What the government's racism report gets wrong about family

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities' focus on the role of families in guarding against discrimination does more harm than good. 

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Some parenting programmes suggest a technique of either ignoring or praising the behaviour of your children – essentially, you praise your child when they behave well and ignore bad behaviour. In reading the poorly constructed and written Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, published last week, the temptation is to ignore it in the hope that it goes away. 

But that will not do. Ignoring the report, which casts doubt on the well-evidenced impact of systemic discrimination on black, Asian and ethnic minority people, would do more harm than good. Further, its focus on the family as the cause of problems – or lack of them – later on in life places too much emphasis on individual agency, ignoring the intersection of ethnicity and race with other key indicators, such as class. It also overlooks the importance of ten years of austerity cuts on the lives of people from minority backgrounds. 

The submissions of various organisations, including the Race Equality Foundation, about the current state of affairs on employment, health, school exclusions, the criminal justice system and interactions with the police, appear to have been ignored. The commission claims to have not found evidence of “structural racism” in the areas that it looked at, yet in reading Sir Simon Wessely’s 2018 independent review of the Mental Health Act it appears to have missed his conclusion that “structural and institutional racism, which is visible across society, also applies in mental health care”. Instead, the commission claims that some ethnic minorities' lack of trust in government institutions, such as the police, is because of “historical incidents of racism” rather than their lived experience and interactions with those institutions.  

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One of the most controversial and initially headline-grabbing findings of the commission was its twin propositions that there is no evidence of institutional racism in the UK, and that to understand differential experiences and outcomes we need to look elsewhere. The commission says that “if it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists then we need to look elsewhere for the roots of that disadvantage”. The places it comes up with are “cultural traditions, family and integration”. 

But its findings on families are confusing. The commission appears to welcome evidence that points to changing family structures in British society, before suggesting that this has led to greater stress and increased family breakdown. Ignoring other societal changes, such as the rise of families with no children, the report presents data on lone parenthood among minority communities before noting that lone parenthood is on the rise among all communities and is associated especially with people experiencing poverty. 

The commission, however, thinks something else is at play: values. As evidence, it quotes one (male) Asian “academic” talking about his upbringing. While elsewhere black, Asian and minority ethnic people’s lived experience is said to not be supported by the data, here we are provided with an unchallenged quote painting an idyllic picture to illustrate the significance of “cultural values”. It is tempting to ask whether the suggestion that having “spiritually uplifting” places of worship as a signifier of Asian families was tested with other communities, but that clearly is not the purpose of this quote. The intention is to suggest that it is family values that explain family formation and, importantly, family “breakdown”.  

In this way the commission can argue that issues related to family are a key reason behind differential experiences and outcomes. The commission repeats that it is not passing any judgement, but calls on government to investigate the issue further and not remain “neutral”. 

But the family unit does not function independently of wider society, nor is it unaffected by other intersecting characteristics. Much of the commission’s discussion is bereft of any reflection on the policies implemented by government and their impact on families. It is no surprise that austerity is not mentioned. More significantly, while poverty is identified, the rise in poverty since 2010 is not. There is evidence that shows the rise of “in-work” poverty experienced by families with children and its disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic families.

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The commission seems intent on explaining that differential experiences and outcomes are the result of the decisions and behaviours of families and that they experience “racial disadvantage without racists”.  It does not seem interested in the “causes of the causes”, such as a decade-long decision to cut support for families with children.  

The insidious nature of this approach renders meaningless the commission’s call for greater support for families. Recommendation 19 – to undertake a “support for families” review – may be welcomed by some. However, if it is framed by the narrative that it is family “cultures” and “values” that are at fault we are likely to see stigmatising, as was the case with the Troubled Families Programme. We are also likely to see other government policies that pile on pressure, such as the continuing cuts to income support for families with children, go unchallenged.

Some have commented that the commission’s report is a missed opportunity. But its remit, its make-up, the way it has engaged, its analysis and the manner of its launch should make it clear it was never intended to spur action to tackle racial inequality. If we are serious about improving the experiences and outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic children and their white counterparts, we need to take action to end in-work poverty, to improve the quality of schooling (including ending all school exclusions), and address the lack of access to child and adolescent mental health services, the absence of safe play areas, and the disappearance of youth provision, among other steps. We need to address structural factors that transmit racial inequality from one generation to the next.

Jabeer Butt is chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation

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