When Boris Johnson established a new commission on race and ethnic disparities after the Black Lives Matter protests last year, many doubted how serious this body would be. Its chair, Tony Sewell, had in the past openly questioned the existence of institutional and structural racism. Now the commission’s first report has been published, it’s even clearer that its purpose was to whitewash the problems of racism in Britain.
The 264-page report argues that the UK has become a “more open society” in which issues of race and racism are becoming less important for explaining persistent inequalities. According to its authors, the report’s findings challenge the view that Britain has “failed to make progress in tackling racial inequality”, and suggest that the “well-meaning ‘idealism’ of many young people who claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by evidence”.
One of the commission’s key arguments is that people’s educational outcomes are not adversely affected by their ethnic background, with children from almost every ethnic minority background outperforming white British children in compulsory education. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it ignores and trivialises the very real role that racism plays in shaping the life chances of Black and ethnic minority children in the UK.
Ignoring the evidence that institutional racism plays a key role in the education of Black and minority pupils is nonsensical. There is a mass of evidence showing how racism operates through policy and practice at national, local and classroom levels. Black and minority ethnic teachers report experiencing systemic and overt racism on a daily basis; Black Caribbean pupils are five times more likely to be excluded in some areas in England compared with other groups; and teachers consistently fail to address the overt racism that many Black pupils experience in schools. Last week it was reported that more than 60,000 incidents of racism were recorded over the last five years in UK schools.
One of the claims made by this report is that white working-class children trail behind their peers in almost all ethnic minority groups. Once socioeconomic status is “controlled for”, the authors write, “all major ethnic groups perform better than White British pupils except for Black Caribbean pupils”. Yet while statistics such as these can be useful for mapping broad trends, they are far from perfect. Statistics are shaped by the assumptions, theories and interests of authors. They aren’t neutral, and they can introduce unintended biases.
Attempting to “control” for different factors is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how racism works. Often, various statistical factors, such as people’s socioeconomic status or geographic location, are themselves products of racism. For example, if a survey into educational attainment controlled for poverty, it might look, on paper at least, as if racism played less of a significant role. But this ignores the reality that poverty is often inherently related to racism, and is disproportionately experienced in the UK by ethnic minorities.
Indeed, the more factors that are “controlled for” in statistics, the less impact any one of those factors carries. In this way, statistics can be used to explain away racism and underplay its significance. This approach is especially dangerous where as many different variables as possible are used in an analysis. This is the “garbage can” approach to statistics: the calculations appear to be scientific, but in reality they are meaningless.
The claim that white working-class children are more deprived than those from other ethnic minority groups has been often repeated, but the research used to support this idea is often based on a small number of white families, defined by poverty measures such as their entitlement to free school meals. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of white children are not eligible for free school meals, and children from Black and Asian backgrounds are both proportionately more likely to be entitled to free school meals and to experience similar educational disadvantages.
Such claims often fuel dangerously misleading ideas about white working-class failure. Before the pandemic, around 12% of white children claimed free school meals, but around 60% of white people considered themselves “working class”. The label “working class” is so nebulous that it can be easily misused to give a wholly false picture of white children as race victims.
Of the report’s 24 recommendations, not one examines what could be done within the teaching profession itself. Around 90% of teachers and 97% of head teachers are white. If we’re to tackle the racial inequalities and discrimination that exist in the education system, there must be a recognition that Black and minority ethnic people are under-represented in the teaching workforce and school leadership teams. There is currently no formal requirement for trainee teachers to address patterns of discrimination in relation to race, or training for how to deal with racist incidents in the classroom. This means that teachers enter the classroom unprepared to meet the needs of their diverse student body.
The government must move away from perpetuating a hierarchy of oppression that promotes the idea of white victimhood and discounts race inequity as a lesser problem. The result of refusing to acknowledge institutional racism is that the government will refuse to act upon it. Instead, Black and minority ethnic children will be blamed for their failings. The commission’s denial of institutional racism is based on an illusory meritocracy, where individuals are wholly responsible for their own success, and Black and ethnic minority pupils must simply work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they are to succeed.
It’s these students who will be the collateral damage of a government that continues to deny racial inequality. Education is a right and not a privilege, and every child, regardless of their ethnic background, is entitled to a decent education without fear of discrimination. Clearly, for many children, this isn’t happening. Those of us concerned with social justice and equity will continue to fight against racial inequalities in education. All this report shows is how far we still have to go.
Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham. Her recent book, White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, was published by Policy Press
From the Brixton riots to Black Lives Matter: how has racism in Britain changed over the past 40 years? Tonight join Guardian journalist Joseph Harker and guest speakers Linda Bellos, Alex Wheatle and Natasha Johnson for an online discussion. 7pm BST/8pm CEST/11am PDT/2pm EDT. Book at gu.com/guardianlive