Government gaslighting

A Black Lives Matter protest in Sheffield in June 2020 (photo: Tim Dennell)

Andy Gregg says race report takes blaming the victim to a new level

The Government’s recent ridiculous and risible ‘report’ on race disparity reached the conclusions that the Government always wanted it to – indeed that it was set up so to do. The purpose of the report was to intervene in the ‘culture’ debate and to act as a kind of ‘dead cat’ deployed to draw attention away from issues such as policing, criminal justice and the palpable and demonstrable disproportionalities that so many minoritised communities face because of their race or ethnicity. The attention is thus diverted away from the desperate need to develop any real responses to the complex issues that confront us all about race inequality in the UK.

The report purports to show that racism is no longer institutionalised, but that some communities are “haunted” by historic racism and slavery (if only they would get over it). The report argues that avenues to success in Britain are no longer stacked against minority ethnic communities. The report’s writers could find no evidence of institutional racism, arguing that instances identified as manifestations of it are merely instances of micro-aggressions and individual acts of discrimination rather than anything structural or systemic. This finding stands out starkly against the plethora of reports over the decades since the McPherson report into the policing of the Stephen Lawrence murder. All of these have identified deep-seated discrimination at the heart of British institutions – whether criminal justice (the Lammy Review), education, employment or mental health – and indeed were confirmed by the obvious disproportionality in Covid-19 deaths among minority ethnic people over the last year.

The only way that the Government could get away with gaslighting Black communities in this way is by employing some of the small number of Black and Asian commentators who are prepared to apologise and excuse the structural racism that almost literally hits Black and minoritised people in the eye. Many of these BAME people are discriminated against in almost every aspect of their lives in the UK in almost every institution that they encounter. This kind of Priti-fying of the stark reality of racism is a key component of the deliberate ‘culture wars’ that Boris Johnson and his flag-flying followers are fomenting so actively through the Tory press.

The report’s authors, Tony Sewell and Munira Mirza, could not have been more suited to the Government’s purposes: they have always denied the importance of structural or institutional racism, and would rather blame disparities on “dysfunctional” communities, family breakdown or, at worst, individual acts of bigotry. No one is arguing that there aren’t a number of factors, along with racism, that result in disparities – these include class, region and poverty. But to wilfully ignore racism as a key determining factor is a pre-conceived and deeply ideological position that deliberately blinds itself to the reality of the lived experience of so many people of colour in today’s Brexit Britain.

One of the recommendations of the report that may gain some traction is that we should stop using the term BAME. While this is not a term without its problems, it does seek to define a number of communities by the fact that their race or their ethnicity is minoritised and frequently discriminated against. It is a term that can therefore include such population groups as gypsies and travellers, Jewish communities or migrants from white European backgrounds who are sometimes discriminated against (whether Eastern European or, at least historically, the Irish). While the race equality sector has never been happy with this term, there is no suggestion in the report of a better way to identify population groups that have a different heritage from that of their white British counterparts. This is no surprise, as the report starts from the presupposition that we, in the anti-racist sector, are all too quick to lump them together and see them all as an undifferentiated mass. This is a ridiculous straw man argument. Nobody would claim that the discriminations, stereotypes and forms of racism that these many different groups face are always similar. Antisemitism, anti-Gypsy racism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism faced by Black and Asian communities take different forms at different times and in different contexts and need to be understood and dealt with differently. Racialised groups do, however, sometimes need to be addressed collectively as the recipients of both individual acts of prejudice and hatred and of structural and institutional racism (which the Sewell report denies exists) and to which white British people are not subject.

The report has been widely condemned by a huge range of commentators who feel insulted that their views can be so readily misrepresented and their lived experiences so parodied. This will not worry the Government as the purpose of the report was not to make cogent arguments, and still less to confront the real relations of institutional racism and discrimination that so many people currently face in the UK. The purpose of the report was to stoke up the culture war and the ‘war on woke’ that Boris Johnson and his clique believe is such a powerful motivator to both their longer-term followers and to the Tories’ newer cohort of voters in the former ‘red wall’. We must organise across our different communities to ensure that this deeply cynical political ploy does not do further harm to those who suffer the most from racism and discrimination.

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