There is a tendency to think racism in our societies will lessen over time, and that attitudes and outcomes will inevitably improve. This belief endures despite frequent and sobering evidence of deeply entrenched racial inequalities in Britain.
One of the key points found in Black People, Racism and Human Rights, a new report from the House of Commons and House of Lords joint committee on human rights, is not only that racial progress is far from advancing, but that some things are getting worse.
Take the finding that “in the last decade, the extent to which black children and young people are disproportionately targeted by the youth justice system has increased”.
This claim is easily demonstrated by consulting youth justice statistics for 2018/2019 in England and Wales, which show that black children (who make up about 4% of the entire population aged between 10–17 years) are four times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, and nearly three times more likely to receive a caution or custodial sentence. Today the percentage of black children in custody has significantly increased to 28% of the entire population held in youth custody (compared with 15% a decade ago).
This is one among very many racially disproportionate outcomes that have worsened in real time despite at least eight other parliamentary publications since 2009, each of which made good recommendations for addressing racial inequalities in Britain. Add to these a litany of other inquiries in recent years, including the Windrush Lessons Learned review (2020), the race disparity audit (2017, spanning nearly all public sectors), the Lammy report (2017, looking specifically at criminal justice), the McGregor-Smith review (2017, focusing on labour markets) and the Angiolini review (2017, investigating deaths in police custody). What each of these reports makes plain is that in order to deny that racism is a key feature of disparities in these sectors, institutions and organisations must actively try to ignore it.
Perhaps this is why Baroness Lawrence asked the joint committee, “How many more lessons do we all need to learn? The lessons are there already for us to implement.” Indeed, it will soon be 30 years since the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence, an event that lead, after six years of campaigning, to a public inquiry that deemed the UK’s largest police authority to be guilty of institutional racism.
Last year marked 20 years since the Macpherson report into Lawrence’s death was published and then, much as now, a key issue is the role of what is deemed “unwitting”. This is precisely how institutional racism came to be described in the inquiry into the Metropolitan Police. The report’s wide-ranging recommendations had a broad scope that translated into the 2003 Race Relations Amendment Act, and so had implications across the public sector and society more broadly.
Yet while legislating against discrimination is key, two other things matter just as much.
The first is social convention, to the extent that legislating against individual motives and objectives does not explain how racial inequalities sustain and proliferate. Take the well-established but still shocking fact, highlighted in the joint committee report, that while the rate of deaths of women in childbirth have fallen for white women (to 7 in 100,000), it has increased for black women (to 38 in 100,000). The obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Christine Ekechi, sums up the description of possible unwitting reasons, when she says that, “People think of racism in an overt, aggressive way. But that’s not always what it is. It’s about biased assumptions – and we doctors have the same biases as anyone else.” This might include prejudiced attitudes among healthcare workers about black patients having higher pain thresholds, being too demanding, or not understanding their treatment – all of which manifests in not being listened to.
As the racial disproportionality highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic makes plain, and as documented in the joint committee report too, though racial inequalities in health are driven by social and economic factors, harmful (and flawed) assumptions about “culture” are pervasive, and deflect responsibility on to the victims of structural discrimination.
The second issue is enforcement. It is notable that the joint committee specifically states that “the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been unable to adequately provide leadership and gain trust in tackling racial inequality in the protection and promotion of human rights”. It is an observation that confirms a widely held view among community groups. That an amalgamated equality body risked both diluting and de-prioritising race equality was a frequently aired concern when the EHRC was first created in 2007, by bringing all the other equality “grounds” together (race, gender, disability) before assuming responsibility for newer ones (age, sexual orientation, and religion or belief) in anticipation of the Equality Act 2010.
That these precise concerns have come to pass surprises nobody outside of an organisation that few race-equality stakeholders feel connected to, something typified by its nearly all-white board of commissioners. That it has not one black commissioner is a disgrace, and itself evidence of a profound institutional failure on race equality.
The truth is that we do not need any more reports to tell us that racial equality in Britain is in a pitiful state. What we do need is action to drive policy, implementing the myriad of good recommendations that we already have. We also need to recognise that success in race equality is going to be about more than public policy, because to tackle what is “unwitting” requires us to reflect on the character of society: asking who and what we think we are, and want to be. Achieving that task, I fear, is a long way off.
• Nasar Meer is a professor of race, identity and citizenship at the University of Edinburgh