The race report was a cynical trap – but if I point that out, I’m ‘doing Britain down’ | Nesrine Malik
The public discussion about racism in Britain today has become hopelessly binary. The starting point is always some variation of “is Britain racist?”. It is a question that sifts respondents into two camps. There is no way to answer such an inquiry that does not elide a lot of the truth, both about the pervasiveness of racism in Britain today and the clear progress the country has made. With that nuance absent from “yes” and “no” responses, each party is angered further and fuel added to the flames. This is where we stand in the UK today, trapped by a futile framing of the problem, farcically yelling at each other like pantomime audiences.
This is the result of years of work by the right to smear anti-racist positions. When we talk about racism today, what we are unwittingly doing is subjecting ourselves to a loyalty test. Pointing out that Britain is racist becomes not an observation about the facts, but a choice to undermine a well-meaning country doing its best. It is “doing Britain down”, aggressive, transgressive, a declaration of war against the country and its fine people. Thus the attempt to discuss racism becomes about everything except racism itself, reduced to merely a tool to distinguish between saboteurs and supporters.
This is an environment in which much political capital can be made. Last week’s government report on racial disparities in the UK was a clear example of using binary framing to appeal to one camp and admonish another. The report looked into institutional racism and effectively declared that it did not exist. Britain was given a pass. The report provided a sort of manual, a primer on arguments and rhetoric to be used to dismiss allegations of structural racism. It paints these as the feverish imaginings of a militant, entitled group of people who are desperate to hang on to victimhood when none exists any more. Instead we should look to “geography, family influence, socio-economic background, and culture and religion” as reasons for racial disparity. The report was accompanied by staggeringly sweeping statements such as “well-meaning ‘idealism’ of many young people who claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by evidence”. Yet the evidence is there, in the arrests of black men, the mortality rate of black women in childbirth, the death toll of the pandemic. But in the complex interplay of race and other factors, the government’s race commission emphasises only what it wants us to see. But there I go, doing Britain down again.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, as the saying goes. But it seems this government has done its best to privilege some facts over others. It appointed commissioners, some of whom have clearly expressed disdain for the concept of institutional racism, to oversee a report into institutional racism. It therefore feels inevitable that claims of institutional racism were found to be “not borne out by evidence”, even when details in the report itself contradict that idea.
Make no mistake: this wasn’t incompetence or clumsiness. The backlash to the report’s findings is not an unforeseen or unintended consequence. In fact it is intended to bear out one of the themes of the report – the idea that there will always be those who “absorb a fatalistic narrative that says the deck is permanently stacked against them” and resist telling the “story of our country’s progress to a successful multicultural community – a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world”. In the government’s framing of this issue, the angry play an important role. They are the problem, not racism.
Your anger is useful to a government that thrives on division. Annoying the “right people” is one of the ways the Conservative party maintains viability when its actual performance in office is so dire. We tend to think of these provocations as blunders that undermine the reputation and credibility of those in power. But the post-Brexit Conservative party is an openly combative one, pushing the belief that the country needs to recover a bit of its swagger,with a prime minister who is cheerleader-in-chief. If you don’t subscribe to its view of Britain, you are banished to the sidelines as a heckler. It is a tough spot for Labour and Keir Starmer, who has already backed himself into a corner with his “constructive opposition”. How to challenge a government that has conducted a racism whitewashing exercise in plain sight, without walking into the trap laid by the racism binary?
Often the way out of these nettlesome situations for politicians and citizens alike is simply to do the right thing, to tirelessly gather evidence of institutional racism, marshal it into a counternarrative of a country that still has much to do, and support the work of grassroots organisations.
In the meantime, lost amid all the cynical strategy are real lives harmed, real opportunities missed. This report is more than an abdication of duty, it is a signal that only grateful quiescent ethnic minorities are welcome here. That if your experience is different, if your needs are different, this government is not looking out for you. If you have been failed by the police, the NHS, or your school, you are on your own. The government has decided that alleviating the impact of institutional racism on the prospects, mental health and life expectancy of citizens is less important than making political capital. The real message of this report is that there are many people whose pain is being exploited to feed a bonfire of resentment the government hopes to benefit from. But fires can rage out of control.
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