Last summer, when Black Lives Matter protests spread from the U.S. to Europe, the U.K.’s Conservative government established a commission on race relations in Britain. That group’s report landed on the prime minister’s desk—and on newspaper front pages—last week. The headline findings presented a rosy picture of Britain as a multiracial “model to other white-majority countries,” and unsurprisingly, a ferocious row ensued. But while the national debate it prompted was an angry all-or-nothing affair, the report provided a more nuanced picture of a country that has made progress on racial equality, but which is by no means a “post-racial” society.
The gap between the tone of the document itself and the unedifying argument surrounding it was striking. The Runnymede Trust, a think tank, branded the report a “whitewash.” Marsha de Cordova, a Labour MP and shadow minister, called the document “an insult” and a “divisive polemic.” David Lammy, another Labour shadow minister, said that black Britons were being “gaslighted.” So emphatic was the backlash in some quarters that, by the end of the week, BBC reporters were asking whether the whole project had been cooked up to create controversy.
It is a strange sort of whitewash that identifies shortcomings in the British system and proposes dozens of steps to address them. About these shortcomings, the report is explicit: “We do not believe that the UK is yet a post-racial society which has completed the long journey to equality of opportunity.” It outlines considerable racial gaps in health outcomes and suggests a new Office for Health Inequalities to address the issue. It describes the worst cases of the recent Windrush scandal, in which the Home Office mistook legal U.K. residents of Caribbean origin for illegal immigrants, as “egregious acts of discrimination.” The authors—eminent ethnic minority business leaders, academics, doctors, economists, and researchers—propose a beefed-up and better funded Equality and Human Rights Commission to fight racial discrimination. They acknowledge “big disparities” in the use of stop-and-search and call for police to use body cameras and receive de-escalation training. They advocate a pilot scheme to decriminalize Class B drug possession offences (cannabis, ketamine, and others). They ask the government to consider extending the length of the school day to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier classmates. Of Black Lives Matter protesters, they say: “We owe the many young people behind that movement a debt of gratitude for focusing our attention once again on these issues.”
But the report deviates from contemporary left-wing racial orthodoxy in certain key respects. The authors want to scrap unconscious bias training, which they say can become a box-ticking exercise and risks backfiring as “participants are exposed to information that suggests stereotypes and biases are unchangeable.” Commission chairman Tony Sewell has been eager to note the steps the U.K. has made in the right direction, citing such areas as education where the data tell a story of ethnic minority success. The commission also suggests an end to the use of the term “BAME” (black and minority ethnic), a catch-all phrase used to refer to nonwhite Britons that Sewell argues suggests a group “held together by no more than what it is not.”
By distinguishing between explicit racism and discrimination, implicit bias, and a web of complicated historical and social factors that can generate disparities among racial groups, Sewell and his colleagues deliberately diverge from “antiracist” activists. On a range of issues, from police-force recruitment to racial disparities in medical outcomes, the authors work to untangle the messy knot of causation, rather than recite unhelpfully broad claims about “whiteness.”
Critics of the report singled out its reluctance to describe the U.K. as an “institutionally” or “systemically” racist country but are vague on what that would mean in practice. The report’s authors, on the other hand, express their concern at “the use of imprecise and often misleading language around race and racism,” criticizing “linguistic inflation with prefixes like institutional, structural and systemic adding to the problem.” The report does not deny the existence of such issues but does caution against imprecise and exaggerated characterizations of Britain’s problems. As Sewell writes: “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.”
Therein lies the paradox of the race report and the conversation it has sparked. Those who feel the report painted too flattering a picture of the U.K. often appear uninterested in getting into the details. Aided by a shallow media that casts sensitive debates in unhelpfully binary terms, liberals seem more interested in the recital of a woke catechism and confessions of white guilt. Meantime, the report’s authors have rolled up their sleeves and attempted to answer the messy question of why racial disparities persist in the U.K. As Sewell argues, “Too often ‘racism’ is a catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.”
This hardly means that the authors are downplaying the problem of racism in the country, as critics charge. These critics would have a more credible and constructive case if they identified concrete problems with the commission’s analysis rather than lamenting the report’s tone and obsessing over whether racism is “systemic” or not.
As the center-left American writer Matthew Yglesias recently argued, the left-wing elite’s prevailing approach to race tends to point at things and declare them racist—while being comparatively less concerned with addressing the disparity in question. In this context, the report’s determination to understand and explain the causes of racial inequalities is quietly subversive. Any contribution to the conversation on race that goes beyond self-flagellation about “white privilege” is a welcome one.