When others were toppling statues, “taking the knee” and jumping on the “Black Lives Matter” bandwagon, Boris Johnson set up a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Its report, published last month, has been dismissed by some critics as a whitewash, and the ten-member commission’s chairman, Tony Sewell, was branded as everything from an Uncle Tom to a Josef Goebbels lookalike.

So what does the report actually say? Racism is a “real force” in the United Kingdom (UK), but the system is no longer “rigged against ethnic minorities”. Disparities exist, but very few are directly to do with racism, which is too often used as a “catch-all explanation”. 

Blaming failure among minorities on discrimination by whites diverts attention from other causes, including culture and attitudes in minority communities, among them family breakdown. 

The official term BAME (for black, Asian, and minority ethnic) is no longer helpful because it disguises “huge differences” within minority communities. The pay gap between all ethnic minorities and the white majority population has shrunk to 2.3% overall, and is barely significant for employees under 30.         

With the exception of black Caribbeans, children from minority communities do as well as or better than whites in compulsory education. Success in education has “transformed British society over the last 50 years into one offering far greater opportunities for all”. New arrivals in the UK see education as a way out of poverty and have seized on educational opportunities and achieved “remarkable social mobility”, making education the “single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience”. 

The report says that many first-generation immigrants experienced downward social mobility, but that the second generation has “caught up and in some cases surpassed white people”. This progress has mostly taken place in the last two decades and has been “imperfect and mixed”. Ethnic minority candidates find it more difficult than whites to obtain jobs. Britain, the report says, is not yet a “post-racial society”, but neither is it a place where “the system” is “deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. 

“Family,” the report adds, “is the foundation stone of success for many ethnic minorities.”  One of the main reasons for educational failure and crime is “family breakdown”. Some 63% of children from black Caribbean backgrounds grow up in lone-parent families, compared with 43% for black Africans, 19% among white British families, 6% among Indians, and a UK average of 14.7%. Lone parenthood is even lower among South Asian and Chinese families. 

Speaking subsequent to the release of his commission’s report, Dr Sewell said children were more likely to prosper when both parents played a role in their upbringing. His report suggests that ministers should look at initiatives to prevent family breakdown.

Elaborating on problems with the acronym BAME, which the commission says should no longer be used, Dr Sewell said it “just lumps everyone together”. Within the “black cohort”, the Caribbean school expulsion rate was 3.5 times that of Africans. The category “Asian” included prosperous Gujarati consultants in London and impoverished Pakistani taxi drivers in Bradford. Moreover, 40% of Britain’s medical clinicians were Indian – a fact which, “by the way” is “hidden, not celebrated”. 

The report also rejects terms such as “white privilege”. It was indeed “a revelation how stuck some groups from the white majority are”.

The report cites opinion polls showing that there is wide acceptance among the population of the UK as a multi-ethnic society, but adds that social media amplify racist views.  

In a BBC interview Mr Sewell said that while there was anecdotal evidence of racism, there was no proof that there was “institutional racism” in Britain.     

As for British history, the report says that it was not just one of “imperial imposition, but one in which there were episodes of both shame and pride”.                

Dr Sewell, who was born in Brixton of immigrant Jamaican parents and wrote his doctoral thesis on “black masculinities and schooling”, once wrote that “there is a culture among black men of producing children without taking responsibility”. The high rate of absent fathers was a serious driver of knife crime in urban England, he said.  

Responding to critics of his recent report, he declared, “I want to say loud and clear that this report does not deny racism.” Britain, however, had “come a very long way in the last 50 years” since the racism he experienced in his youth.  Now, when examining disparities people face in areas of education, health, crime, policing, and unemployment, there were a “myriad of causes – geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture, and religion – that have a more significant impact on life chances than racism”. 

He added: “When people are desperate to silence you and discredit you, you must be saying something that is true.”  

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John Kane-Berman, a graduate of Wits and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), is a former CEO of the IRR. Prior to that he spent ten years in journalism, where he was senior assistant editor of the Financial Mail and South African correspondent for numerous foreign papers. He is the author of several books on South African politics, and has also published his memoirs.