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Home >Opinion >Columns >The UK’s Sewell report reveals a failure to see racism for what it is

British foreign policy has often been described as ‘perfidious Albion’, another name for duplicitous conduct in pursuit of self-interest. Tell some things to some, something else to others, keep cards close to your chest, and bend the rules to get what the British elite desire. It goes back at least to the 17th century Treaty of Limerick, which gave Irish Catholics a few rights, but these were soon revoked to reassert the pre-existing order. Elegant phrases gloss over crass inhumanity, making injustice seem inconsequential and replacing brazenness with insidiousness. For example, Britain claims credit for abolishing the slave trade, after which it created indentured labour.

Pursuing self-interest overseas is one thing. But at home? Whose interest is it, anyway? The question matters, as the British government stands accused of trying to manipulate the conclusions of a controversial report on racism. A week ago, a nominally independent commission released its much-awaited report on racial disparities in Britain. Headed by Tony Sewell, who runs an educational charity, the panel had included academics, journalists, charity professionals, researchers, and activists. They represented various ethnicities, religions, and places of origin. Pertinently, some were at least sceptical that Britain has a problem of racism.

And that’s the problem.

The report dismayed many activists who have spent years combating racism. Its main conclusion was that while Britain has not eliminated racism (who has?), its racism is neither structured nor institutional. The intent is not racist; class divide matters; not all minorities are the same, and a nuanced understanding is necessary.

First, intent is not so relevant when outcomes need fixing. Class has always mattered. And nuanced analysis should not paralyse the state into inaction while addressing multiple layers of discrimination revealed through intersectional analysis. Yes, there are poor among Caucasians, but are they poor because they are Caucasian? As the protests showed, “black lives matter" because historically they haven’t mattered; it does not mean other lives don’t matter, as the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal succinctly pointed out.

More troublingly, some commission members have complained that they hadn’t seen the full report, its recommendations, or Sewell’s foreword before it was published.

The British think the glass is nearly full. They will point out how a city council today would not advertise in a foreign newspaper (as Leicester did in the Argus) discouraging Asians being expelled from Uganda from coming to their stretched city, or that no politician would warn, as Enoch Powell did, that there would be “rivers of blood" if immigration continued. But when Theresa May was home minister, British cities saw billboards warning people that they’d be sent home if they couldn’t prove that they were in the UK legally, and in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, a billboard showed hundreds of potential refugees threatening to ‘flood’ the UK. For decades, British tabloids have vilified asylum-seekers in such revolting language that in one instance the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned it.

Immigrants in Britain are given a privilege (which can be withdrawn) called ‘indefinite leave to remain’. It is not a right. As journalists like Amelia Gentleman showed, many Caribbean immigrants who helped build Britain after World War II were sent back decades later to where they came from, without due process, often in error. Even rights aren’t absolute, as in the case of Shamima Begum, who was a child when she left the UK to join the Islamic State, but who was barred from returning. In each case, the victims were not Caucasian.

The Sewell report coincided with the passing of Philip of Windsor, the man who could not be king even though he married the queen. Eulogies and encomia followed for the man who was known as much for being worshipped as a living deity on a South Pacific island as for his remarks that royalists politely explained away as ‘gaffes’, but which demeaned those who did not look or talk like him. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail, the tabloid frequently accused of stoking racism, published a 144-page tribute to Philip, and broadcasters provided wall-to-wall coverage, provoking many complaints to regulators. The Mail targeted Gopal, who made the perfectly reasonable point that the British monarchy had benefited from slavery, and that it was a “white" institution. Ask Meghan Markle. (Late last year, the Mail paid libel damages to Gopal for making false insinuations about her). The insults and intimidation that she and others face reveal the ugliness that the Sewell report curiously enough can’t find.

Britain today is more aware of its inadequacies, but it bristles when the warts are shown. Many believe Cecil Rhodes who said that being an Englishman is like drawing the greatest prize in the lottery of life. And you can only be born one, cannot become one, as the poet T.S. Eliot was supposedly reminded when he became a naturalized subject (not citizen). Such attitudes lead to hubris. Their roots run deep. The Sewell report hasn’t figured out the depth and is incapable of disturbing it. Mind the gap, it says, but it is yet to find how wide it is.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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