Changing the narrative…. has institutional racism disappeared or has it been white washed?

Posted in: Race

On Wednesday the 31st of March, we heard Downing Street’s official response to the racial injustice movements connected to Black Lives Matter. No 10’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published their long-awaited report. However, it has not been received well by many, with Boris Johnson's senior adviser on ethnic minorities, Samuel Kasumu, standing down amid a row over the report and the government's stance on racial issues.

The media is alive with comments about the report. With Sir Keir Starmer being quoted as saying he is ‘disappointed’ by the findings and the lack of acknowledgment of the depth of the structural inequalities. And the choice of the commissioners is being questioned as some are known to have a bias towards denying institutional racism's existence prior to being commissioned.

As anger over racial injustice continues to simmer, the head of the Commission, Dr. Tony Sewell, concluding that the UK should be seen as an international exemplar of racial equality, and downplaying the impact of structural factors in ethnic disparities, is extremely disturbing.

Although the report did not deny the existence of racism and bias in Britain, it did conclude that there is no evidence of ‘actual institutional racism’. This is being interpreted as a ‘major shift in the race debate’ and as an open rejection to the arguments of the BLM movement, and the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd in America. The report states that ‘the well-meaning idealism of many young people who claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence.’

However, as pointed out by a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter UK, the report overlooks many of the issues that are key contributors to racial inequality in Britain. The report concentrates on education and yet ignores the disproportionality of school exclusion, euro-centrism and censorship in the curriculum, and the ongoing attainment gap in higher education to name a few. Nevertheless, as Halima Begum, the Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust says, ‘no matter how much spin the commission puts on its findings, it does, in fact, concede that we do not live in a post-racist society.’ We need to do more.


So what does this mean for Higher Education?

The report acknowledges there is still a lot of work to be done, with one specific recommendation for higher education, the need for universities outreach work to fund better access to career advice for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the tone and obvious gaps in the report have been accused of returning an uninformed reader to the deficit model of thinking where structural racial bias does not exist and the onus is on supporting the individual rather than reflecting on and changing the environment around them. It appears to be recommending the equivalent of putting a supportive bamboo cane to help a wilting flower without changing the systems of watering, feeding, and location it is in. The deficit is not in the flower, but in the environment, so it will never thrive with a prop up alone. We asked Dr. Aurelien Mondon, Senior Lecturer in PoLIS and author of How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, what he made of the report:

This report, written in the wake of the BLM protests and as there is an increasing recognition of the role of systemic racism in our societies, is a clear step back in the strive towards a more just and equal society. It is also going against all serious research on the matter and it is disappointing that such reactionary ideas and unhelpful ways to look at and analyse racism in our societies are encouraged at state level. Such denial has very real consequences for those at the sharp end of racism and other discrimination and should have no place in a democratic society.”

With the report stating that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture, and religion impact life chance MORE than racism, and negating to investigate the intersectionality of these aspects of life, thus failing to address how race influences these areas. We turned to Professor Rajani Naidoo, our newly appointed Head of the Race Equality Taskforce to ask for her thoughts:

"This report flies completely in the face of previous rigorous and reputable commissions of enquiry and research, with little robust evidence to back up its main assertions. It misses a historic moment to heal the fractures in our society linked to race, which itself intersects with class, gender, sexuality and other characteristics. In the wake of the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Movement, universities in the United Kingdom including our own, are engaging rigorously and constructively to implement change which contributes to racial justice inside our own institutions. We will continue on this positive trajectory to overcome the key barriers that reinforce racial inequity, and to create vibrant and inclusive institutions that offer inspiration to universities world-wide."  


Our Shared Responsibility

As the University prepares to launch its ‘Be the Change’ campaign, and our EDI vision continues to recognise our shared responsibility in ensuring we build an inclusive environment for all. Will this report impact the way we approach our anti-racism work? No, I don’t believe it will. Over the last twelve months, there has been a real shift in the desire to work closer with EDI and engage in our 0% judgment and 100% inclusion approach. There is an appetite to change, to build empathy with others through proximity, and insight that allows the invisible discriminators to be seen and addressed be they cultural or embedded within systems. We will continue to serve this hunger with a platter of appropriate knowledge, tools, and consultancy.

The report criticizes the ‘confusing’ way that the term ‘institutional racism’ is applied, there may be some truth in this, but stating it should only be used when overt deep-seated racism is present, and not an all-encompassing phrase for microaggressions is concerning. It fails to understand the unseen organisation and how cultural habits, social norms, and default thinking influence microaggressions which inform the culture and systems it is built on. Rose Stephenson our Policy and Projects Manager in Student Services shares her thoughts:

“The report sensibly suggests that we move away from looking at the impact of institutional practices and norms on ‘the BAME community’ and instead focus on the outcomes and experiences of specific ethnicities. Conflictingly, the report then dismisses these differing outcomes as ‘not due to racism’, instead placing the need for change on the people affected. Within our work we already examine data at a detailed level and will continue to strive to provide equality of access, experience, and outcome for all students, whilst listening to, believing and acting on the lived experiences of students from ethnically diverse backgrounds.”

Leonie Hodge, who is leading our 'Be the Change' campaign goes on to point out "a longitudinal study would have been of far greater benefit to the discourse of real change over say 5 – 10 years. I think it is too soon to be making such radical statements on achievements with anti-racism and surface change is not an indicator of deep cultural and systematic change…"

The report does contain some common sense approaches to dealing with racial inequality. However, this guidance, for example on the use of the term BAME; and unconscious bias training is something already carried out at a local level by EDI practitioners within organisations and does not address the state-level needs. A concerning aspect of this report is that it chooses to address the micro-level and not the macro-level needs, whilst rationalising racism.


Advice, Guidance, and Knowledge

EDI are always here for you to provide advice, guidance, and knowledge on issues of inclusion. You can find our hints and tips with regard to the language of Race on our EDI resource hub. 



Posted in: Race


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