The UK’s latest ‘race’ report says its “successful multicultural society” is a beacon for Europe and the world, but just how true this is and how far can such a claim be stretched is a matter of controversy and conjecture.
London (Brussels Morning) After a UK government-commissioned report on racial disparities in England and Wales pegged what it found to be a model for other White-majority countries, an incredulous outpouring of scepticism greeted its conclusions, suggesting the report amounted to little more than a whitewash hiding behind an overlay of cherry-picked soundbites.
Extending the self-congratulatory narrative, the report acclaimed a multicultural society and declared it to be a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world.
With racism on the rise and the gains of the far-right widely reported across the Western world, including post- Brexit Europe, it is pertinent to ask are other countries taking action on a par with the UK or are they moving ahead with better policies?
The 264-page report by a government-appointed commission mandated to examine racial disparities in the UK came up with a double-hinged conclusion: that racism and racial injustice still exist and that it would be wrong to suggest that “the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.
It pointed to the various disparities in health, employment, educational outcomes, crime and policing, as broken down according to race and ethnic groups, in some instances attributing under- and over-achieving to individual cultural traits.
The report also highlighted overuse and misunderstanding of the term ‘’institutional racism’’, spelling out the difference between it and such other terms as ‘’structural racism’’ and ‘’systemic racism’’. The repeated use of the acronym BAME — Black and Minority Ethnic Groups — drew particular ire as being too broad-brush and ignoring or being insensitive to the individual experiences of groups as mentioned above.
In contrast, statistics in the report showed the pay gap narrowing between ethnic minorities and white workers and reflected considerable diversity among professions, suggesting a move away from unconscious bias training.
One section of the report that caused outrage suggested putting a positive spin on the slave trade within new teaching resources on ‘The Making of Modern Britain’:
“There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”.
The report calls for a greater show of individual responsibility that people should do more to “help themselves” and not wait for “invisible external forces to assemble to do the job”. While the report was commissioned after the Black Lives Matters protests and the international outcry over the murder of George Floyd, who died at the hands of US police, it derided such protests and protesters, saying “a narrative that claims nothing has changed for the better” will mainly end up just alienating “the decent centre ground” of all ethnicities.
Criticisms of the report have been widespread. Speaking on his radio show on LBC, Labour MP David Lammy deemed it an “insult to anybody and everybody across this country who experiences institutional racism”.
Established institutional racism
Lammy’s own review in 2017 into the treatment of, and outcomes for BAME people in the criminal justice system, counters the report’s watering down of institutional racism in England and Wales.
“Let’s not forget that this report was rushed out in response to the overwhelming desire for change after the murder of George Floyd where thousands of people rallied for the black men, women and children suffering still, excluded in this country because of institutional racism”, he said.
“Tony Sewell’s forward — such as what’s holding certain groups back is related to culture — goes against many reports. From the McPherson report to the Lammy, reports have been saying that there are problems in institutions, and we know that there’s structural and systemic racial inequality — this is a fact”, said Ojeaku Nwabuzo, a Senior Research Officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).
The 1997 McPherson Report inquired into the murder of Black 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in 1993 by White youths that failed to result in the prosecution of two of the young people involved and resulted in an investigation by the Police Complaints Authority. The report found that the murder investigation had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”.
The authors of the Commission’s controversial report reveal at the outset their belief that the country has come a long way in 50 years and that “the success of much of the ethnic minority population in education and, to a lesser extent, the economy, should be regarded as a model for other White-majority countries”.
Referencing the report’s description of the UK as a beacon for the rest of the world to follow, Nwabuzo says, “Most racialised groups [and] people working in anti-racism know that this is not necessarily an easy comparison to make, or [is] overly simplistic”.
According to Liz Fekete, Executive Director of the Institute of Race Relations and head of its European research programme, the report dismisses a whole lived experience of racism in the UK on grounds that, since some level of diversity has been achieved in the professions, a failure to rise through the system, can only be the result of an individual or cultural failing.
“Diversity without racial justice does not deliver real change”, she argues, pointing out that no comparisons were made in the report to justify the spin that Britain is leading in matters of race. In her view, countries should be judged on their points of progress rather than attempt to place them in a league table:
“In France, there is an idea of the indivisible Republic, meaning they don’t collect statistics on ethnicity and so we put them behind in terms of legal remedies to racial injustice. But on the other hand, they have traditions around equality, fraternity, which means they’d be more open to the undocumented. Every country should be judged in terms of its values”.
Looked at from that perspective, she believes some of the UK’s high points include its acknowledgment of institutional racism since the Stephen Lawrence murder and the fact that it has perhaps more legal remedies to racial injustice and discrimination than other European countries.
“But that’s largely because of the strength of the struggles of Black and minority ethnic communities in this country that have forced things on the agenda”, Fekete says, maintaining that the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is a “retrogressive” move on the UK’s part.
Across Europe, however, race and racial discrimination are also quite institutionalised, according to Nwabuzo, who cites France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in particular, with the police, law enforcement and security and says there are “countless instances of police brutality but it also occurs in law enforcement at the border”.
With many first and second-generation migrants living in those countries, research indicates that those with foreign-sounding names will experience discrimination in various domains, whether in terms of education, housing or employment.
In Italy, there is the added layer of more recent migrants who face racial discrimination and exploitation because of their migration status, for example.
“When the government talks about issues of race, it’s usually through the lens of ‘we have to fight discrimination'”, Linda A. Thompson, a Belgium-based journalist who has covered issues of race and ethnicity in the country, observes.”[It’s] less about closing disparities between people from migrant backgrounds or a different ethnicity”.
Like many countries in continental Europe, the Belgium government is not allowed to collect ethnicity data. The country also has a unique federal power structure that complicates policy responses.
That said, studies have uncovered “alarming discrimination” in the housing rental market in Brussels and Leuven, particularly against those with North African or Sub-Saharan African names, and difficulties accessing the labour market.
There are indicators of educational disparities as well.
In 2017, the King Baudouin Institute highlighted an unpublished study showing that 60% of “Afro-descendants” in Belgium are educated to degree level but are four times more likely to be unemployed than the national average. Belgo-Congolese, Belgo-Rwandans and Belgo-Burundians make up the third-largest population group in the country.
Black Lives Matter
Over-policing in neighbourhoods of colour is also a big problem, says Thompson.
“I think the Black Lives Matter protests helped start a conversation about over-policing and racial profiling by the police in Brussels”, she says, noting that while there are stark differences to the US context, similarities can be drawn with the murder of George Floyd.
At the beginning of the first lockdown in Anderlecht in the Brussels Capital Region, in April 2020, a teen named Adil died in a crash resulting from a police car chase when the 19-year-old fled to avoid a fine for circumventing restrictions. Earlier this year, a 23-year-old Black man Ibrahima Barrie also died in police custody in Brussels. Both instances sparked unrest.
In France, however, discussing race and ethnicity is still taboo, says Jean Beaman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“The current discourse around France is still one of ‘colourblindness'”, Beaman told Brussels Morning.
She notes further that when it comes to racism, it tends to be seen as a problem everywhere except France. Any activism about racism in the country, is characterised as being too influenced by outside discourses — such as the US framework.
However, research shows racism is a big problem in France, be it in terms of how descendants of immigrants from former French colonies are treated in contemporary French society or the growing activism against police violence, state violence towards visible minorities, who’s in power and who represents French culture, Beaman says.
“Race has always been germane to how France constructs itself as seen in the colonial history of France”, Beaman maintains.
The concept of laicité, or secularism, for instance, is framed in a way against France’s Muslims, which serves to ‘’other’’ this population to the point where it is seen as racially ethnically distinct and that the presence of Muslims or Islam “threatens” French values. However, the history of France shows it has relied on constructions of Christianity and Catholicism, which have been instrumental to France’s current society, far from the secular identity it claims now, argues Beaman.
Nwabuzo says the status of racial equality in France sparks particular concern, in terms of policies such as its controversial bill against what it calls “Islamist separatism”. Among the new measures are the requirement for pre-approval for home-schooling and an extension on the ban of religious symbols. The bill’s critics say it targets the millions of Muslims living in France.
On the upside, however, there are clear signs of progression in some European countries, including in Portugal and Belgium, which have agreed to adopt a National Action Plan Against Racism, as advocated by ENAR and the UN.
It’s the first time anything on this level has been seen in Belgium, Thompson says.
The EU also published an anti-racism action plan in September 2020.
This development could have implications for all member states, encouraging them to address racism in ways they may not have done before, either by monitoring or producing equality data. Currently, not all countries produce consistent data, with government-level indicators often confined to migration background.
“It’s interesting France thinks of itself, vis-a-vis, the UK in terms of being less racist”, Beaman muses. “Part of the reason why France can do that is again because they don’t have data. It’s easy to say that racism doesn’t exist because there’s no government-level kind of census data that would capture that”.
“There’s something to be said, for collecting data”, she adds, “[It] does a lot of work to demonstrate that there are these disparities”.
That may be one thing to be said for the UK’s approach to tackling racial disparities, Nwabuzo concedes, that it is reporting on them but cautiously:
“We can’t say that it’s just ahead of the game, just because it has these reports. They have to follow up with some implementation of some of the recommendations”.