By Kathryn Grassu
"What Boris Johnson and his cronies are doing is seeking a scapegoat that isn’t prejudicial in order to prevent people from complaining about racism - whether it is clearly there or not."
As 2020 tics on and we are continually astounded by the lack of basic progress on many things, including racism, from our leaders, we come to the news that instead of implementing the carefully-compiled Lammy Report in full, BJ has decided that all sounds like too much actual action and what we really need is another review. Why are we even having another review when they haven't actioned the old ones, I hear you ask. Well, we don't really know. It appears the 'Prime Minister' is pretending that another report is a perfectly legitimate thing to do in the face of overwhelming public clarity on the issue, and the media are letting him spin himself the fiction that he is anything other than a doily on the antique table of the racist establishment in the UK. Does asking for review number three mean he has simply forgotten that the place where we left the other two was the bit where you make the changes and fix the broken systems? Instead of actually improving people’s quality of life when it's already way overdue, we're short-circuiting back to the beginning of the process again. Repeating the same action and expecting different results - remind me, is it the definition of stupidity or insanity?
Labour's shadow women and equalities secretary, Marsha de Cordova, also agrees that the evidence the commission would examine has already come to light in previous reviews on race, she called for "action on the structural racism that we already know exists" as a priority - just in case you were interested in what the other side thinks.
So a commission and a chair for this Punch-and-Judy-act have been duly appointed. A black British charity boss by the name of Tony Sewell is leading this pre-sunk titanic. Already there is a feeling of dread in the air because of the personal reputation of the man chosen to examine our institutions and choose where to cut the prejudicial tumours out. Sewell was the prime candidate because that's not what he plans to do at all - even though that's a requirement of the role he's been chosen for. Confused yet?
What this review is supposed to do, when you acknowledge that previous reviews have taken care of the 'diagnosing' of institutional racism, is to zoom in on where the issues are and how best to approach them. What BJ and his cronies are doing is seeking a scapegoat that isn’t prejudicial in order to prevent people from complaining about racism - whether it is clearly there or not. If you need proof, here it is straight from the horse’s mouth: Boris Johnson’s own comments that he wants to "change the narrative" on race and "stop a sense of victimisation and discrimination". This only demonstrates that he thinks the problem is people complaining about there being a problem, as opposed to prejudice being the problem, which it is. That's like saying the only medicine we ever need is painkillers because people complaining about their health is the problem. As long as you suffer quietly, BJ won't lose any sleep over your plight.
And it gets worse because the rot of cynicism has spread to the whole government team. One of the prime minister's closest aides, Munira Mirza, who's been overseeing the setting up of the commission, has previously questioned whether structural racism even exists. That's like telling the head of a breast cancer charity to organize a fun run and their retort being ‘well I'm not entirely convinced cancer exists, my body's fine’. Is it not enough to see the damage systemic racism has done to people’s lives, rather than half-heartedly looking for simply the most overt bigotry, denying that racial bias’s reach can be so devastating? Tony Sewell, has written in support of both of these views. Even when he says: "I know however that inequality exists, and I am committed to working with my fellow commissioners to understand why”, this is political double-speak, a false positive because it only takes a second for you to remember that we already know why.
Instead of looking at the experiences of ethnic minorities as a whole and trying to see what society is doing to them, he looks at all races as if they were equal and then asks BAME children why they can't just do what all the good white kids are doing - this is the opposite of helpful. How can you understand their experiences if you don't acknowledge that the difference in their treatment by society is due to race, not 'bad parenting', not 'bad culture' (as he claims), but an endlessly corrupt system of control?
The prime minister said Mr Sewell shared his "commitment to maximising opportunity for all". This enquiry isn't about all, it's about the effects of systemic racism and he won't even admit it exists. You cannot look at inequality with an attitude of equality - even more so when the enquiry is supposed to be looking at many aspects of inequality, including criminal justice, education, employment and health. For a racial justice movement to be successful, it must challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system. You cannot start from a strongly pro-government position because the government in this country is racist (Hence BAME doctors being treated as collateral cannon-fodder throughout COVID-19).
The Muslim Council of Britain said he was the wrong choice as he was "keen on downplaying race disparities". This appears on the surface to be a case of privileged black elite turning against the black poor, pushing as much distance between themselves and POC in poverty as possible, to look better next to men like Johnson, all the while painting themselves as passionate spokespeople for the disadvantaged.
Now onto the man himself: Tony Sewell, his personal character and why his views make him totally unsuitable for the role. I don't blame him for his position as he has much to lose but little to gain by challenging the rules of the game, so why would he? He can have a conscience and be unable to help anyone or he can climb the greasy pole, become a yes man and not have to worry about his family starving. You don't bite the hand that feeds you after all, and what's a bit of political integrity between wealthy friends? While this article is largely about Sewell's appointment, it is not a character assassination of him or his choices because that should not be the state of his personal options in the first place.
In some ways, he is the ultimate symbol of black exceptionalism. Boris needs to look like he isn't the racist that he absolutely is, so he brings out a highly visible black friend, who is a beacon of economic success, in order to help him beat down any criticism and keep his hands on all that juicy power. His hands are clean whilst still pointing to a wealthy black conservative figure and exclaiming: ‘well it wasn't too hard or biased for good ol' Tony to succeed, so how can racism even exist?’ Tony Sewell himself gives credence to this notion in his role as a longstanding commentator on racial issues and education, attracting criticism for suggesting that schools are failing boys because lessons have become too "feminised". He pushes the narrative that it doesn't matter how poor a black person is, it’s just that they aren't working hard enough to make it to the top as he did. The truth is that, of course, those who are trapped at the bottom of society have frighteningly little choice over their fate. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable; we like to believe that the system isn't so corrupt it writes people off from birth. But it does and pretending it doesn't only perpetuate the problems. We mustn't be overcome with excuses. If the supposed shortcomings of BAME children’s school performance can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, their families, or even 'femininity', (whatever that is) then society feels absolved of its duty to do something about their plight. No one can be absolved of this.
In the wise words of writer and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander:
“The notion that giving a relatively small number of people of colour access to key positions or institutions will inevitably rebound to the benefit of the larger group is belied by the evidence[...]racial justice requires the complete transformation of social institutions and a dramatic restructuring of our economy, not superficial changes that can be purchased on the cheap.”
She may be talking about the USA, but every word applies to the UK too. While it is good for Tony’s career to be handed the reins of something weighty, it's not worth gambling with the fates of working-class ethnic minorities in order to have a rags-to-riches story for the white guy in power to point to and exclaim how well he's done.
Mr Sewell is also known to have said that anti-intellectual Afro-Caribbean youth culture was one of the reasons girls performed better than boys in school. This is the definition of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's theory of 'The politics of respectability'. This can take the form of scholars, activists, and yes, charity bosses who argue that moral updraft and education is the only solution to any sign of underachievement from black youth. As if racial equality can only be obtained by black people proving to white people that they are worthy of respect by behaving according to, and aspiring to the same-aged moral principles. This is clearly bullshit because POC are not inferior in the first place so why should they have anything at all to prove? In practice, right-wing POC in high places such as Sewell make other POC, even activists, reluctant to change or criticize ventures presided over by other POC, as they may feel they have something of a personal stake in that individual's success in the public eye. In a climate where any power for black people is scarce, nobody wants to be the downfall of one of their own. So it is only responsible to criticize the white man pulling the strings who makes the bad decisions.
Writing in Prospect magazine in 2010, Sewell said that "much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy". This is again a conservative cop-out, gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education and criminal justice are seen as embarrassing to talk about because in a world of individuals, these matters are rendered private and a poor reflection of the larger picture. His job should be to listen to evidence and facts, not barge in with his toxically masculine agenda and scrape together some statistics that don't negate his argument. It is, to me, totally transparent that this is a big ‘fuck you’ to progress from Boris, so why doesn't the media shine some light on it?
If you act in a way that is racist, then you are a racist. People expecting racists to spout hateful bigotry openly are looking for a mythical tree in a crowded forest. We need to know for ourselves that racism doesn't usually look like that anymore - it wears a nice suit, it can be really polite to you, it can really love its own. But that is not good enough for any of us any more. The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animosity is necessary for the creation of a systemically racist society is exactly the reason why so many white Britons remain in denial. We hear 'racist' and think America, lynchings, racial slurs and 'whites-only' signs. This makes it hard to remember that many good-hearted white people, who were good to their neighbours and maybe even kind to their black childminders, went out and voted for racist policies - some knowingly, some not but both equally culpable for the state of things as we know them. Racial hostility is not the essence of racism - racial indifference and a lack of compassion for people of other races are. As Dr Martin Luther King said:
“One of the great tragedies of man's long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighbourly concern to tribe, race, class, or nation." The end result being that one does not care what happens to people outside of our bubble.
Ultimately, Sewell's ignorance can be judged by his own words: "I have spent my entire career in education striving to help all students achieve their full potential." This enquiry is solely about BAME children and its head should at least acknowledge this directly. But no, Boris Johnson and his exceedingly fragile bunch of rich white man friends insist on all-lives-mattering the entire thing. As if we could ever hope to escape the shackles of deference to upper-class hereditary control systems. Why is it easier to imagine a world where we tolerate racial difference by putting blinkers on and pretending it doesn't exist than to imagine a world where we see race yet constantly act in a positive, structured way to negate our own biases? The whole notion of colourblindness as an ideal is based on us as a society not being capable of treating each other fairly once we know that we are different from each other. We should instead strive for colour-consciousness: knowing that we can and should care for others regardless of racial difference. Colourblindness popped up from the conservative corner as pseudo-equality virtue signalling. At its root, it is all about individualism and selfish disregard for the necessity of public goodwill and the importance of group psychology. Seeing race is never the problem, refusing to care for someone that isn't the same as you is the problem.
I leave you with the musings of academic Tom Watson on the union between black and white working-class farmers:
"You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both."
Who is benefitting from things exactly the way they are and are blockading change wherever we go? Follow the money...
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.