In summer 2020, hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets of Britain echoing similar feelings of pain, outrage and desire for justice that have been shared as harrowing footage of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in broad daylight after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, went viral across social media.
Though the lived experiences of Black people across the Atlantic are not identical, there are important parallels to be drawn. For example, across the U.K. Black people die in disproportionate numbers following contact with the police, accounting for 8% of deaths in U.K. police custody while only making up 3% of the population.
So while Brits marched in solidarity, they were also marching in resistance to structural racism that affects Black people in this country too.
In response to the widespread demonstrations which culminated in the largest civil rights movement in U.K. history, British prime minister Boris Johnson appointed the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities to examine inequalities in the U.K.
After a four month delay from its original deadline, the commission finally published its 258-page report March 31 and it claimed Britain is not institutionally racist.
The 258-page document concluded that Britain was no longer a country where the “system is deliberately rigged” against ethnic minorities.
Tony Sewell, who is the commission’s chairman, said while there was anecdotal evidence of racism, he denied there was any proof that it was structural, saying there was data to show some ethnic minorities were doing well in the jobs market and in education.
The analysis also said the term “structural racism” was “too liberally used” and that factors such a socioeconomic background, culture and religion have a “more significant impact on life.”
These findings sparked accusations of “deeply cynical” complacency, contradicting the research and reviews conducted over decades, right up until present day, which has previously revealed evidence to the contrary.
Since the report was published, condemnation from concerned members of the public, political figures and equality campaigners has been relentless.
Overlooking the very potent and far-reaching impact of racism and trauma, the commission even submitted that some communities continue to be “haunted” by historic racism which is creating “deep mistrust” and could be a barrier to success. It is for this reason, and more, that The Independent described the report as “an exercise in gaslighting.”
The report also stated the following: “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 remodelled African/Britain,” prompting accusations that the commission recommends glorifying slavery.
Condemnation of the lengthy account has been swift and it has quickly become one of the most accursed government-backed pieces of literature in modern history.
Downing Street’s most senior Black advisor, Samuel Kasumu, resigned from his role following the report’s publication.
His exit is not linked to the landmark report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which faced heavy criticism over its findings, although its timing is uncomfortable for the government.
Dozens of academics and groups whose work was cited in the report have come forward alleging that this was done without their consent.
Organisations that have previously worked with the government have begun to pull away. Just this week, the Black Cultural Archives—Britain’s only national Black heritage centre—announced their resignation from its position on the Home Office’s Cross Government Windrush Working Group collaborating to right the wrongs of the Windrush Scandal.
Now, amid the fallout, some of the report’s commissioners have publicly accused Downing Street officials of rewriting much of its controversial report and hence undermining the purpose of appointing the group to independently assess inequalities in Britain.
This comes just days after the government admitted that a “considerable number” of people giving evidence to the commission—particularly from ethnic minorities—had in fact told the commission that structural racism was a real problem.
Lots of finger-pointing is going on and the context goes some way towards explaining why it is difficult for many to know who to believe at this point: a number of the commission’s members including its chair—all people of colour—do not have the confidence of many people within ethnic minority communities because of their previous divisive comments on race.
Sewell has previously suggested that institutional racism doesn’t exist in Britain and the commission’s sponsoring minister, Kemi Badenoch, has made similar remarks, denying “systemic injustice” has an impact on COVID death rates, and saying it should be illegal to teach the concept of white privilege in schools.
The group was assembled by Munira Mirza, a controversial Downing Street adviser who has previously expressed doubts over the existence of institutional racism.
This came at the behest of the same prime minister whose own history of racist remarks has been well documented.
Now figures from all walks of life are calling for the report to be scrapped and erased from the pages of history, lest it be used to justify future government policies which risk further entrenching racial inequalities that blight the lives of people of colour. The plot thickens.