It’s almost two weeks since the publication of the controversial Sewell race report. Tannice Hemming dives in to the multiple, rancorous reactions from across the UK.
Today, a letter signed by over 100 signatories including The Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Professor Leslie Thomas QC and Windrush National Organisation, encouraged Tony Sewell to “abandon” his controversial report or stand down.
Prompted by the emergence of the Black Lives Matter protests sparked in the summer by the death George Floyd in the USA, the report was published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in March 2021.
The report has come under fire by many who have had time to digest its content. Authored by a team of people underneath the lead, Dr Tony Sewell, the report has been condemned for concluding that the UK is not struggling with the effects of structural, endemic racism and suggests that if its recommendations are implemented “it will give a further burst of momentum to the story of our country’s progress to a successful multicultural community – a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world.”
The report states: “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.”
“The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.”
There is nuance in its arguments – it argues that racism is still an issue but refutes the existence of structural racism. Created to understand what causes “racial disparities”, or differences in outcomes, in terms of health, education, employment and more between people of different ethnicities, the panel was made up of “10 of us drawn from a variety of fields spanning science, education, economics, broadcasting, medicine, and policing. And, with one exception, all from ethnic minority backgrounds.”
Interestingly, the report does hint at structural biases in its opening statement by Sewell, but determines that this is a historical overshadowing of a perception of racism rather than the reality:
“The word mistrust was repeated often as some witnesses from the police service, mental health, education and health services felt that the system was not on their side. Once we interrogated the data we did find some evidence of biases, but often it was a perception that the wider society could not be trusted. For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.”
They also point the finger at communities for their part in various inequalities, stating
“The police need to demonstrate that they are truly a more welcoming organisation and Black communities need to overcome the legacy of mistrust.”
“We were impressed by the ‘immigrant optimism’ of some of the new African communities. They are among the new high achievers in our education system. As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classrooms, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement.”
Report criticisms: methodology under fire
Jonathan Portes, writing for the Byline Times heavily criticised the ways in which the report deliberately failed to find evidence of structural or endemic racism, pointing out that the two categories the report used to examine reasons did not allow for racism to be a reason. Portes concludes:
“Therefore, it is not that the Commission did not find any evidence that disparities are the result of race or racism – it excluded the possibility ex ante. “
Portes also points out “The impact of someone’s race on their health cannot be dismissed by saying ‘well, actually, poverty is the “real” cause’, if poverty and race are – as they are in the UK – inextricably linked.”
Indeed, Alan Manning and Rebecca Rose, writing for the Economics Observatory looks at the stated claim in the report that the pay gap between the white majority and ethnic minorities is narrowing. They suggest “The report gives the impression that disparities are falling over time. For example, on page 110, it refers to an ‘overall convergence story on employment and pay’, but does not present all the available evidence to justify that conclusion.”
Suggesting that the report fails to take varied sets of controls into consideration, Manning and Rose conclude “Although there are some groups for some labour market outcomes where there is clear evidence of reducing ethnic penalties over the past 25 years, the over-riding impression is of stasis.” They detail that experiments on hiring decisions being influenced by clear biases on the basis of presumed ethnicity (identical CVs, different given names) have been replicated as recently as 2019. These experiments are recognised by the Sewell Report but the validity of them is criticised; it is suggested by the report that the real-life likelihood of these experiments is under question, when Manning and Rose disagree, suggesting the very nature of the design of the experiments was entirely realistic.
Today’s letter, signed by over 100 people including the Vice Chair of BAME lawyers for Justice, Yvette Williams from Justice 4 Grenfell, Charles Crichlow, former president of the National Black Police Association, and broadcaster Alex Pascall OBE stated:
“Your report is a dreadful attempt to rewrite history and denigrate it to a footnote. You are effectively colluding to deny experiences and existences with truth, so that the annals of history will once again favour the oppressors”
“The origins of these more contemporary injustices are steeped in historic legislation fuelled by people like Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and Margaret Thatcher, the latter of whom referred to this country becoming swamped by migrants.
“We believe that you must revisit your work and examine the data more closely, seek evidence from a wider variety of sources, consult experts in a credible way and start to draw conclusions based on the facts.
“If you cannot do that, then you should stand down from a commission that is meant to be investigating race and disparity to understand the current issues and how government and society can work together to address them.”
Health inequalities examined
Michael Marmot – professor of epidemiology at University College London, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, and past president of the World Medical Association – was the influential author of the 2010 Marmot Review. Writing for the Guardian, he was equally unhappy with the conclusions of the Sewell report, that “If the authors had referred to my latest research, they would not have been so quick to dismiss [structural racism].”
Marmot focuses on health disparities and inequalities and notes “the authors of the report quote my views from the 2010 Marmot Review produced by the UCL Institute of Health Equity (IHE) – but they do not mention the explicit reference to race/inequality in two reports from our institute last year, Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years Onand Build Back Fairer: The Covid-19 Marmot Review.”
Indeed, my own review of the health evidence surrounding ethnic minorities’ susceptibilities to Covid-19 could do nothing but draw conclusions around the part that structural racism plays, since there are no biological reasons for increased susceptibility to the virus.
The British Medical Journal’s opinion blog broadly agrees with Marmot, stating “The UK government report on race disparities is a missed opportunity and will lead to a worsening of systemic inequalities”.
Claiming that the 30 pages of the Sewell Report on health undoes a lot of the clear research, the opinion piece states “Several decades of research clearly shows that racism in all its forms—in particular structural racism—is a fundamental cause of ethnic differences in socioeconomic status, adverse health outcomes, and ethnic inequities in health.”
Slamming the report’s conclusions, the blog accuses it of “cherrypicking” data and criticised the report panel for not having any academic authors with expertise in health inequalities present. In agreement with my conclusions, the BMJ blog suggests “The devastating effects of covid-19 on ethnic minorities have exposed and aggravated the structural socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by ethnic minority communities. There is no evidence of “genetic risk factors” for covid-19 as the report claims. There is now sufficient evidence that ethnic disparities in covid-19 are partly due to high risk public facing jobs, living conditions such as multigenerational households, poverty, chronic comorbidities, as well as racial discrimination and the effects of structural racism such as residential segregation.
Calls to reject the report grow
A UK petition has been set up and is currently approaching 10,000 signatories. It implores signatories to agree that “The Government sponsored Racial Disparity Commission report into racism not only concludes that systemic race inequality does not exist, which both ignores countless reports over many years that the prove the opposite, but also trounces on our lived experience of persistent and often tragic levels of race inequality in many area of our society, including the criminal justice system, employment, health and housing.”
“This petition calls upon the Government, political parties, all politicians and others to unequivocally denounce this divisive, deceitful, shabby report (The Commission’s report into racial and ethnic disparities in the UK), along with its author Dr Tony Sewell. But it also calls upon the new Head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Baroness Faulkner, to unequivocally apologise for endorsing a report that is both insulting to all Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and one that undermines the EHRC in its duty to tackle persistent structural race inequality.”
Writing for the Guardian on April 2nd, David Olusoga revealed the extent of the criticism as the report was first starting to become digested by the wider world:
“Lady Doreen Lawrence has warned that it risks pushing the fight against racism “back 20 years or more”. Academics named in the report have revealed they were not properly consulted, and an author is having his name removed. Windrush campaigners have condemned the report for paying so little attention to the scandal that was exposed three years ago, and just about every leading writer and commentator on race and racism in the UK has criticised the report’s findings and challenged its methodology.”
Olusoga pulls no punches as he accuses the report of minimimising and denying people’s lived experiences of institutional racism and decries the fact that several witnesses’ testimony was ignored – something the government apparently acknowledges. He suggests “it was produced by a commission led by figures who had rejected the concept of institutional racism years before they began work”, something that Dr Tony Sewell has never denied. Indeed, Sewell is proud to proclaim he does not believe in the idea of institutional racism, back in 2010 Sewell suggested in Prospect Magazine “much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy.” This lead to criticism of his appointment as far back as July 2020, when the report was first mooted.
It remains to be seen what will become of the Sewell Report and whether the criticism will stand the test of time. Indeed, it’s hard to see how the report could weather the storm and survive such a barrage of criticism. It’s unlikely that Dr Sewell will do as many have insisted and denounce his own work, but it’s clear that so many refute the claims within it, rendering it a government white elephant of a project, doomed to suggestions of “whitewashing”, pun fully accepted and realised. Intellectually dishonest, cherrypicked, “poisonously patronising” and “historically illiterate” are not phrases that will be easily ignored, neither will such a hard-hitting letter signed by 100 high-profile members of the communities affected.
For more information on organisations who have denounced the report and its findings, please see the links below:
Royal College of Psychiatrists:
Mind Charity Twitter thread https://twitter.com/MindCharity/status/1377297662375038985
Friends of the Earth Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/friends_earth/status/1377290335055982594
Shaun Lintern, health correspondent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/race-commission-healthcare-nhs-inequalities-b1825120.html
Centre for Mental Health Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/CentreforMH/status/1377189172310634497
NASUWT, Teacher’s Union: https://www.nasuwt.org.uk/article-listing/report-fails-grasp-realities-racial-injustice.html
EIS, Scottish Teaching Union: https://twitter.com/EISUnion/status/1377285480287453194
British Psychological Society: https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/bps-response-race-ethnic-disparities-report
Royal Institute of British Architects: https://twitter.com/RIBA/status/1377607759865208832
NHS Providers: https://twitter.com/NHSProviders/status/1377253543514681349
Wellcome Trust: https://twitter.com/wellcometrust/status/1377623799080882180