Contrary to the Sewell report’s findings, the UK still has a problem with racism

The government’s review of racial disparity ignores the experiences of minorities whose careers have been limited by cultural inequalities, says Dieu Hack-Polay

When the Sewell report into racial inequalities in the UK was unveiled a few weeks ago, someone who is accustomed to my vociferance about race and discrimination issues called and asked why I have been silent on this new important report. After a long pause, I answered that it is because I was shaken and taken aback by some of the author’s claims. For example, the claim that “reasons for minority success and failure are embedded in the cultures and attitudes of those minority communities themselves. There is much evidence to suggest, for example, that different experiences of family life and structure can explain many disparities in education outcomes and crime”.

I saw this as a sudden apparition of the racism that equality campaigners should be worried about and confront. I found it severely disturbing that the report was so oblivious of the many minorities whose careers have been assassinated by racism. In other terms, there appears to be some insinuation of little substance in the stories about the social construction of minority disadvantage in education, employment and society at large. 

That there is little truth in the well-researched ethnicity pay gap presented a few years ago by the Human Rights Commission. That the judges that sat on discrimination cases and awarded compensation were all wrong. The thousands of academics who have brought to light evidence of minority disadvantage were all wrong. That the McPherson report which identified institutional racism was wrong.

What more does this substantive claim in the report mean? First of all, the report dismisses our stories and experiences of discrimination and disadvantage in British organisations. It is creating and selling a new narrative that simply says the lack of promotion, the high unemployment rate among minorities and the bullying and harassment (the list goes on) are not realities but fantasies.

Secondly, the report gives companies the right to justify their discriminatory practices by telling minorities that they don’t progress because of their family and culture, not because of the company itself. This is dangerous – it is a failure to acknowledge institutional failings that have been widely reported, and also undermines the much-celebrated cultural diversity in the UK. 

Thirdly, the report has the potential to contaminate the mood internationally because the UK has often been perceived as a model of the struggle, being at the forefront of the abolition of slavery, the introduction of human rights, and the aid effort in developing countries. However, now this report brings about a sombre mood to the nation and undoes several decades of progress. 

This report is the biggest institutional denial of race issues in modern British history and should be challenged by everyone who cares about equality. Otherwise, it will gravely undermine some of the key achievements and gains we have accumulated and legitimise the place of racism again in our society, and that revenant will be more difficult to combat and cast out. 

This report simply takes us back to the dark ages of race relations. Perhaps the purpose of this report was to silence minorities who, in addition to suffering from the current pandemic, also dare to continue to voice their concerns about the never-ending pandemic of racism that has been quasi-omnipresent in their midst for decades.

However, make no mistake. As opposed to silencing the disadvantaged groups, campaigners and academics, this report will amplify their voices and efforts, and increase the intensity of the struggle for a fairer society and workplace. But in the same way as we are determined to see the end of the current pandemic, the fight to defeat the racism pandemic will continue until we find a cure. 

Dr Dieu Hack-Polay is a professor in organisational studies