30 April 2021

Racism exists in structures, says Sewell

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Racism exists in institutions and in structures, Race Commission Chair Tony Sewell told a Policy Exchange event.

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“We believe racism exists. It exists in institutions, it exists in structures, it exists across the piece. And we have found that in the report.” – Tony Sewell

Anyone who has followed the heated debate around the recently-published report from the Commission on race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) may be surprised to see this quote from Commission Chair Tony Sewell.

This isn’t a ‘gotcha’ quote dug up from the archives. They were Sewell’s concluding remarks made at Wednesday’s Policy Exchange event, ‘The Sewell Report: next steps’, to discuss the policy recommendations in the CRED report. A report that had been much criticised for its failures to acknowledge institutional or structural racism.

In his response to Tony Sewell’s speech, Sunder Katwala of British Future had suggested that there was a contrast between the public communication of the report and the evidence it contains.

“I think we can say that the Sewell Commission report presents clear and conclusive evidence of systemic discrimination in Britain still being a problem that we have to address. We would have had a better informed debate if the newspapers had been told that is what it says”, he said, since the CRED report cites research evidence showing that candidates with an ‘ethnic-sounding’ name had to submit 60% more CVs to get each interview than another candidate with identical qualifications.

Later, during the panel discussion, Tony Sewell agreed that this evidence is proof of systemic discrimination in employment. “Nobody who has looked at those CV studies disagrees that we’re looking at something systemic”, Sunder Katwala said. “This is about how you get a job – its important and we should be on the same page: that is systemic”. The Commission chair accepted this, saying “We agree about that – we have that in the report”.
Sunder had begun his remarks by noting what he agreed with in the report – the need to look beyond the ‘BAME’ label, and the positive view of Britain as a country that has made significant progress on race. But he went on to critique the “optimism bias” of the report – not necessarily a problem in itself, but it is when it leads, as he suggested, to failing to identify systematic disadvantage for ethnic minorities in employment and mental health, for instance.

Sonia Sodha of The Observer was more forthright in her criticism of the Sewell report and indeed in its communication via the media, with a press release distributed to outlets well before the report was released leading to ill-informed debate.

Sonia said that the analysis of racial disparities across key areas of health, education, employment and criminal justice was “highly partial and statistically illiterate,” cherry-picking evidence and statistics to support its conclusion that “it’s not that much about race any more in modern Britain,” when the reality is more nuanced.

The report “completely caricatures mainstream anti-racism campaigning,” she added, by focusing on the most polarising strand of debate on Twitter. As a result, ”It’s not only complicit in the unhelpful polarisation of the debate, it’s partly responsible for it,” when what is needed is “a grown-up, mature conversation with the public,” about race.

Panellist Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist, gave a detailed presentation of data on health inequalities, showing that social deprivation was a considerably stronger predictor of premature death than ethnicity in the UK.

Ian Leslie, who recently published a book on how to disagree better, made the point that heated disagreements can often be caused by a failure to see the kernel of agreement between opposing positions. His view was that there was more common ground between the two warring sides – on opposition to overt racism and policy solutions to tackle it, for example – than either was able to concede. “There does not seem to be much disagreement about what to do about it”, he said.
In his concluding remarks, Sunder Katwala turned the spotlight on his own sector, arguing that charities were lagging behind on bringing ethnic diversity into their own boardrooms:

“The FTSE 100 firms have said voluntarily they will phase out all-white boardrooms in this country by the end of this year – so why has the charity sector not said that too? Why have a third of the biggest charities, in a country where one in six of the population is not white, got an all-white board and maybe an all-white senior management team too?”, he asked.
Progress on policy, Katwala said, would require greater collaboration from those with different viewpoints, moving beyond the heated debate around the report’s publication: “Those of us that have got different politics, different narrativeslet’s agree on things that need to change, and push the government to change things on race, this year.  Let’s make things fairer on race – because the progress we have made on race hasn’t met the rising expectations of the generation to come.

Concluding the event, Tony Sewell said that he expected the government to make its formal response to the Commission report by July.

Read Sunder Katwala’s speech at the event in full here.

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter