28 April 2021

‘We need a better debate about race in this country’

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Text of British Future Director Sunder Katwala’s comments at the Policy Exchange event on the Race Commission, ‘The Sewell Report: Next Steps’

Media contact:
Steve Ballinger
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I’m here because we need a better debate about race in this country.  A conversation, not a shouting match. We need a debate where talk turns into action.

We haven’t been doing that over the last four weeks. I think the Commission report, and the response to it, has repolarised our debate on race.

It’s taken us a month, now, to start the debate about policy – but at least we can now start it and move on to that debate.

You’ll want to hear my critique of the report – but I want to start with what I agree with.

The “BAME” acronym can obscure too much, and has done for a long time.

I recall that was the headline point being made by young Rishi Sunak – in his brief incarnation as a think-tanker – here at Policy Exchange in 2015. It was very much a central point of the Black Lives Matter protests when they crossed the Atlantic.

I agree that Britain – along with Canada – could claim to be a bit of a beacon for white majority countries, at least in the efforts we have made about race.

Whether you like or hate the Sewell report itself, you’d struggle to find a national race audit anywhere else in western Europe. Its hard to study and tackle disparities when states choose not to collect ethnic data

But then I wouldn’t boast too much about being top of the Continental European Anti-Racism League if, a bit like the so-called Super League, that seems to be a competition that almost nobody wants to turn up and play in.

If you compare it to the Race Audit of 2017, the narrative has flipped from “Burning Injustices” to “Beacon Britain” – but with much of the same evidence under the bonnet about the pattern of opportunities.

I think any neutral reader of this report would quickly hear that it has an “Optimism Bias” in its narrative voice.
I empathise with that. It’s largely been my personal experience of Britain too.
But the Optimism Bias of the Race Commission report works more and less well on different parts of its evidence.
It fits a lot of the education story pretty well – while recognising the risk of some black and white boys getting left behind.
But I think it makes the employment story too rose-tinted – so it underplays the key “tipping point” question of whether progress in education, when it meets barriers to employment, can curdle into unmet potential.
And In some sections – this struck me most when it is reviewing Black British outcomes on mental health – the report voice seems to keep looking for a “Not Proven” verdict when the evidence on the same page looks beyond reasonable doubt.

I think this Optimism Bias lies behind why the report gets into quite a muddle over “institutional racism”.
It endorses the Macpherson definition of institutional racism. His key point was that unfair outcomes are not always the result of malign intentions.
But Tony’s foreword moves the goalposts, when it declares that Britain is not “deliberately rigged” – scant consolation if your surname costs you a job interview because of unconscious bias.

And the report’s methods don’t give it much of a basis to declare any verdict on “institutional racism”, when it only looks at few institutions.

So I think we can say “The Sewell Commission presents clear evidence of systemic discrimination in Britain”. It’s right there on page 121

It would have been useful to hear that when the report was launched.

This is not a comprehensive report about race in Britain – that would take 2500 pages, not 250. But it is striking just how many really big themes it misses out.

Mixed race Britain – the fastest-growing minority group – isn’t here, which is personally disappointing if, like me, you happen to be a bit of an Indian-Irish, Scouser-Essex mash-up.

The most widespread casual prejudice in Britain today – anti-Muslim prejudice – is missing.

And this is a report from the right-of-centre about ethnic minorities in which Jews Don’t Count, to steal the title of David Baddiel’s recent book.

The reason it leaves so much out is that this report is primarily a response to the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.

Two-thirds of ethnic minorities, four-fifths of black people, half of the white population, and most young people across majority and minority groups say they supported those protests.

So what does the Sewell Commission have to say to them?

It does say Thank You – for returning our attention to the issues. But is it praising that idealism or damning it with faint praise?
I think the message that will be heard is “you’re wrong” – that you have misperceived the situation – that we who are both older and wiser say it is different.

I think there was a better way to bridge that inter-generational divide, which could fit this report.

One of the core messages of the protests was that we need to speed up change in Britain too.
This report could have said “you’re right” about that – while offering the view across the generations that this could build on past progress, not throw it in the bin. And while being sceptical about importing the ideas and slogans of America’s hyper-polarised race politics. We need a story about Britain, an agenda. And that brings us to policy.

The policy ideas in the report are incremental, they’re sensible:
– A curriculum that includes all of our stories can generate common ground.
– Stronger action against anonymous abuse online.
– Police forces that try to reflect the public that they serve.

These proposals could command a pretty broad consensus.

Some need more detail. Several could be pursued with more ambition.

The recommendations could have been more ambitious at all levels of the workforce. Saying unconscious bias training is unproven – the central challenge is to say what would work, as well as what wouldn’t. I also felt the report pulled its punches on “affinity bias” in the boardroom at the top, and it proposes nothing to address the ethnic disparities in the Zero Hours Contract economy either.

So – let’s disagree better. And find that those of us that have got different politics, different narratives, let’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.

You can watch a recording of the event here. British Future’s report, ‘Race and opportunity in Britain: findings common ground’, was submitted as evidence to the Race Commission and is available to download here.


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