1828 DEBATE: Is the UK ‘institutionally racist’?

Dr Rakib Ehsan and Dr Wanda Wyporska

March 31, 2021

Dr Wanda Wyporska, Executive Director of the Equality Trust, argues YES

Black and Asian communities will be alarmed but not surprised at claims by the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that institutional racism does not exist. There was disappointment when Dr Tony Sewell was announced as its chair in July 2020, and as I said in the Guardian, “If the establishment wants to get a Black person to head something up and align with their thoughts, we know who those people are … And the rest of us just think, ‘Oh no, not again. Another wasted opportunity for change.’ Yet, in terms of the Government, there was more to be worried about.

In December 2020, Equalities Minister Liz Truss signalled that the Government wanted to drop ‘identity politics’ in favour of their ‘levelling up’ agenda. She said: “Too often, the equality debate has been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic and not by their individual character.”

This shift onto a focus on individuals obscures the institutional racism that is deeply entrenched in the UK. There are higher numbers of Black women dying in childbirth, Black children being excluded, Black men in prisons, and I could, unfortunately, go on. Yes, class plays a part, but the origins of the economic, political and legal institutions are rooted in centuries of male White upper-class power, which have only relatively recently deigned to admit women.

For many of us, as Black and Asian people, institutional or structural racism is our quotidienne experience and does not go away because it is politically expedient. This report and the oxygen of its publicity has meant that we all need to redouble our efforts to fight for racial justice. What an opportunity lost.

Dr Rakib Ehsan, an independent expert in British ethnic-minority public attitudes, argues NO

In my view – no, the UK is not ‘institutionally racist’. But I wouldn’t expect you to just take my word for it.

The 2020 Migrant Integration Policy Index rated the UK as one of the strongest performers in the world when it comes to providing anti-discrimination protections on the grounds of race and ethnicity – comfortably ahead of major European countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as Commonwealth counterparts such as Australia and New Zealand. The fact that racial fairness is such a salient and dominant talking point in many of our public-service, policy-making, and media-broadcasting institutions, is demonstration of the broader institutional commitment to shed light on racism – wherever it is found and whenever it is identified.

According to a survey study by Hope Not Hate, 64 per cent of those from an ethnic minority background agreed that the police were a force for good on the whole and that any problems over racism were down to a select number of individuals; in other words, a few ‘rotten apples’. While such police forces are vilified and accused of institutional racism against non-white communities, people of Indian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and Black African origin, are all more likely to have confidence in their local police, when compared with the white British mainstream. It is also worth noting that three in four British Muslims believe that Britain is a good place to live as a Muslim – not the kind of result one would expect if the UK truly is a place riven by institutional bigotry.

There is further work to be done in terms of strengthening equality of opportunity in the UK – fairness should be at the heart of the ‘British promise’. But to label the UK as ‘institutionally racist’ is a deeply questionable charge which overlooks the noteworthy successes made by our multi-racial democracy.

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