Nine minutes on a Minneapolis street last May sparked a long, defiant summer of Black Lives Matter protests across Britain. Following George Floyd’s death, Boris Johnson launched the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, to examine race relations in the UK – chaired by educationalist Dr Tony Sewell.
Now, as Minnesota police stand trial for using restraining methods that it is alleged killed Floyd, the publication of Sewell’s report last Wednesday has triggered fresh anger and racial recrimination on this side of the Atlantic.
The study was compiled by 10 independent commissioners – nine of whom are black or Asian. Sewell himself is the London-born son of Jamaican parents, part of the Windrush generation who came to Britain in the 1950s.
Yet this exhaustive 258-page data-driven report finds that, when it comes to the life chances of the 13 per cent of the UK population from ethnic minorities, “impediments and disparities do exist, but are varied and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism”. The commissioners “no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” the report concludes. “Britain should be seen as a model for other white-majority countries”.
Over recent months, there have been public clashes over traditional hymns, the Union Jack and colonial-era statues. Some commentators say post-Brexit Britain has sunk into a “culture war”.
But even within this context, the response to Sewell’s Government-commissioned study – which acknowledges that “outright racism still exists in the UK” but highlights “a reluctance to acknowledge Britain has become open and fairer” – has been astonishing.
“It’s a whitewash, a slap in the face of all anti-racism efforts,” said Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, a lawyer activist. The commissioners were compared to Ku Klux Klan members by a Labour MP. Sewell himself, who is 62, and has spent his entire career either as a teacher, educational researcher or community leader focused on helping black youngsters, was likened by a Cambridge University professor to Hitler’s propagandist Josef Goebbels. Since publication, he has maintained a dignified silence. Until now.
“I want to say loud and clear this report does not deny racism,” Sewell says. But when examining disparities people face in areas of education, health, crime, policing and employment, he points to “a myriad of causes – geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion – that all have more significant impact on life chances than racism”.
One reason Left-wing campaigners are so angry about this report, Sewell argues, is that the commissioners, while non-white, are not race relations activists, coming instead from a variety of other fields. They include former police superintendent Keith Fraser, the economist Dambisa Moyo and TV executive Samir Shah.
“This is part of the problem – and the response to our report has been extreme, unnecessary, over-the-top, ridiculous and absurd,” Sewell tells me during a recording of my podcast, Planet Normal, which you can listen to using the audio player above. Some of the most vocal critics “should be ashamed of themselves – they should read the report, not read what other people have said about it, then make a comment”.
Much discussion of UK race relations is “driven by emotion or belief”, says Sewell. “Dare to question those emotions or beliefs and you’re in trouble”. His commission, in contrast, which has been supported by the Cabinet Office and drawn extensively on material from the Office for National Statistics, “has been relentlessly focussed on the data”.
Big differences between ethnic minorities are “concealed”, says Sewell, “by the acronym BAME” – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. This “just lumps all non-whites together – which makes no sense”.
The commission reports that while the children of Indian, Chinese and black African parents generally do better than white British children at school and in the workplace, the children of Pakistani and black Caribbean parents tend to do worse.
Sewell’s mother worked in a factory and his father was a car mechanic. Influenced by the Scout Movement and his local church, he progressed from a working-class 1970s childhood to achieve a doctorate – and is fiercely proud of his Jamaican roots.
“Where is this underachievement among black Caribbean boys coming from?” he asks. “We’ve almost instinctively said it’s to do with white teacher racism”. But his report concludes otherwise. “We did a deep dive into the data and some of the biggest factors around why this Caribbean group often fails in school and has high exclusions relates to family dynamics – with black African kids going in the opposite, positive direction”.
This is the first official inquiry into race that explicitly tackles family structure. The commission reports that while some 63 percent of black Caribbean children are in single-parent families, the share is far lower – 43 percent – for black Africans, 19 percent among white British families and just 6 per cent among Indians. Sewell makes the point most politicians shy away from – that children are more likely to prosper when both parents play active roles in their upbringing. “Government cannot remain neutral here,” he says.
While such pro-family views were always going to incense the Left, much of Sewell’s report “is progressive, with radical proposals that challenge traditional Tories”. He says that “if Labour party voters actually read it, there are all kinds of policies that appeal to them”.
To “promote understanding of what Britishness really means”, the commission recommends that the school curriculum is “modified” to include “how the UK influenced the Commonwealth countries in both a positive and negative way”. Sewell wants “a stern debate around slavery, how awful and destructive it was, a system that made just profits for the Empire – we need to bring those facts out”.
What did he think when he saw Metropolitan Police Officers “taking the knee” in front of violent BLM protesters last summer? Did that help race relations, or incite further division? “I’m not interested in gesture politics,” he replies. “But the Commission does have some really solid recommendations for the police – including local residency requirements, so you avoid situations like you have in Tottenham, where a police force that is 90 percent white is policing a community that is 95 percent ethnic minorities. We need to address this issue of trust”.
As the row over the Commission’s report has raged, and Sewell and his colleagues have taken huge flak, Downing Street has been mostly silent about the controversial study it launched. Does this bother Sewell?
“They’ve only had it a week, so I can hardly say they’ve been reticent.” he says carefully. “But I’ll tell you the soundings I’ve had from Government have been positive, that they want to act on it,” he adds. “I think they’re in a position now where they will accept a lot of the proposals, hopefully all of them”.
And having chaired this commission, how does Sewell himself feel about the verbal pummelling he has taken? “I’m not going to entertain this idea of me feeling anything – I’m used to this and am fairly thick-skinned,” he tells the podcast.
“Reasonable people will look at this report and see this isn’t some extreme thing or a denial of racism – but an attempt to use evidence to help people and overcome disparities in a way that works,” asserts Sewell, countering his critics. “And when people are desperate to silence you and discredit you, you must be saying something that’s true.”
Listen to Liam Halligan's interview with Dr Tony Sewell on The Telegraph's Planet Normal podcast using the audio player at the top of this article, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app.