So March slips seamlessly into April and the news gets its annual injection of quirkiness. One story that caught my attention was the one about a bronze statue of Dominic Cummings, designed by a Scandanavian sculptor called Olof Prial, that is to be erected outside the opticians in Barnard’s Castle where Cummings went to test his eyes. Another was the story about a ten-person government commission – the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – that is said to have reported after the better part of a year that, where race is concerned, the UK ‘should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries’ because, according to its chair, Tony Sewell, while there is ‘anecdotal evidence of racism’ in UK, the commission could find no ‘evidence of actual institutional racism’. People who spent any time at all opposing apartheid in South Africa will have been mightily relieved to discover that they have came to the right place. Provided, of course, that they haven’t noticed today’s date.
Nobody should be particularly surprised at the findings of the Commission’s 258 page report, which was apparently completed several months ago (and which, beyond the Foreword and Introduction, I have to confess to not having read in its entirety). Boris Johnson signalled its outcome very clearly when he set it up. Its job, he said, would be to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.’ As long as we ‘change the narrative’ and stop people feeling they are victimised and discriminated against, all will be well and victimisation and discrimination will disappear out of the window. Johnson apparently made sure of the desired outcome of the review by getting Munira Mirza, the Director of the No 10 Policy Unit who is on record as saying that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’, to hand-pick the members of the Commission. Perhaps the otherwise unaccountable delay in the report’s publication until April Fool’s Eve can be attributed to the same penchant for a jolly jape as Johnson’s racist references to, among other people, ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.
We cannot, surely, be expected to believe that the arrival on the scene of an overtly racist prime minister will have miraculously purged our society of the institutional racism identified by so many previous reports. Racism is now, Sewell’s Foreword suggests, just an unpleasant historical memory: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’ This miraculous change must have happened in the four years since David Lammy produced his 2017 Independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.*
Lammy’s review revealed that young black people were nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, while the proportion of British and minority ethnic (BAME) youth prisoners rose from 25% to 41% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016. Perhaps even more startling in view of what one knows about the penal system in the USA is the fact that while the 13% of the US population who are black accounted for a striking 35% of the prison population in that country, here the 3% of our population who are black accounted for 12% of the prison population, proportionally almost double the US’s notorious black imprisonment prison rate. Lammy’s 2017 figures showed that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences here there were 494 BAME convictions. For every 100 white men convicted, the equivalent BAME conviction figures for criminal damage and arson, possession of weapons, drug offences, theft, violence against the person and sexual offences were 156, 144, 127, 121, 119 and 118 respectively. In every instance the number of black men convicted was, proportionately, significantly higher than the number of white men.
The Home Office’s own figures show that In 2018/2019 Black people were more than five times as likely to have force used against them by police as White people, and were subject to the use of Tasers at almost eight times the rate of White people.** Other figures show that there are twice as many BAME deaths in custody as a result of restraint, and twice as many involving the use of force, as for other groups. So much for institutional racism being ‘a perception more than a reality’ – unless, of course, that miraculous transformation has indeed come about in a couple of years. The outrage with which the Review report has been greeted by members of the BAME community would suggest that not to be the case.
As seems now to be the Downing Street custom, snippets of the report were allowed to leak out in advance. One of the extracts that has occasioned the greatest consternation is one that manages to find a silver lining to the grotesque history of slavery: ‘There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain (sic).’ This cultural transformation is clearly seen as a positive benefit. Crudely put, the route of the perceived ‘progress’ appears to boil down to: lift the African out of the heart of darkness in Africa, transport him across the Atlantic and subject him to the purifying fire of slavery, and, hey presto! you have your ‘re-modelled African/Britain’, whatever that may be. Didn’t any of the ten members of the commission pause even for a moment to call out the assumption of racial superiority underlying this bizarre attribution of a ‘silver lining’ to slavery? In what respect, precisely, is the ‘re-modelled African’, now apparently fit to live in Britain, superior to his antecedents from, say, the empires of Songhai or Mali in West Africa?
When Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, heard that Munira Mirza was going to be involved in selecting the commissioners, she is reported as having said: ‘A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.’ Boris Johnson’s supposedly ‘independent’ Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seems by all account to have done its very best to do the job he wanted it to do. It has tried to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’. But I suspect that Johnson is already wishing that the report really had been ‘dead on arrival.’ It is very much alive and kicking and has clearly already succeeded in gravely exacerbating a great many people’s sense of victimisation and discrimination. Even on April Fools Day it is difficult to believe that Boris Johnson, even Boris Johnson, could manage to shoot himself in the foot quite so crassly.