and discrimination in the health service, across other public services and across society.”
Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, added: “Frankly, by denying the evidence of institutional racism and tinkering with issues like unconscious bias training and use of the term ‘BAME’, I think they’ve insulted every ethnic minority in this country – the people who continue to experience racism on a daily basis.”
The Institute of Race Relations said the report’s findings and recommendations “fit neatly with the Government’s attempts, post-Brexit, to portray the British nation as a beacon of good race relations” and a model for countries across the globe.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Government will consider the recommendations, adding: “The entirety of Government remains fully committed to building a fairer Britain and taking the action needed to address disparities wherever they exist.“
The report was published in full at 11.30am on Wednesday, after the Government Equalities Office previously revealed selective highlights.
It follows wider discussions around racism following the death of George Floyd in the US last year, subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, elite sports stars taking the knee before football matches, and a claim by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey that a member of the royal family, not the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh, made a racist comment about their son Archie.
The report notes improvements such as increasing diversity in elite profession, a shrinking ethnicity pay gap and that children from many ethnic communities do as well or better than white pupils in compulsory education.
It also notes that the Black Lives Matter protests last year saw many young people in Britain calling for change.
While it understands the “idealism” of these “well-intentioned” young people, it questions whether a narrative claiming that nothing has improved and that institutional racism is dominant “will achieve anything beyond alienating the decent centre ground”.
It also heralds a new “era of participation”, but said this can only be achieved with the acknowledgement that the UK has undergone a fundamental shift to become a “more open society”.
And it concludes that progress is not achieved by “cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed”, adding: “It is closer contact, mutual understanding across ethnic groups and a shared commitment to equal opportunities that has contributed to the progress we have made.”
The 264-page report makes 24 recommendations, which the commission says have “tried to account for the messy reality of life” and are aimed at all disadvantaged people.
These include calls for increased scrutiny of body-worn police footage of stop and searches, more detailed, publicly available data, more local recruitment within police forces, and improved training to help officers interact with the communities they serve.
A pilot should be developed in four police areas where young people with low level possession of class B drugs should helped by public health services and diverted away from the criminal justice system, it recommends.
It also calls for an Office for Health Disparities to be established to tackle health inequalities, and for a review on action to address the underlying issues facing families.