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Don’t turn the clock back on racial justice

Thursday 22 April 2021

On Stephen Lawrence Day, we should remember what has been achieved since Macpherson’s 1999 report on the teenager’s murder, what remains to be done, and how the government’s Sewell report has imperilled progress


When I drove from Edinburgh Airport to rural Perthshire in 2019 to meet Sir William Macpherson, it was still difficult to comprehend the influence he had had over my life, and on how we view race relations in Britain today. In his first substantive interview since his 1999 inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the last before he died in February this year, Sir William was in a truly reflective mood.

“I am pleased we achieved what we did, which was to give a strong push to go in the right direction,” he said. “We could do no more than that of course; I could not work miracles, like making police behave better, or improving relationships between black and white people, but I hoped that the inquiry would assist in those two directions.”

Since his passing, I have been wondering what he would have made of the Sewell Commission Race Report, released a month later – which the front page of the Daily Mail hailed as “Britain’s Race Revolution”. Today, Stephen Lawrence Day – the 28th anniversary of the teenager’s murder – is an apt moment to reflect deeply upon this question.

Having fully digested the 258-page report, I can say that it is scarcely a seminal document; more like a rushed step back in time. Worse, it reads like the work of a group of individuals who had clearly decided upon their conclusions before a single word was written. Sad to say, in aggregate, the findings of Dr Tony Sewell and his colleagues, the way the report was briefed, and the extent to which it was subsequently discredited, will have negative consequences for race relations in this country.

Some of its findings are not controversial; for instance, that Britain has become a more open society “where children from many ethnic communities do at least as well or substantially better than white pupils in compulsory education.”  

But the report’s first fundamental error, to my mind, is a big non sequitur: simply to assert that, because “ethnic communities” have strong aspirations, the model here in Britain is one which should be emulated by other “white-majority countries”. 

This is ridiculously simplistic, failing to grapple with the complex relationship between education, aspiration and measurable social mobility. It is perfectly possible to be well educated, to nurse higher aspirations than your parents did – but to find that the society within which you are attempting to move ahead will not necessarily meet your expectations. 

Those from ethnic minority communities are overwhelmingly more likely to lack the social and cultural capital to succeed (some of this is race related, some rooted in class, often both). Despite the “emphatic success” the Sewell report claims with regard to education, we still live in a society where the way we judge intelligence and ability is often linked to the way people express themselves; or the way that applicants for a job who have a “white” surname like Smith or Jones are nearly 50 per cent more likely to be called to interview than a Begum or an Ahmed.

Simply to assert that we have reached the mountain top by imagining ourselves already to be there is to miss an opportunity to build on the great work done so far.

Progress made, acknowledgment denied

Britain has undoubtedly made progress in race relations within my lifetime. In just 20 years, we have seen major improvements in social attitudes, educational attainment and the representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in public life, and in positions of authority. 

We have made greater strides than much of mainland Europe – and growing up Black in Britain, for all its problems, remains a less challenging experience than in the US. But does this mean that the job is done? Far from it. 

And it is precisely for this reason that those who have nuanced and legitimate reasons to attack the shortcomings of the report would have been well-advised not to exaggerate their criticism.

It is simply wrong to say, for example, (as many have) that we have not made significant progress since the death of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, the report has diminished the force of this point by overstating the extent of that progress. 

Take, for instance, the claim that the term “structural racism” has been “too liberally used”. At best, this suggests ignorance of what these words actually mean, and of how fundamental they have been, and remain, to post-Macpherson initiatives and thinking. At worst, the claim betrays an intellectual recklessness – a failure to see what an impact such an assertion would have (as it already has).

Baroness Doreen Lawrence was quite right to say that this carelessly deployed argument would give “racists the green light.” Those who deplore the core concept that institutions and structures – rather than “bad apple” individuals – are where racism resides most deeply have naturally taken comfort from the report, and will continue to cite this absurd conclusion. In this respect, Sewell threatens to unravel much of the good work done by Macpherson, and to imperil much of the work that still needs to be done.

Good intentions and the road to hell

Another fundamental flaw in the report is the distinction that it draws between explicitly racist acts, and acts that are classified as “well-meaning” – which it concludes should not be regarded as racist. 

This took me back to a judgment from a House of Lords case in 1999, in which judges sitting in what was then the highest court in the land – before the establishment of the Supreme Court – debated the distinction between unconscious racist behaviour, as opposed to explicit racist conduct.

The nub of the matter was as follows: to what extent can a court intervene in the domain of people’s thoughts and emotions; and, in particular, the ways on which our subconscious affects our motivations, intentions and ability to reason? One law lord’s view was that we cannot try and second-guess such psychological depths; we have to be led by what is present, what is explicit. 

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, conversely, had the following to say: “All human beings have preconceptions, beliefs, attitudes and prejudices on many subjects. It is part of our make-up. Moreover, we do not always recognise our own prejudices. Many people are unable, or unwilling, to admit even to themselves that actions of theirs may be racially motivated. An employer may genuinely believe that the reason why he rejected an applicant had nothing to do with the applicant’s race. After careful and thorough investigation of a claim members of an employment tribunal may decide that the proper inference to be drawn from the evidence is that, whether the employer realised it at the time or not, race was the reason why he acted as he did.”

Deliberating 22 years ago, this judge could scarcely be accused of being “woke” (as he certainly would be today). The point, at any rate, was clear. For the first time, it was established in law that we hold prejudices and opinions that we might act upon – without being consciously aware of doing so. 

This was a very significant moment in jurisprudence, a landmark in legal thinking, just as the Macpherson report was a milestone in the way that we understand the operations of racism in institutions such as the police. But with a few ill-judged taps on the keyboard, the Sewell report has challenged that hard-won conceptual progress – and its practical consequences – by blithely asserting that alleged good intentions should play some sort of a role when assessing these matters. 

Dressed up to sound reasonable, this is actually a seriously retrograde position. Its potential implications are grievous: for instance, that racist jokes and daily microaggressions at work should be tolerated; that teachers who set low expectations for some kids because of the colour of their skin ought not to be considered racist – on the basis that their supposed “intentions” are pure.

The most generous gloss – and it is a stretch – is to say that the report’s authors, in their hamfisted way, were trying to inject optimism into the conversation about racism, and to encourage a sunnier perspective upon fraught social issues.

But even that fails to excuse the inept and ill-considered way in which they effectively swept aside two decades of nuanced thinking and incomplete progress. Bulldogs in a china shop, they took little care for the damage that they would inevitably do. Worst of all they have threatened the direction of travel upon which we were set by late Sir William Macpherson. It is for others now to do the hard work of putting us back on the right trajectory.

Hashi Mohamed is a Contributor to Tortoise. He is a barrister at No5 Chambers and the author of People Like Us: What it Takes to make it in Modern Britain

Photograph by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images