What does the Sewell Report tell us about Britain?

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Protesters transporting the statue of Colston towards the river Avon. Edward Colston was a slave trader of the late 17th century who played a major role in the development of the city of Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto)

By Malaika Magadza

THE short answer to this question is, unfortunately, not anything new. 

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report (known as the Sewell Report, after its chair) denied the existence of institutional racism in the country, and went as far as claimng that Britain was “…a model for other white-majority countries.” 

To clarify; institutional racism is defined by Macpherson as “…the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin…It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” 

This applies to how people are treated by police, whether they are hired, what access they have to medical attention, their education, among others. It is a thoroughly researched and lived truth that British society and organisations are steeped in racism, so what was this report trying to do?

By attempting to disprove and invalidate the country’s legacy of racism and present inequalities, the report actually unintentionally highlights to us the culture of denialism that persists in the UK when it comes to its failings, particularly Britain’s responsibility to address discrimination. 

The report claimed that racism had been exaggerated. It attempted to sanitise Britain’s legacy of enslavement and colonialism, and discounted the lived realities of the millions of people of colour and ethnic minorities within the country. 

These communities, like most of us around the world, were outraged, but expected this from the Conservative Government. 

The UK has consistently attempted to deny or legitimise its atrocities overseas and the entrenched racism within the country itself, attempting to portray itself as a pillar of human rights and progress while the reality remains very different, at the expense of communities in or from the global South. 

The report stresses the importance of class and poverty as determinant factors in citizens’ lives, but, as we know, these factors are themselves inseparable from systematic exploitation and oppression disproportionately suffered by Britain’s ethnic minorities. 

How then can ethnicity not be a crucial factor that inhibits people in the UK? 

Minority communities are more likely to be impoverished, face more challenges to access education and are a huge section of the working-class population. 

The report also highlights the academic successes of minority communities (for example our own black African students outperforming their white counterparts) but downplays the fact that black Caribbean students are twice as likely to be given harsh disciplinary punishment than white British students, and that even outside the classroom black students are impacted by harassment from police which affects their daily life. 

When it comes to employment, ethnic minorities are disproportionally workers in the National Health Service. 

People who are not white are so numerous in positions of caring and health work for the British public, yet they,  themselves, are not cared for by the State. 

Only last year, research found that black women are still  neglected and humiliated by medical staff.  

Many were denied pain medication and the findings showed that black women were five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in the UK.

It is shocking how the report cannot deny how Stop-and-Search (a policing tactic where police officers can randomly stop, search and question an individual if they believe there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect the person) has massively impacted minority communities, particularly blackmen (who are 19 times more likely to be targeted by police), but still attempts to deny that institutional racism exists.

The Sewell Report talks about how the current government has a greater number of ethnic minorities than before as if this is concrete evidence that the current Conservative regime is not racist. The figures mentioned as examples only highlight how ridiculous this is. 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, was educated at a private school that costs £41 709 yearly and is married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire. 

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng attended a school costing £42 501 per year and has received payments from a pro-apartheid group. 

Priti Patel, Britain’s notorious Home Secretary, has called for a reduction in the protection of citizens’ welfare by the State and referred to the working class as ‘idle’ along with Kwarteng. 

She has voted for Britain to bomb Syria; is a staunch supporter of Israel’s Zionist regime and India’s anti-Muslim and elitist government; diverted aid money into building luxury hotels; and has been found guilty of bullying, harassment and Ministerial misconduct (twice). 

As if this were not enough, Patel has introduced Britain’s openly racist and xenophobic points-based immigration system to ‘crack down on foreign criminals’, even proposing dumping immigrants on an island in the Atlantic. 

It is interesting to see that Patel’s racism goes as far as developing xenophobic policy so harsh that even her own parents would not be allowed into the country. She has called #Black Lives Matter ‘dreadful’, environmental activists ‘criminals’, and supports mass deportations. She has created a new policing bill in response to #Black Lives Matter protests and environmental activism that would shockingly make it possible in the UK to spend more time in prison for damaging a statue of a slave-trader than for rape. 

Peaceful protests against the government (like those against Brexit and against the invasion of Iraq) could be shut down simply for being noisy. 

Once again, this directly affects ethnic minorities in the UK, who frequently protest against the racism they face.

I mention these figures to stress how ridiculous the report is to single them out as examples of racial progress in the UK. They are extremely wealthy individuals who gained access to power thanks to the privileges that their wealth gave them.  or in Patel’s case, by forming alliances with racist individuals and groups. 

The power she has been given as a brown woman in the Conservative Party is a reward for her racism and xenophobia. Like this very report, she is used to make the government look diverse and shield it from criticism by allowing hatred and white supremacist xenophobia to be expressed through her.

Those of us from the global South can easily recognise in these figures the character of Uncle Tom or Uncle Ruckus — those who have absorbed white supremacy and participate in the oppression of people like them for a chance to be closer to the corridors of power. 

We are very familiar with these stooges who will sing for their supper, or in this case, sing for their feasts. 

This brings us to Sewell himself. He is of Jamaican origin and known for his sexism and his long-term denial of institutional racism. 

He has openly victim-blamed underperforming black students, accusing them of ‘wallowing in self-pity’ and failing simply because ‘they did not do their homework’ and ‘did not pay attention’.  

Sewell displays a shockingly simplistic view of how race affects the success of different groups of people. He does not acknowledge how the struggles black communities face in the UK impact their school life; a single example being how victimisation and aggressive police tactics to black boys impact their behaviour. 

Black people are 10 times more likely to be targeted by police than white people, while black males are 19 times more. 

Despite white people being most likely to be identified as criminals by Stop-and-Search, 10 000 black males from the age of 15 to 25 were targeted by London police in May of 2020 alone. Britain’s policing makes ethnic minorities feel like outsiders; it deeply traumatises and makes them less likely to participate in a system they do not feel that they belong in. 

Sewell, instead, believes that class and power imbalances are somehow separate from race. 

How? People’s class is dictated by their socio-economic position — how much money they have, how much privilege they have and what opportunities they have. 

How can race be separated from this in a world where white British people have oppressed and held back other races for centuries? 

In a country whose institutions were built by oppressors and which became rich through slavery and colonialism, how can we discuss power imbalances without talking about racism? 

His stance is baffling.

The answer to these questions: 

There are numerous reports (for example the Racism at Work Survey, William and Clarkes’ Dangerous Associations Report, and the Race Disparity Audit, among countless others) that document deep racism embedded within Britain and its institutions, and which give recommendations on how to improve the situation. 

However, these are obviously unpopular with the UK’s backward Conservative Government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an unapologetic racist himself, who has said that Africa should be recolonised, called for this report to be made to ‘change the narrative’ about inequality in Britain and ‘stop a sense of victimisation and discrimination’ in ethnic minorities. It is completely obvious from this that the report was never intended to be factual but, instead, was organised specifically to give the government an excuse to ignore all the evidence about institutional racism and to intensify the oppression of minority and immigrant communities with this Sewell Report shielding them from criticism. 

Additionally, it gives them a chance to sing about how the UK is the best at fighting racism at the same time as they demonise foreigners, disregard black lives and harass minorities. Importantly, the report feeds into a narrative that minorities are trying to get special treatment for no reason; a narrative that intentionally aims to rouse the white working class into feelings of suspicion against, and resentment of, their black and minority colleagues. 

We can see that the government is attempting to gain support and prevent institutional change by encouraging white British citizens to cultivate racist mentalities while at the same time denying that this racism is a problem.

Zimbabweans know fully well the realities of how institutional racism in the UK impacts not only its own citizens, but those of us around the world who embark on decolonial endeavours to try to repair the legacy of British racism. 

Like our black and minority compatriots in the UK, we cannot be surprised by this latest attempt by the government to entrench racism and avoid accountability. 

We remain disappointed but unsurprised.

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