Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Last week, the UK government released a report which denies that the UK is an institutionally racist country, or in any way rigged against ethnic minorities. This report comes after a summer of protest and uproar surrounding systemic racism in the UK, sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the US. Following protests in America, there was a recognition that the UK has the same issues; we also have police brutality and racism, and ethnic minority groups continue to suffer under inequalities. Subsequently, the Black Lives Matter movement grew in the public eye; despite being an issue for all our lifetimes, and our anticipated future, it seems 2020 was the year that the UK woke up. But does the government’s new report have the power to undo this progress?
Instead of showing that race is a pivotal factor behind inequalities – such as in education, careers, and daily lives – the report points to socio-economic aspects said to be causing more disparities than race itself. Essentially, the government commissioned the report to prove that the UK is not structurally racist, and to highlight society today as a much more level playing field. This is all done whilst ignoring the lived experiences of ethnic minorities; such an act is gaslighting and silencing their voices.
The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, responded to the report on Twitter, arguing that the UK continuing to discuss whether we are structurally racist is the exact issue. In the same tweet, Lammy plainly states that he will not engage in this discussion; he, like so many others, are exhausted. It is deeply offensive and manipulative for the government to outrightly deny so many years of oppression faced by people of ethnic minorities with one document. However, with a government led by a man who, during his tenure as Editor of The Spectator, openly argued that the British colonisation of Africa is “‘not a blot upon our conscience.’”, such an outcome seems unsurprising. But this cannot be accepted; it must be challenged.
Prior to the 2021 report being commissioned, the “Lammy Review” of 2017 researched the treatment of BAME in the criminal justice system, finding ethnic minorities to face severe inequalities and presenting the need for urgent action. But this was four years ago and, today, the 35 recommendations which the earlier review provided have not all been implemented.
Organised by our government to deny that the UK is institutionally racist, the report concludes that we are (of course) not institutionally racist. In such an effort to refute these claims, the government has managed to oversee the creation of a document which encapsulates everything it is denying. Additionally, the report suggests that the UK is a beacon – a model country and society – which everyone else should follow. There is a strong irony in presenting ourselves as progressive whilst ethnic minorities continue to face severe marginalisation. Munira Mirza, Johnson’s chief of policy, has argued that naming the UK as institutionally racist “‘reinforces this idea that ethnic minorities are being systematically oppressed’”. There appears a gap in understanding here. Refusing to acknowledge structural racism is facilitating systemic oppression; recognising the problem is the only way we can work towards creating effective change.
Racism is not a political opinion—whether the UK is institutionally racist should not be debated. It is a human rights issue, and the emotional harm that such denial causes for people of ethnic minorities is irreversible. If we are ever to dismantle the structures which create inequalities as communities, as a country, and as the wider world, denial that the UK is structurally inequal and rigged against ethnic minorities must go. The report that the government commissioned to attempt to “prove” an absence of structural racism has done exactly what it set out to deny: shown that the UK is institutionally racist.
Recent media articles have suggested controversy may have been the government’s aim, and a response from the commission has stated that the report does not deny racism exists, but maintains that there is not enough evidence to claim the UK as institutionally racist. If controversy was intended, then gaslighting and manipulating ethnic minorities through denying their experiences was also part of the plan – this being the case, the report has succeeded. But the response it provoked has only heightened the collective urge to challenge it, and so in this, the report has backfired. Looking to the future, acknowledging that institutional racism exists is an initial step towards creating real difference; continuing to ignore the voices of those experiencing it is only maintaining oppression and preventing change.