Theresa May’s long-awaited audit into racial disparities in public services has finally launched. We were prepared for the worst. Unnamed Whitehall insiders had said that they had been ‘shocked’ by the picture it reveals of racial discrimination in the UK. The scene was set for another bout of political self-flagellation regarding the subject of race in Britain, in which half-truths are peddled by lobbyists and swallowed wholesale by officialdom.
Several studies have already shown that some ethnic groups experience different outcomes in policing, health, employment and education. There are many causes behind these disparities but the evidence used by government to publicise the audit has been carefully selected and presented to suit a predetermined agenda. Everyone has been gearing up for the report to be a ‘game-changer’, because ultimately that is what everyone wants.
The Prime Minister has been desperate for a dramatic announcement to tick her ‘burning injustices’ box and reset her administration (for ‘nasty party’ read ‘nasty country’).
When she announced the audit last August, Mrs May dropped any pretence that she would wait to see the actual evidence by promising that it would ‘reveal difficult truths’. Her political advisers fondly imagined the audit would somehow improve the Conservative party’s relationship with BAME communities. A panoply of anti-racism lobby groups have been excited at the prospect of a new Macpherson or Scarman moment that will pave the way for fresh laws and more public funding for them. And the Labour party sees this as home turf; the more everyone obsesses about race, they believe, the more they stand to gain.
Everyone, including ethnic minorities, should be worried about the way in which anti-racism is becoming weaponised across the political spectrum. What passes for policy discussion in this area is now so heavily divorced from the facts and driven by ideology that there is barely any intelligent debate. Astonishingly, it seems that a lot of people in politics think it’s a good idea to exaggerate the problem of racism.
A telling example of this phenomenon is the David Lammy review into race and the criminal justice system, which was commissioned by government and published last month. Lammy claimed his report ‘clearly shows BAME individuals still face bias — including overt discrimination — in parts of the justice system’. He pointed to the statistic that BAME men and women make up 14 per cent of the population but 25 per cent of all prisoners. BAME male prisoners are more likely to be in high-security prisons and the odds of a BAME offender receiving a prison sentence for drug offences is higher than for white offenders. This, he argued, proves the Prime Minister’s comment last year: ‘If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.’
Except this is not what the statistics in his report revealed at all. Rather, they showed the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision-making was broadly proportionate, once other factors were taken into account. Jury conviction rates were similar across ethnic groups at between 66 and 68 per cent. In some measures, BAME groups actually had more favourable treatment compared with whites. It is true that in the area of rape and domestic abuse, black and ‘Chinese and other’ groups had disproportionate rates of prosecution, and the report rightly called for more research to understand why. But if racial bias were a problem throughout the system, one would expect the overall conviction rates to reflect this. By and large they don’t.
In fact, the detail of Lammy’s report concedes that there are many reasons outside the criminal justice system for the ethnic disparities it describes. Black children are more likely to grow up in a single-parent family, black and mixed ethnic boys are more likely to be permanently excluded from school, and BAME groups have a much higher incidence of mental illness. All of these are linked to higher rates of offending.
In short, there are many social and economic factors that go a long way to explain these ethnic disparities. It makes no sense to blame racism or the failings of professionals in the criminal justice system. Differences in racial outcomes are not the same thing as institutional racism any more than the fact that far more men than women are incarcerated is evidence of institutional sexism. The most anyone could reasonably say about institutional racism is that the evidence is far from conclusive. Yet virtually no one challenged Lammy’s misleading claims.
The same wrongheaded thinking about race was at work in another government-commissioned review, Lady McGregor-Smith’s report into BAME employment, published in February. It made the claim that ‘people from BAME backgrounds are still being held back in the workplace because of the colour of their skin, costing the UK economy the equivalent of 1.3 per cent in GDP a year’. Most people reading that might reasonably deduce that British businesses were discriminating against BAME people.
But as Richard Norrie, a researcher at Policy Exchange, pointed out at the time, the report paints an unnecessarily bleak picture of ethnic recruitment, because it assumes all workplaces should have at least 14 per cent ethnic minority staff, reflecting the percentage of ethnic minorities in the population. What this ignores is that almost half of the non-white population in the UK are immigrants, and many of these have arrived recently with poor English and low qualifications. It is crazy to insist they should have the exact same outcomes as non-BAME groups within only a few years of their arrival. BAME communities also tend to have a younger age profile, so it will take years for them to grow and assume positions of responsibility. It would be better to look at how diversity develops over time, and whether people from different backgrounds are coming through the talent pipeline, which they are in most professions such as law, accountancy and the civil service. However, in this ideologically driven debate, there are no prizes for pointing out where Britain is doing well and creating opportunities for BAME people.
The logical fallacies about race have been taken to ludicrous extremes in the area of mental health. In 2004, John Blofeld, a former high court judge no less, published an investigation into the death of the black schizophrenic patient David Bennett at the Norvic clinic in 1998 which concluded that the mental health services were ‘a festering abscess’ of institutional racism. In 2005, the government produced a new action plan for the sector to reduce ‘disproportionate’ admissions of black patients to psychiatric wards, a policy which has been continued by successive governments, including the present one.
But the reality is that incidence of mental illness is objectively much higher in the BAME population. Professor Swaran Singh, a social and community psychiatrist with more than 30 years of clinical experience, has argued for over a decade that institutional racism in his profession is not the cause of this. Academic studies show that BAME and migrant groups are more exposed to mental health risk factors, including family breakdown, substance abuse, poverty, living in areas with low social cohesion and, of course, the personal experience of migration and prior instances of racial prejudice. Afro-Caribbean people are more likely than whites to be diagnosed with mental illness, sectioned, forcibly restrained and placed in seclusion. They also make up a third of inpatients on medium-secure psychiatric wards. For a psychiatrist to turn away patients or amend their treatment because of some government target would be, frankly, irresponsible.
We have now reached a point where all differences in public service outcomes by race are assumed somehow to be the result of ‘institutional racism’. The Macpherson report in 1999 into the police laid the ground for this new orthodoxy, positing that racism exists all around us in the ‘system’ and that it is perpetuated ‘unwittingly’ by people working within it. Rather than judging by objective criteria, it handed down the un-usual instruction to measure racism according to people’s subjective perceptions. If one believes something to be racist, then officially it is.
Paradoxically, just at the point when racist attitudes were declining in society and many ethnic groups were integrating successfully, our political leaders became obsessed with racism. The last decade in particular has seen a range of measures, from diversity training to ethnic targets, aimed at combating the widespread racism that supposedly pollutes society. The tragedy is that accusations of institutional racism — and their official endorsement — have corroded BAME communities’ trust in public services, thereby making things worse. Singh found in his 2006 research into mental health services that the call to fight racism in mental health was ‘creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby [black] patients seek help only in a crisis, disengage from services prematurely and have repeated admissions with poor outcomes’. Patients and their families were so convinced that they would be locked up and harmed by their doctors that they were even refusing to take medication. Often it was when they had already caused or were on the verge of causing harm to themselves or others that they first came to the attention of the authorities, at which point more forcible means were required to protect them.
Hidden in Lammy’s review was a similarly telling discovery: one of the reasons why black people are more likely to receive harsher sentencing in the courts is that they do not trust their solicitors’ advice to plead guilty, meaning that they do not benefit from more lenient sentencing. Believing the accusations of institutional racism, BAME communities are afraid to trust their own lawyers and end up making decisions that harm their chances in the system. Some of this lack of trust must be attributable to the historic legacy of racism from a previous era, but it is at the very least possible that much of it is also driven by the current accusations of racism. His report will do nothing to improve that, and will probably make it worse.
This shift in the way we think about racism has also had a wider cultural effect. A generation of young BAME people believe that they are disadvantaged because of their race, and they are angry. They are told repeatedly about how racist universities are (especially Oxbridge), how racist their schools are, how racist employers are, how racist the police are, and so on, ad infinitum. In pretty much all these areas, the statistics tell a more complex story about poverty, class, cultural norms and expectations. In many areas, such as university entry or recruitment into the professions, a number of ethnic groups are actually doing better than white British people. David Cameron even once claimed that a young black man was more likely to be in prison than university, which was factually completely untrue (as this publication later pointed out), but imagine the message that sent out to thousands of hopeful parents who had come to this country with dreams for their children.
Anyone who delves into the facts, however, is warned off by the prospect of a moral punishment beating. ‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race,’ writes Reni Eddo-Lodge, a black British author, in her recently published polemic: ‘Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms… Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.’ Eddo-Lodge, like so many of the younger generation of anti-racist activists, is not interested in hearing people disagree with her. This is essentially demanding an uncritical reception for contentious political ideas on the grounds that it hurts too much to listen. When Trevor Phillips, the then head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, dared to say that ‘institutional racism’ was no longer a relevant term in Britain, he was widely denounced.
By appeasing the anti-racism lobby and affirming its culture of grievance, public institutions and business leaders are not making Britain a fairer place. In fact they are harming the very people they aspire to help. By importing into the UK the divisive politics of anti-racism from America, with its demented campus dramas and neuroses about ‘safe spaces’, ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘cultural appropriation’, they make it almost impossible for people of goodwill of all ethnicities to rub along together.
May and her ministers may lack the courage to halt the bandwagon, but there is cause for hope in the growing number of younger people from ethnic minority backgrounds who can see through the divisive politics of anti–racism. Their lived experience gives the lie to the idea of Britain as a fundamentally racist society. It is possible to acknowledge that racism still exists without turning its waning influence into the pretext for a bogus moral crusade that pollutes the public space with false accusations based on selective evidence. Despite the inevitable challenges of integrating millions of newcomers, Britain is a country that is conspicuously fair and tolerant by any reasonable standard.
We have earned the right to focus on the positive. For the Prime Minister to claim that we have a serious problem with racism really is a burning injustice.
This is an updated version of a piece which appeared in the Spectator last month. It has been republished following the release of the government’s race equality audit.