Note: the CRED report uses the term “ethnic minority groups” throughout. Red Fightback recognise that people of colour constitute a global majority, and this is not a term we employ in our analysis. However for readability in tandem with the CRED report, this article does employ the term at certain points.
“There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”
– Tony Sewell, Introduction to the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities report.
On Wednesday the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities published a 258 page propaganda piece, masquerading as a report into racial inequalities in Britain.
The Commission was set up by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson (whose anti-racist credentials are second-to-all), following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. What was abundantly clear at the time, and what the commission has been far more successful in proving than their own assertions, is that the whole operation was a sham and a whitewash. Tony Sewell – who referred to last year’s protests against racist police murder as a “lower-middle class revolt” and a “sideshow” – was appointed as chair of the commission by Johnson. His introduction to the commission report is one of the most despicable things we’ve read. He was appointed along with eight other commissioners and two “co-opted members”. Of these eleven, six are “honoured” with appointments to the Order of the British Empire; nothing that follows can come as a surprise.
The Imagined Britain
Society has ‘defined racism down’ to encompass attitudes and behaviours that would not have been considered racist in the past. This is one reason for the rising sensitivity, the language of microaggressions and safety, and stretching the meaning of racism without objective data to support it.
With this context, it’s unsurprising that the commission reached the absurd conclusion that institutional racism is not a dominant feature of British society. Such analyses, it claims, are rooted in “idealism” and are “alienating the decent centre ground”. Vast differences in outcomes in health, education, economic position etc, it insists “do not come about by design”.
Instead, the Britain it imagines is one “encapsulated by what we saw in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics… (which) featured British icons like James Bond and the monarchy”. This is an “Open Britain”, one with increasing social mobility for ethnic minorities, where racism only appears to be a problem because of radical left propaganda and the prevalence of social media – whereas in reality hate crimes are falling and ethnic minorities have better health outcomes than whites.
In this Britain, “ethnic disparities” are a product not of the social structure, but of the culture, pessimism, and refusal to integrate amongst specific ethnic minority groups. In this Britain, if only they exercise their agency, ethnic minority groups can “overcome obstacles and achieve success”. In this Britain, it is “difficult to blame racism” for the underachievement of Black Caribbean students in school, because some more recently arrived groups of African students have higher educational attainment than they do, on average. In this Britain, such disparities are a result of better attitudes amongst more recently arrived migrants – “immigrant optimism” – which causes them to work harder than their longer-established counter-parts. In other words, in this Britain, your disadvantages are your fault.
This Britain is a lie.
The disappearance of structural racism
The great achievement of the commission is in their truly gymnastic talent for speaking structural racism out of existence even as they articulate it. Clearly, a key intention of the report is to reinforce a definition of racism that is reduced to personal biases and prejudice:
The linguistic inflation on racism is confusing, with prefixes like institutional, structural and systemic adding to the problem. It is a sad reality that racism still exists in every country, but we cannot afford for the term to become misunderstood or trivialised.
…the Commission noted a tendency to conflate discrimination and disparities; whilst they sometimes co-exist they often do not. The Commission believes this is symptomatic of a wider, repeated use and misapplication of the term ‘racism’ to account for every observed disparity. This matters because the more things are explained as a result of racial bias, the more it appears that society is set against ethnic minorities”
Further, the commission attempts to define a difference between “explained racial disparities” – “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” – and “racism”. Sewell likewise comments in his introduction that, “(the) evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.
But this distinction is nonsensical. What do we mean by “structural racism”, if not that race shapes people’s geographies, family structures, and socio-economic position – or to frame it less liberally, their class position?
As Stuart Hall put it, race is a modality through which class is lived. The analytical method of trying to study race whilst statistically controlling for economic, geographical or gender factors doesn’t make sense. There are not discrete categories of oppression, which operate independently of one another and sometimes overlap. There is one system – class society – which structures exploitation, expropriation, participation, violence and accumulation and distribution of surplus value, through the categories of race and gender. It is not possible to study race or racism independently of the concrete material conditions and processes through which it is experienced. What does it mean to say, as the report does:
Another example of overly pessimistic narratives, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been on race and health. The increased age-adjusted risk of death from COVID-19 in Black and South Asian groups has widely been reported as being due to racism – and as exacerbating existing health inequalities.
However many analyses have shown that the increased risk of dying from COVID-19 is mainly due to an increased risk of exposure to infection. This is attributed to the facts that Black and South Asian people are more likely to live in urban areas with higher population density and levels of deprivation; work in higher risk occupations such as healthcare or transport; and to live with older relatives who themselves are at higher risk due to their age or having other comorbidities such as diabetes and obesity.
So there are higher death rates amongst particular racial groups, because they are more likely to be exposed to infection and live in deprivation – and this is proof that there isn’t structural racism in Britain? The CRED’s next report might tell us that being attacked by a shark doesn’t kill you – you’re just more likely to have your head bitten off, which is a risk factor for dying. Therefore we should be less concerned with sharks, and more concerned with not losing our heads. One needn’t even argue against such unlogic.
Racism as natural psychology
Having attempted to define structural racism and white supremacy out of existence, the commission is gracious enough to concede the following:
…a psychological comfort can be derived from looking like the majority of people around you. A better term (than ‘white privilege’), which usefully captures the tendency for groups to favour their own, is the concept of ‘affinity bias’.
But this apparent concession is mere cover for pushing a reactionary understanding of race. One which attempts to explain racism in terms of phenotype preference, in-group bias, or what the report calls “affinity bias”. Such attempts to psychologise racism are intent on denying its social basis, and thus its historical contingency. If racism is just a natural part of human evolutionary psychology, then where’s the point in trying to abolish it? Why attempt to locate its basis in the material structures of society and their transformation?
Let us be clear: racism is not the product of a psychological bias against people with phenotypic differences to us. Marxist historians of whiteness Ted Allen and Noel Ignatiev demonstrated this fact, through their studies of racial oppression of Irish Catholics under British colonial rule – by phenotypically similar Brits and Irish Protestants. Their study proves that racial categories are socially constructed, rather than having a foundation in biology, or some kind of psychological preference for phenotypically similar people. The British constructed religio-racial oppression of Irish Catholics as a form of social control to structure and sustain class hierarchies in the Irish colony. Both authors trace the historical incorporation of the Irish into whiteness, as changes in historical conditions made maintaining a system of racial oppression in Ireland untenable, and as working class Irish in the US were bought out of their solidarities with enslaved Black people through being awarded “white skinned privileges” i.e. structural advantages such as land and property rights, and legal protections against enslavement, which were afforded to people categorised as “white”. Black Marxist Cedric Robinson similarly identifies processes of racialisation as originating in feudal Europe with racial oppression of Slavic, Irish, Jewish and Romani people – all of whom were targeted for dispossession and exploitation – again by phenotypically similar Europeans. Whilst most of these groups are today, to a greater or lesser extent, integrated into whiteness, contemporary antisemitism illustrates that this incorporation is unstable, further indicating that categories of race are socially contingent and variable, rather than phenotypically defined.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Here is not the place for a full evaluation and critique of the statistical methods used throughout the commission’s report. Authors for the British Medical Journal have already produced a scathing critique of the report’s findings on health outcomes, and doubtless other expert bodies will produce similar responses in the coming weeks and months. However we cannot ignore the point entirely, as a central claim of the report is, in effect, that people only believe racism exists in the UK because they haven’t understood the stats. Such bare-faced deceptions cannot go unchallenged. Here, we will settle for noting some of the key ways in which the commission has attempted to mislead readers of the report with unscrupulous manipulation or misrepresentation of data.
The commission makes liberal use of the old undergraduate student stand-by: simply citing a study which doesn’t support your claim, or only supports a small part of your claim, in the hope that your professor will be too busy to actually check. Just one example appears on page twenty-eight of the report, which claims that:
One advantage that ethnic minorities have is that they are disproportionately based in London – around 40% of the UK’s ethnic minority population live in London (compared with just 9% of the White British population) and this mitigates the country’s significant challenges with regional inequality.
The data then cited to support this claim comes from the 2011 census. But there’s one problem. All that data shows is that “ethnic minorities” are disproportionately based in London. That this constitutes some kind of “advantage” for those communities, or that it “mitigates… regional inequality” has absolutely no basis in the evidence. Indeed the data cited lists the distribution of different ethnic groups within London boroughs, and it’s telling that the commission chose not to pursue an analysis of this distribution alongside the relative deprivation of the various London boroughs.
The report also makes frequent use of total numbers over percentages, in particular when trying to prove that white people are worse affected by issues than people of colour. Likewise it moves between different units of analysis (e.g. from local authority region to specific neighbourhood), whilst implying that findings for the larger unit map directly onto the smaller:
It is the poorer White people, outside London, who are the largest group to be found in areas with multidimensional disadvantages, from income to longevity of life. The English region with the worst life expectancy is one of the Whitest – the North East. And the number of years people can expect to live in good health is generally lower in the northern parts of England compared with the south.
…The most recent Index of Multiple Deprivation for England finds that the local authorities with the highest number of deprived neighbourhoods are all in the north: Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Knowsley, Hull and Manchester. All except Manchester have a disproportionate representation of the White British population. The proportion of deprived neighbourhoods in London is falling.
…The core cities outside London, with the exception of Bristol, have been underperforming, but it is the ex-industrial and mining areas, and towns on the coastal periphery, which are the poorest and least productive places. Towns like Barnsley in South Yorkshire, Dudley in the West Midlands, Middlesbrough in the North East or Blackburn in the North West. In simple numerical terms, this is overwhelmingly a White British problem.
86.1% of the British population was identified as White British in the 2011 census; white people are statistically likely to be the largest group, in raw numbers, found anywhere in the country – be it areas with “multidimensional disadvantages” or areas which are highly affluent. To investigate if systemic harms affect a specific group, we must look at statistical data; doing otherwise is the commission’s attempt to present a distorted picture of the reality. Within the areas under discussion, moving between “local authorities” and specific “deprived neighbourhoods” adds an additional layer of confusion. Hull might have a disproportionate number of white British people, but how does its overall ethnic composition compare to that of the specific “deprived neighbourhoods” mentioned? Likewise the number of deprived neighbourhoods in London might be falling – but who lives in them, and to where are their former occupants moving?
Reality briefly saunters into the report, after these various falsehoods and contortions have been laid out. When it comes to living in deprived areas, the significance of race in Britain is as follows:
The overall percentage of White British people living in the 10% of most deprived neighbourhoods is 9.1%, which is disproportionately low and below several groups, most notably Pakistani (31.1%), Bangladeshi (19.3%), Mixed White and Black Caribbean (17.4%) and Black African (15.6%)
The disappearance of disability
Fazilet Hadi, the head of policy for Disability Rights UK, has noted that the report at no point pays serious attention to the role of disability in structuring the lives of people of colour. A search for the word “disability” turns up just 7 results in a report of almost 260 pages – “disabled”, none. Of the few mentions, none are substantive.
The exclusion of disabled people’s experience from this report is particularly concerning given what we know (despite the report’s attempts to deny it) about the relationship between race and health outcomes and life expectancy, where non-white people experience disproportionate harms by almost every measure. The social, environmental and economic conditions in which colonised people find themselves are disabling – they produce increased vulnerability to injury, chronic illness, and psychological harm.
We find this exclusion to be especially poignant, given recent evidence which shows that over half of those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire were disabled. We know that the safety concerns of Grenfell residents were routinely ignored, and here we see the material consequences of a society which views disabled and migrant lives as disposable.
Black and South Asian people have been dying from COVID-19 at upwards of twice the rate of White British people. That a report can be produced this year, attempting to deny structural racism, and refusing to even acknowledge a relationship between race and disability, is an outrage. If not for all its other distortions and reaction, this alone would be enough to reject it.
This report was written, quite simply, as a “fuck you” to the Black Lives Matter movement. From its claims to refute the very factual basis on which that movement is built; to comparing those who have observed and spoken out against their own oppression as “players (in a sporting match) who claim they have been fouled when they have not”; to its declarations that BLM and the ideologies which emerge from it “increased racial tension” – it is a 260 page attempt to undermine those who are struggling against the violence, dispossession and exploitation faced by Black and Brown people in Britain. And it’s an attempt birthed by ruling class fear.
Last summer saw the largest anti-racist street movement in the history of Britain. It was a terrific expression of the anger and strength of anti-racist feeling amongst young people in this country, and their readiness to come onto the streets in unified fury. This has the pigs in the cabinet and on the beat terrified. They have witnessed the seeds of their own demise.
In truth, despite the outrageous claims of this report, it is a rather simpering and pitiful attempt by the British state to undercut a movement which is yet to even realise its own power. The masses of working and oppressed people cannot be deceived regarding their own lived experiences. Whilst the report calls the Windrush scandal a “headline”, working class Caribbean people all across Britain know friends and family members who have been detained, brutalised and deported by the home office. Whilst the report claims that structural racism doesn’t exist in Britain, colonised people are seeing cops and immigration officers occupying and terrorising their neighbourhoods. No feeble report can distort those realities.
The commissions repeated attempts to appeal to “working class whites” throughout the report, to paint them as the ‘real victims’ who’ve been alienated and abandonned, in the hopes of undermining their anti-racist solidarities, will fool very few. Every part of the working class has seen that the state doesn’t care about them, and will recognise these appeals for the deceptions that they are. Some will doubtless be suckered in by triumphant headlines in The Sun, however, and for this reason communists cannot become complacent. Racism is the single greatest barrier to working class revolution in the imperial core. We can not for one minute afford to stop for breath, and must be tireless in agitating and organising against racism – especially within our own movements.
There is one thing that the report gets absolutely right, the only true words the CREDs have spoken, and that we couldn’t say better ourselves:
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.
You heard them: let’s tear this shit down.
 This claim is made in the report, which simultaneously notes that amongst South Asian migrants in the 1960s, pre-existing class distinctions between Indian and Pakistani migrants resulted in vastly different social positions, despite their having migrated at the same time. This contradiction was apparently lost on the commissioners.