Is the UK institutionally racist? Responding to THAT report

The other week, the Government published a report looking at racism in the UK in the light of last year’s #BlackLivesMatter protests (Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities).  The publication was accompanied by headlines[1] to the affect that

  • There was no evidence of deliberate institutional racism
  • The UK was in fact a model for other white majority countries in terms of pursuing multi-culturalism.

The response to these headlines understandably fell into two camps. There were those who quickly trumpeted the report as good news and one in the eye for the so called ”Woke”.  At the other extreme were those who denounced the report as having swept the reality of racism under the carpet.

I decided to hold off with a reaction because I wanted to see what the report actually said. I suspected, and I think correctly following an initial read through, that the reality would be far away from both extremes.  In fact, the report involves a detailed and lengthy list of recommendations suggesting that far from “job done” the view of its authors is “much still to be done.”

So, I’m hoping to interact a bit further with the report in future articles but today I wanted to start by thinking about our reaction to it and specifically at this stage to the headlines about institutional racism.

It is worth noting that the report engages with the question of institutional racism at page 34 , which in itself makes it odd that this became the headline finding.  It is part of a discussion about the language of race (the report also finds BAME an unhelpful term) and comes in the context of a wider discussion about disparity not just between outcomes for white people versus black people but also between different ethnic minority communities in the UK. What the report writers are suggesting is that things might be a little more complex than popular labels and slogans allow for.[2]

Furthermore, the Commission behind the report are concerned at the way that terms are used interchangeably and with varying meanings, sometimes reflecting other political agendas. The problem then is that we use different terms to mean the same thing or the same term to mean different things. For example:

“Terms like ‘Structural Racism’ have roots in a critique of capitalism, which states that racism is inextricably linked to capitalism. So by that definition, until that system is abolished racism will flourish. Many are using ‘Structural Racism’ to mean deep-seated exclusion rather than the tearing down of capitalism”[3]

The report then goes on to suggest a list of terms and definitions to help us think through issues of race. AS the report says:

“The Commission therefore proposes the following framework to distinguish between different forms of racial disparity and racism: 1. Explained racial disparities: this term should be used when there are persistent ethnic differential outcomes that can demonstrably be shown to be as a result of other factors such as geography, class or sex. 2. Unexplained racial disparities: persistent differential outcomes for ethnic groups with no conclusive evidence about the causes. This applies to situations where a disparate outcome is identified, but there is no evidence as to what is causing it. 3. Institutional racism: applicable to an institution that is racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours in a single institution. 4. Systemic racism: this applies to interconnected organisations, or wider society, which exhibit racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours. 5. Structural racism: to describe a legacy of historic racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours that continue to shape organisations and societies today.”[4]

Now, I want to pause there and focus on how we respond to the report in terms of the questions of structural, systemic and institutional racism.  I write as someone who believes that there are systemic issues that affect our society and that work themselves out in a variety of forms of prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage.  I prefer to talk in terms of idolatry when explaining the cause of these problems because idolatry can reflect the collective choice of a society as opposed to just individual sin and may have implications over generations. This means that I am more likely to fall into the group which is sceptical of a claim that institutional or systemic racism does not exist. So I need to listen carefully to what the report is saying. It’s important that I engage with it and ask questions. The same applies though for those who are suspicious of anything that goes beyond a focus on individual behaviours and is therefore more likely to enthusiastically support a denial of institutional racism.

So, first of all, if we have a report that sees improvements in race relations then we all have to remember that this report comes against the background of 40 years of work through legislation, regulation, monitoring and education to attempt to tackle the issue. If those interventions appear to have had some positive affects then we need to pay attention to that, especially those of us like me who are generally suspicious of government intervention. 

Secondly, we need to be absolutely clear about what we think the problem is, what evidence is there of this and what language we are using to describe it. So, when a headline says that there is no evidence of deliberate institutional racism, then, the crucial words are “institutional” and “deliberate.”  Given that the Government over a 40 year period have introduced measures to encourage equality on a range of fronts and given that the current government includes people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in senior roles, then it should be no surprise to hear people saying that there isn’t deliberate institutional racism in terms of society at large and in terms of public sector institutions.

However, I would suggest that this is not the problem that many people are trying to flag up when they talk about institutional, structural or systemic issues.  You see, first of all the issue is not about what happens at the top of an institution but about the culture that develops within that institution. Secondly, the issue is not about deliberate racism in terms of intent but rather the disparities and discrimination that people experience. Thirdly, by implication this includes not just direct discrimination but indirect discrimination.  Indirect discrimination is about where a policy does not explicitly target a particular group but that group are likely to be disproportionately affected by it. So for example, policies that discriminate against people who work part time or take career breaks disproportionately affect women because they are traditionally more likely to move to part time employment and to take breaks in their careers to provide early years child care. 

Here are a couple of areas where I would suggest that all is not well in our society and I’m hoping as I re-read the report that I will find that it addresses them helpfully.

First of all, there is the structural element of the question.  If an underlying cause of disparities is that a whole community experienced historical discrimination through, for example, the slave trade, then we may need to be ready for the possibility that such experiences are still working their way through. Similarly if immigrants experienced exclusion and hostility leading to negative relationships with wider society and institutions then we should be ready for that to affect things now, even though steps may have been taken to correct those wrongs. 

Secondly, we need to consider how decisions, cultures and stances might have an indirect effect. For example, the intention to deal with illegal immigration may not in and of itself be racially motivated (though some might question that) however, we should not be surprised if measures designed to create a hostile environment for illegal immigrants in fact make the environment hostiel for a much wider cross section of the community too.

Another example of indirect discrimination might be where policies and attitudes prefer those in upper middle-class contexts and disadvantage those from working class and inner city communities. Given that a high proportion of afro Caribbean and Pakistani background people came to the UK in the 50s and 60s to take on working class roles including as bus drivers and mill workers, then they may well be disproportionately affected by socio-economic disparities.

Thirdly, there are the cultural issues to consider about how we engage, even on the issue of race itself.  The experience of the commission itself highlights this.  Here have a situation where the role of the commission seems primarily to serve the agenda of others. Too often what we see is that people who want to protect their position against accusations of racism will seek out people from other ethnic backgrounds that are seen to make supportive arguments.  At the same time, there are others who if those from an ethnic background don’t make the right noises then use them as a conduit for ad-hominem rage. Instead of respecting the possibility that people from African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian backgrounds may disagree with sociological and political theory, then engaging the argument and evidence, we have been treated to the spectacle attacks on the commission members that they must be in some way Tory stooges. As others have pointed out, this is itself a form of belittling and prejudice. 

Another example of these unhealthy cultures can be seen in the way that the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer recently visited a black majority congregation because it suited his political agenda to be seen with a non-white, socially active religious group. However, he was quick to disown and associate himself from then when he discovered that along with many church congregations up and down the country, the church in question took a conservative view on same sex marriage.  The suggestion again is that black people are there to provide the background for photo ops involving white politicians in so far as their actions support the establishment agenda. However if they are seen to diverge from Western liberal theory in any shape or form then they become a problem.  There was of course no concern about he consequences for the community in question of receiving sudden negative media attention.

I raise these examples because they help us to see some of the challenges that we face and that the commission’s recommendations will need to engage with if the report is to be fruitful.  I hope as well that this will help us to think carefully as churches about how we measure up. 


[1] It might be more accurate to say “foregrounded” than accompanied as these headlines came before the actual report came out.

[2] The phrase “institutional racism” was popularised by the Macpherson report an dit focused specifically on the culture within police forces at the time.  See Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report – March 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk) (page 33).

[3] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report – March 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk) (page 37).

[4] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report – March 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk) (page 37)

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