Amid Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, Boris Johnson promised a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Announced in a Telegraph column (where else?) about Winston Churchill (who else?), it was clear even then that this was a weak response to a widespread problem.
The Commission’s remit was vague (with its sights on “inequality across the UK, not just that affecting the BAME community”), and those eventually charged with it had previously expressed reservations about the existence of institutional racism.
Yet the main problem was that previous inquiries, many set up by past governments using official data, had already exposed the racial disparities in the areas under the Commission’s remit: education, work, policing and health.
The information is already out there, but the recommendations from those reports have not been taken up. Last June, when the Commission was announced, I counted 375 recommendations to the government in ten different inquiries – from the 1999 Macpherson Report following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, to 2020’s Lessons Learned review into the Windrush scandal – which are yet to be implemented.
As my colleague Ailbhe Rea points out, the latest Commission’s findings were carefully briefed ahead of publication to achieve headlines suggesting institutional racism is “no longer” a problem in Britain.
The pre-publication stories focused on celebrations of Britain as a “beacon” of successful multiculturalism to Europe and the rest of the world, scepticism of the use of “institutional racism”, and success stories among certain ethnic minority pupils in educational attainment.
While there are clearly nuggets for the “war on woke” brigade to get their teeth into – the description of slavery as “not only being about profit and suffering” springs to mind – there are also recommendations that echo findings of aforementioned reviews.
For example, the 2017 Lammy Review into discrimination in the criminal justice system analysed disproportionate use of stop and search on black people, citing Northamptonshire Police Force’s enhanced scrutiny of the practice as a favourable case study. The Race Commission recommends greater scrutiny of the practice through body-worn video footage, with officers who have their cameras off providing a written reason to the individual who was stopped as well as their supervising officer (and “misconduct procedures” for serious instances of misuse).
Many of the Race Commission’s recommendations contradict its own headlines and implicitly accept the existence of systemic racism: the application of the Equality Act to potentially discriminatory “algorithmic decision-making” is just one example.
There are also proposals that run against the “war on woke” narrative. For example, the development of a pilot to divert offences of low-level Class B drug possession – which disproportionately affect ethnic minority young people – into public health solutions.
Yet the evidence-heavy, action-light history of reviews into British racism suggests these may be patchily enacted or left to exist only on paper – forever buried beneath headline-hungry right-wing virtue signalling.