I was a 23 year old civil servant press officer working on the police desk at the Home Office. On hearing the phrase “institutional racism”, so much clicked into place. The stories my dad had told me about being a doctor. My own experiences making my way in Westminster. And what the Lawrence family had gone through.
It felt like a such a brave, profound moment not just for policing, but for race relations. To me it, also felt oddly positive and human - because it was an acknowledgment that people and systems could unwittingly or unconsciously discriminate against groups without the express intention of being awful. That there were deep-rooted, ingrained behaviours and assumptions that worked against people.
It seemed fair and honest. And a starting point to fixing things. That’s why it’s all the more bewildering that this week’s race report declared that there is no such thing as institutional racism. Lord Macpherson died earlier this year and perhaps it’s a mercy he didn’t see his thoughtful, seminal piece of work tossed in the bin to be replaced with the intellectual equivalent of a fart in a lift. A report so shonky, disreputable and embarrassing that the Prime Minister’s senior black advisor on race resigned on publication. The fact that a Government adviser didn’t even know who he was says it all.
Samuel Kasumu was, by all accounts, a decent, principled person who tried to make a difference, yet Downing Street still managed to produce something which Donald Trump would be proud of. Munira Mirza, who set up the commission, prides herself on being an ardent, non-apologetic, right-winger whose mission is to own the libs and destroy the Marxists. Yet this whole thing has such strong Death of Stalin vibes. The idea that you commission a report into racism and appoint a bunch of people who don’t believe in institutional racism – like it’s an opinion – is as farcical and malign as appointing Ken Livingstone to carry out a report into whether anti-Semitism exists in the Labour party. The lengths that this excruciatingly poor report goes to blame anything other than race is also beyond parody. It even manages to own itself.
It announces, all proud-faced, that white children lag behind some ethnic minority groups at school, then reveals that they do better when it comes to getting actual jobs. But no structural, systemic or institutional racism to see here, chaps. Very few black or minority ethnic people sit on FTSE boards, or edit newspapers, or sit as judges or even make it as a football manager despite there being so many black players – but nothing to see here. They just don’t want those kinds of gigs. Or just aren’t good enough. Or smart enough. And there’s the Covid deaths. The Windrush scandal. And on it goes. Round and round.
Then there’s weapon’s grade whataboutery: “Erm…what about class?” I could list you all the decisions made by this government which have harmed working class people, which by the way also includes black and brown folk, from cuts in benefits to poor housing. But here’s a genuine question: if the government is so committed to narrowing socio-economic disadvantage, why has it failed to enact section one of the 2010 Equality Act which placed a duty on all public bodies to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Levelling up in one clause.
I feel mentally drained at having to make these arguments over and over again. David Lammy tweeted he felt “exhausted” after the report came out on Wednesday, and that captured how so many black, Asian and minority people feel. Drained, hurt, emotionally burnt out and defeated.
I have always felt fundamentally positive about the future on race. That we were always making progress. I was even naïve enough to celebrate the arrival of an ethnic minority Home Secretary and Chancellor, despite not supporting their political persuasion and knowing that I would get a kicking from my own side for being “nice.” I feel stupid and Pollyanna-like now, which in itself makes me feel utterly dejected. I don’t want to be tribal on race.
On Wednesday, my phone rang all day and I spoke to fellow equality campaigners from different races, backgrounds and political allegiances and we were all on the floor. Hearing the crack in the voice of someone who has done decades of good-faith work to make change on a cross-party basis almost finished me off.
I would like to end this piece with an uplifting clarion call to buck up and fight on, but please forgive me. I feel so low. This could have been such a powerful moment to truly build back better after Brexit, political division and the culture wars. Instead, it’s a moment where people of colour were gaslit, told to stop playing the race card; and the worst kind of bigots were given the green light.
Shame on all who were involved. Congratulations, we are broken – even us idiots who were nice to you. Job done.