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Covering a tangled web of racial bias, poverty, and inequality with whitewash

The final report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) emerged this week and triggered a flood of complaints. Accusations of a ‘whitewash’ cut deep and should not be dismissed. The report’s many omissions and faults led to an assault on the credibility of both the report and the commissioners behind it. A golden opportunity has been lost and will be difficult to retrieve. There is no doubt that racial inequalities, prejudice, and racism exist across our society and are very emotive issues. Yet the idea of ‘institutional racism’ is dismissed by simply redefining it in narrow terms. The report’s main observation is that poverty and socioeconomic factors are key influences on the glaring disparities. But this is hardly a new observation and certainly not a ringing endorsement of ongoing government policies designed to entrench inequalities, regardless of the bluster and rhetoric. Success in Higher Education is a key element in progress and racial discrimination must not be tolerated at any stage. Yet this was missing. Input from Advance HE and Universities UK on the situation was also strangely missing. Instead, the report appears to be geared to reinforcing ongoing government policy by a process of omission. The well-worn adage ‘‘Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” from Walter Scott’s epic poem ‘Marmion’ springs to mind.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) issued its final report this week to a torrent of incredulity. Stretching to 258 pages, it sets out to be an authoritative observer of the state of racial inequalities in the UK and make firm recommendations. It started out last July after the rise in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and appears to have moved at breakneck speed. A ‘call for evidence’ consultation ran from 26 October to 30 November 2020 and gathered in 2,329 responses (325 organisations and 2,004 individuals) including academics. Back by a 20-strong secretariat, the 11 commission members sought new research from 20 individuals and organisations to add to this. If this was not enough, there was consultation with a staggering 256 individuals and organisations. Ministers and MPs (16), government departments and representatives (25), leads of previous inquiries (11), charities (16), NHS organisations (38), Police organisations (21), companies (36), academic institutions (39), councils (16), devolved governments (2), individuals (36). This represents a major operation conducted at speed.

It did not take long for some of those named as contributors to say they were not consulted or did not think they had been involved. Others quickly claimed they were misrepresented. The credibility of the exercise was coming under fire. It may not be long before the conduct to the commission itself comes under more formal scrutiny and a further inquiry uncovers the problems.

In the middle of the row, although seemingly not involved directly in the report, the Prime Minister’s senior adviser on ethnic minorities, Samuel Kasumu, resigned at once. However, the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit (RDU) was acknowledged for support and use of its data.

With the Prime Minister appearing to accept the report without reservation, widespread media coverage concentrated on the idea that ‘institutional racism’ was no longer a problem in the UK. The BBC reported 'UK not deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities' and opened the door for fierce criticism. This conclusion was achieved by redefining ‘institutional racism’ in a poorly concealed ‘sleight of hand’. But shifting the blame onto poverty and socioeconomic disparities simply exposed government policies that foster an unequal society in general. For some, racism just makes matters worse. Recommending that BAME is an inappropriate ‘catch all’ for disparate groups is a good thing, but it changes nothing for those affected by racism.

Today the commission issued a press release statement standing by its approach and conclusions ‘Statement from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’. It seems they have badly misjudged the situation. There has been damage inflicted on the cause they were tasked to defend and an opportunity has been lost.

The cracks appeared fast.

Some suggestions appear to have been more accepted than others. The idea that groups, lumped together within the BAME definition, might be disaggregated to get a better picture is reasonable. But unfortunately, other cracks soon appeared with some cited individuals claiming they were not aware they were consulted. Even the Telegraph was concerned about this. Worse still, several named groups and experts said they were not consulted or not specifically asked to provide research for the commission. This included the influential Kings Fund that concentrates on the NHS. In a detailed report last July, (‘Workforce race inequalities and inclusion in NHS providers’), the King’s Fund reminded us “To be clear about the UK law on race relations, it imposes a positive duty on institutions to pre-empt unlawful discrimination before it occurs. This means the NHS should not just deal with racism when it occurs but be pro-active in preventing it happening in the first place”. Citing their ‘Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) 2020’ report, and its extensive data, they show that “year after year, ethnic minority staff report worse experiences in terms of their lives and careers, when compared with white staff”. The conclusion was that “being on the receiving end of racist behaviour or institutionally racist policies is hurtful and can have long-term damaging effects”.  The CRED report notes this work but is critical of it and simply observes that NHS organisations were addressing workforce inequalities and “It was found that these were broadly perceived to be beneficial, but also recognised that there is no single ‘one size fits all’ approach that can work”. This is clearly a somewhat biased conclusion from the careful work of the Kings Fund.

On the education front, the Runnymede Trust was reported as feeling ‘let down’. Looking closer it seems this was justified and an understatement. Citing research into children’s aspirations by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Runnymede Trust in 2018 (‘Occupational aspirations of children from primary school to teenage years across ethnic groups’), the CRED report noted that children from minority groups are optimistic and “it is evident that ethnic minority groups have agency to overcome obstacles and achieve success”. This conclusion simply omits half of the Runnymede report that looks at the reality by the time children reach 25 and observes “ethnic minorities are not achieving the levels of occupational success they aspire to”. A focus on that would have been more useful.

It seems that everywhere one looks in the CRED report, there appear to be substantial cracks opening. There are far too many to report here and no doubt they will be picked apart and crumble further in time.

Redefining institutional racism.

This lies at the root of dissatisfaction coming from many quarters. Racism at an institutional level is clearly not accepted under the law. The Race Relations Act 1968 extended the prohibition of discrimination ‘on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origin’ to the fields of employment. The Labour Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, said at the time, “The House has rarely faced an issue of greater social significance for our country and our children”. Things might have improved as a result, but there is a long way to go.

The CRED report gets around this by dismissing so called ‘institutional racism’ through a process of redefining it in narrow terms. It cites the Scarman report of 1981 after the Bristol riots, that dismissed institutional racism, and the ‘Stephen Lawrence Inquiry McPherson Report’ of 1999 that clearly observed institutional racism. But by redefining ‘Institutional racism’ as “applicable to an institution that is racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours in a single institution” it effectively eliminates it as a problem. For this to be the case, those running any institution or company would have to openly break the law.

McPherson defined it as "The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.” The clue is in using the term ‘collective failure’.

The term originally came from the text ‘Black Power: The Politics of Liberation’ in 1967 where Black Panther leader, Stokely Carmichael noted,

“Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism.”

However, anyone treated differently, or subjected to discrimination and racism by a representative of an institution, might be forgiven for adopting the broader definition of Carmichael. This idea would be reinforced by regularly observing that those who are racist or discriminatory being allowed to carry on with impunity. Thus, the rules in any institution are infective if not enforced. At that point, to someone on the receiving end, it becomes institutionalised. There are two different perspectives. One seen from those in power believing they are within the law and the other from those observing discrimination that is still going on.

This well worked idiom then applies, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck” (attributed to American poet James Whitcomb Riley 1849-1916).

Unconscious bias training.

If, racism is accepted as entrenched in our wider society, as the CRED Report findings appear to agree with, then it must also reside within our many organisations. To address this, the CRED report dismisses ‘unconscious bias’ training as ineffective. But the recommendation that this intervention should cease seems to be based upon very thin evidence. The Commission calls on organisations to “now move away from funding unconscious bias training” and move towards more overt “conscious attempts to foster talent from a wide range of backgrounds”. However, the argument falls with the statement “It is certainly true that the concept of racism has become much more fluid, extending from overt hostility and exclusion to unconscious bias and microaggressions”. Based on this, it might have been better to suggest improvements in ‘unconscious bias’ training.

Instead, the commission has tried to reinforce a decision already made by the government last year. In repose to a behavioural insights report for the government Equalities Office, ‘Unconscious bias and diversity training—what the evidence says’, the Cabinet Office announced that “Ministers have concluded that unconscious bias training does not achieve its intended aims. It will therefore be phased out in the civil service. We encourage other public sector employers to do likewise”. This was a short five-page overview that suggested improvements to bias training.

The CRED Commission manages to cite a more detailed Equality and Human Rights Commission research report from 2018 ‘Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness’ noting, “there is potential for back-firing effects when UBT participants are exposed to information that suggests stereotypes and biases are unchangeable.” However, this is taken selectively out of context and fails to recognise that there are recommendations for improving such training, not abandoning it. These include use of Implicit Association Tests (IATs) and debriefing to raise awareness. Also, training in groups of people who work closely together and educating about unconscious bias theory rather than just providing information about the impact of unconscious bias using statistics. Bias reduction strategies and bias mitigation strategies are added to make change. All these recommendations point towards improvements in the training.

Accepting that organisations can and do discriminate.

The CRED report accepts that such things happen. But in citing a recent job application ‘field experiment’, it dismisses it with ”“There are important caveats. We know that discrimination occurs, but these experiments cannot be relied upon to provide clarity on the extent that it happens in everyday life". The work cited was carried out as a EU Funded Horizon 2020 ‘Growth, equal opportunities, migration and markets’ (GEMM) Project reported in 2019 as ‘Are employers in Britain discriminating against ethnic minorities?’. The researchers applied for 3,200 jobs as fictitious applicants from different backgrounds but “holding their skills, qualifications and work experience constant”. They concluded that “British employers discriminate against job applicants with an ethnic minority background when making hiring decisions”. Surely this is about as ‘everyday life’ as it gets for those affected. Also, the  conclusion was that “The discrimination encountered by minorities does not vary by gender”.

Such evidence cannot be dismissed so easily, however uncomfortable. This has been going on for a long time and a similar study in 2009 for the Department of Work and Pensions, ‘A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practice in British cities’ concluded that same. In this case 2,961 applications were sent to 987 advertised job vacancies.

Under ‘Bias at work and what to do about it' the CRED report counters its own argument with “Subjective factors may also affect perceptions of discrimination. Human beings tend to discriminate, even when unintended. We are all susceptible to differentiating between in-groups and out-groups and will be prone to favour those we perceive as belonging”. Accepting this as normal is not good enough. If ever there was a case for renewing efforts to counter discrimination at work through bias awareness training, this must be it.

Universities and discrimination.

The potential for discrimination and holding back minority groups is most acute in education. the goal of getting to a university is one clear step in defining success. Meeting equal treatment and equal opportunity, with no bias or racism, while there is sometimes assumed. But it could not be further from the truth. Yet the CRED commission report has omitted to investigate this aspect.

The report concentrates on commissioned work done by the University of Oxford in 2020, ‘Effects of Ethnicity and Socio-economic Status on Attainment’. This concentrated on educational achievement by the age of 16. School attainment and access is the main focus and there is nothing on what happens to staff and students when in universities. This is a major omission that should be addressed more overtly. Not cited is Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) data, presented by the Office for students (OfS), that indicates the percentage degree level attainment gap between white and black students. Although the gap slowly narrowed from 27% in 2010/11 to 18.3% in 2019/20, this is still an enormous gulf that must indicate something is not right.

One cause could be the ‘climate’ that confronts those making it to a university. This is evident in the work of Advance HE and its ‘Race Equality Charter’ (REC) that is also not cited. They make it clear that “Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education” and all universities are encouraged to sign up to its charter principles. It was established by the Equality Challenge Unit (which later became part of AdvanceHE). However, since its introduction in 2015, it was slow to gain a foothold at the outset. By 2018, there were only 21 universities involved. This was reported by Times Higher Education as “hugely disappointing” and a conveyed a call to ‘Tie funding to tackling racial inequality’. Today, it is sitting at 80 members and is still falling well short of what is needed. The CRED commission should have noticed this, but then there may be a plan to cut the REC also. The REC’s ‘Phase 1 Review’ was released in 2019 and made some key recommendations, including to “focus on activities and initiatives aimed at white staff and leaders”. Perhaps, one way would be to expand ‘unconscious bias’ training. The commission might be forgiven for failing to spot the more detailed Phase 2 Review that emerged on the 10th of March 2021. Times Higher Education reported the findings as, ‘Black staff ‘get least benefit’ from UK Race Equality Charter’. However, the review cites concerns about the workload involved and the commitment of university leaders. The CRED commission might have consulted AdvanceHE who would have offered their experience and their ongoing action plans.

Also odd is the lack of involvement of Universities UK (UUK) who represent all universities in the UK. That three of the commission’s members were appointed as racial harassment advisors to UUK last year makes this even stranger. Their report from November 2020, ‘Tackling racial harassment in higher education’, would have offered some insight into the practical measures needed. UUK has worked on the racial bias issue for some time and produced multiple reports. The ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment at UK universities: #closingthegap’ report from May 2019 is another good example of what is possible with effort and the work still to be done. Differences in staff pay and student attainment all point toward a systemic problem in universities.

The opportunity wasted and the lack of credibility of those responsible cannot be overstated. The Black Lives Matter movement was a watershed moment and was expected to trigger change. This will now be harder. Those subjected to different treatment, bias, xenophobia, racism, and discrimination for something they cannot change will continue to be let down.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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