Race commission chair Tony Sewell defends report after backlash

The chair of the government’s race commission today dismissed ‘ridiculous and offensive’ claims that it downplayed the ‘evil’ of the slave trade.

The long-awaited study was branded a ‘whitewash’ yesterday as it concluded there is little evidence of institutional racism in Britain. 

Factors such as geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion were found to have more impact on life chances than racism.

And the authors were accused of trying to put a ‘positive spin on slavery’ after they called on schools to use history lessons to ‘tell the multiple, nuanced stories of the contributions made by different groups that have made this country the one it is today’.

In his foreword, chair Tony Sewell said there was a new story to be told about the ‘slave period’ and about how ‘culturally African people transformed themselves into a remodelled African/Britain’.

But Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank, said: ‘I’m absolutely flabbergasted to see the slave trade apparently redefined as ”the Caribbean Experience”; as though it’s something Thomas Cook should be selling – a one-way shackled cruise to purgatory. 

‘The cultural deafness of this report is only going to become clearer in the coming days and weeks.’

But Dr Sewell said the criticism was ‘absurd’. ‘It is absurd to suggest that the commission is trying to downplay the evil of the slave trade,’ he said.

‘It is both ridiculous and offensive to each and every commissioner.

‘The report merely says that, in the face of the inhumanity of slavery, African people preserved their humanity and culture.’ 

The report

Overseen by chair Dr Tony Sewell, the findings from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities were branded a ‘whitewash’ by the Left, but welcomed by other campaigners

The landmark review found children from many ethnic minorities do as well or better at school than white pupils

The landmark review found children from many ethnic minorities do as well or better at school than white pupils

Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to Middlesbrough today) said the findings were 'interesting', but the government might not accept 'everything' it concluded

Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to Middlesbrough today) said the findings were ‘interesting’, but the government might not accept ‘everything’ it concluded

The commissioners behind the report

Dr Tony Sewell (chairman): Brixton-born son of Jamaican immigrants who has previously questioned claims of institutional racism in Britain. The 62-year-old was raised in London and worked as a teacher, first in London and then for two years in Jamaica. He gained a PhD for a thesis called ‘Black masculinities and schooling’.

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock: Space scientist and presenter of The Sky At Night since 2014, when she replaced Sir Patrick Moore. Born in London to Nigerian parents. The married mother-of-one, 53, is a physicist and mechanical engineer once helped create a hand-held landmine detector. Works to inspire schoolchildren to work in science and technology.

Aftab Chughtai: A retail businessman who runs Aftabs in Alum Rock, Birmingham. A member of the Grenfell taskforce he was awarded an MBE in 2015 for services to business and the community. chairman of the West Midlands Police Independent Advisory Group and co-founder of Brexiteer group Muslims for Britain.

Keith Fraser: A former police officer who worked for the Met and West Midlands police in a career spanning 32 years, rising to the rank of superintendent. Currently chairman of the Youth Justice Board. Birmingham-born son of Jamaican immigrants who became a bus driver and secretary respectively. Last year he spoke of being a victim of stop and search when a serving officer and accused forces of ‘unconscious bias’.

Naureen Khalid: Experienced school governor and educatuion blogger who set up @ukgovchat, an online forum for school governors. Mother of three who originally trained as a geneticist before moving into education.

Dr Dambisa Moyo: Economist and author who was previously on the board of Barclays Bank. Born in Zamia and educated at Oxford and Harvard she was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2009. Author of ‘How Boards Work’ and ‘Dead Aid’, which criticised post-war economic support for African countries. Her website described her as ‘a pre-eminent thinker, who influences key decision-makers in strategic investment and public policy’.

Mercy Muroki: Oxford-educated social policy researcher at the Centre for Social Justice, commentator and columnist. Born in Kenya to parents who moved the family to Northampton. Became a single mother at the age of 18 to daughter Rosalind and has spoken about surviving on Universal Credit. Brexiteer Tory who introduced Sajid Javid at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference. This month she told the Sun: ‘I just don’t subscribe to woke, academic culture.’

Martyn Oliver: Teacher, chief executive of Outwood Grange Academies Trust which runs more than 30 schools and runs a zero-tolerance discipline regime. He backs moves to extend the school day, especially in deprived areas. He told Schools Week today: ‘The evidence is clear: give schools the resources to extend the school day and they will enrich the social and cultural capital of every child while boosting their academic performance.’

Dr Samir Shah: TV producer, a former deputy chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum and a non-executive Director on the BBC Board. His firm Juniper TV produced Boris: The London Years and Theresa Vs Boris: How May Became PM for the BBC in 2016 and 2017 respectively. 

Kunle Olulode: Director of the Voice4Change England charity which has more than 400 organisations as members. A member of the Government’s Windrush Working Group in 2018 he co-curated the Black And Banned season at London’s South Bank which ‘considered the impact of censorship in black film, literature and music’.

Blondel Cluff: Chairman of the National Lottery Community Fund, which hands out money to charity, since February. Solicitor and former diplomat for the British Overseas Territory (BOT) of Anguilla, who is chief executive of the West India Committee charity

The race report was months in the making and produced by a group of 12 experts – only one of whom was white. 

The report, commissioned by the Prime Minister after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, said Britain was no longer a country where the ‘system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities’.

In a foreword, Dr Sewell rebuked ‘negative calls for ”decolonising” the curriculum’.

He said a Making Of Modern Britain teaching resource should focus on the influence of the UK during its Empire period, how ‘Britishness influenced the Commonwealth’ and how local communities influenced ‘modern Britain’.

He added: ‘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 remodelled African/Britain.’ 

Mr Johnson insisted today there are ‘serious issues that our society faces to do with racism’ and that work needed to be done to ‘fix it’.

And he suggested the government will not agree with ‘everything’ in the report’s conclusions. 

‘Look, this is a very interesting piece of work,’ he said.

‘I don’t say the Government is going to agree with absolutely everything in it, but it has some original and stimulating work in it that I think people need to read and to consider.

‘There are very serious issues that our society faces to do with racism that we need to address.

‘We’ve got to do more to fix it, we need to understand the severity of the problem, and we’re going to be looking at all the ideas that they have put forward, and we’ll be making our response.’

Although the study came under heavy fire, many campaigners voiced support. 

Duwayne Brooks, a friend of Stephen Lawrence, said he agreed that not all disparities in the UK were caused by racism.

The activist told Times Radio: ‘What the report is doing is comparing life for the ethnic minorities in Britain, in comparison to the European countries, where life would be much, much worse than how it is today.’

He added: ‘It’s not as simple to just say that the black people of Britain cannot get jobs because they’re black. 

‘And that’s what people want the report to say.’

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, added: ‘This report rightly identifies the varied causes of disparities and by making recommendations to address them gives the Government the opportunity to design policy targeting the sources of inequality.’  

‘It is no wonder they are losing the expertise from their team.’

Yesterday Dr Sewell, who insisted that the commission simply hadn’t found evidence of institutional racism in Britain, said some communities were haunted by historic racism and there was a ‘reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer’.

He said the review found some evidence of bias, but often it was a perception that the wider society could not be trusted.

NHS Providers said it disagreed with the report’s conclusions and said there was ‘clear and unmistakable’ evidence that NHS ethnic minority staff had worse experiences and faced more barriers than white counterparts.

Sabby Dhalu, of Stand Up To Racism, said: ‘Suggesting Britain should be regarded as a ‘model for other white-majority countries’ is an insult to all those who lost their lives due to racism.’

But Chancellor Rishi Sunak said progress had been made in tackling racism, telling ITV’s Peston: ‘If I think about the things that happened to me when I was a kid, I can’t imagine those things happening to me now.’

The 264-page report also called on ministers to tackle online abuse, lengthen the school day to help disadvantaged pupils, force police to switch on body cameras during stop-and-search encounters, and establish an independent body to target health disparities. 

The report said: ‘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. 

‘That said, we take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK.’ 

It added: ‘We have argued for the use of the term ‘institutional racism’ to be applied only when deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level and not be used as a general catch-all phrase for any microaggression, witting or unwitting.’

The report said: ‘The life chances of the child of a Harrow-raised British Indian accountant and the child of a Bradford-raised British Pakistani taxi-driver are as wide apart as they are, partly because of the UK’s economic geography. 

‘Meanwhile, the numerically largest disadvantaged group is low income White boys, especially those from former industrial and coastal towns, who are failing at secondary school and are the people least likely to go to university. 

‘Unlike many other reports on race and ethnicity we have included the White group in our deliberations. 

‘For a range of outcomes, White working class children trail behind their peers in almost all ethnic minority groups, although the extent of these disparities vary by area.’  

The review highlighted the different fortunes of ethnic groups, pointing out that white British boys from poorer backgrounds are among the most disadvantaged. These figures show the difference between the mean score for the group and the grand mean score across all pupils - which is equivalent to zero

The review highlighted the different fortunes of ethnic groups, pointing out that white British boys from poorer backgrounds are among the most disadvantaged. These figures show the difference between the mean score for the group and the grand mean score across all pupils – which is equivalent to zero