The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Backlash after U.K. race report seeks to ‘dispel myths’ about racism, tell ‘new story’ about slave trade

People hold placards during a Black Lives Matter rally in Parliament Square in London on June 6. (Frank Augstein/AP)

LONDON — As a backlash built Thursday in Britain over a government-commissioned report critics say discounts the extent and effects of racism, the resignation of the prime minister’s most senior Black adviser became public.

Many lawmakers, activist groups and critics have branded the review of racial disparities, requested by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the wake of last year’s British Black Lives Matter protests and released Wednesday, “divisive,” “insulting,” and “deeply cynical.”

The study, which was published by experts from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, described Britain as a model for race relations and found there to be “no institutional racism” in the country.

“Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” the report, which is 258 pages long, said. The findings reflect the work of 10 experts, nine of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Reactions were resounding. “It’s complete nonsense,” Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, told the BBC. “It goes in the face of all the actual existing evidence.”

One passage in the report has drawn particular attention.

“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-modeled African/Britain,” the report read.

Marsha de Cordova, the Labour Party’s shadow women and equalities secretary, slammed the section as “one of the worst bits” of the review, saying it put “a positive spin on slavery and empire.” She called on the government to swiftly dissociate itself from the report and said in a statement Thursday that the resignation of Samuel Kasumu, the prime minister’s adviser on ethnic minorities and communities, is reflective of “how far removed” the Conservative party is from “the lived experience of Black, Asian and ethnic minority people.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded on April 1 to a commissioned report that claimed there was “no institutional racism” in the country. (Video: UK POOL)

Johnson did not disavow the report. “I don’t want to say that the government is going to agree with absolutely everything in it, but it has some original and stimulating work in it but I think people need to read and to consider,” he told reporters Thursday, Reuters reported. “There are very serious issues that our society faces to do with racism that we need to address, we’ve got, we’ve got to do more to fix it and we need to understand the severity of the problem.”

Kasumu has been a key force in driving the coronavirus vaccine campaign and will reportedly stay in his position until May. He first penned a resignation letter to the prime minister in February that cited “concerning” behavior among officials and “unbearable tensions.” He later retracted that resignation.

Reacting to the published report Wednesday, Labour lawmaker David Lammy said he was exhausted, “like so many in Britain’s Black community.”

“I’m tired! Tired of the endless debate about whether structural racism exists with little desire to actually address it. We are being gaslighted,” he tweeted.

The suggestion that slavery had been portrayed in too harsh a light wasn’t the only part of the report to raise eyebrows. Among its other controversial claims:

• Playing down many of the concerns that prompted the government to commission the study in the first place, its authors find that “overt racial prejudice” is not the biggest challenge of the present era and that instead it is necessary to “take a broader, dispassionate look at what has been holding some people back.”

• The report also critiques the rise of identity politics, claiming “single-issue identity lobby groups” tend to “have a pessimism bias in their narratives to draw attention to their cause” and focus on lived experience rather than objective data.

• The commission argues that the term “institutional racism” is too widely used, which has “diluted its credibility,” and it rejects discussions of White privilege as being “counterproductive and divisive.”

Many of the report’s recommendations are unlikely to be controversial: It suggests requiring police officers to live in the areas they serve and to stop using terms like “BAME” (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) that lump together the experiences of wildly disparate groups.

But some of the proposals for reducing inequality have been criticized because they focus on life, while discounting institutional obstacles. For instance, the report suggests “it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists,” and understanding disparities requires considering whether some minority groups have struggled due to “family breakdown” and the prevalence of single-parent households.

Black Lives Matter U.K. argued that the report overlooked “disproportionality in the criminal justice system — particularly as police racism served as the catalyst for last summer’s protests.”

While the report isn’t primarily focused on the United Kingdom’s role in the global slave trade, it comes at a time when nations including the United States are reckoning with their legacy of slavery and debating whether reparations are owed to the descendants of enslaved people. The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which argued that slavery played a defining role in the country’s history, sparked a culture war and backlash from conservatives who object to the fact that it has been integrated into school curriculums nationwide.

This report has been updated.

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