Class inequality and racism: the travesty of the Sewell report

Submitted by AWL on 6 April, 2021 - 5:18 Author: Sacha Ismail
Black Lives Matter protest

The government-commissioned Sewell report into “race and ethnic disparities” (which can be read at bit.ly/sewellreport) has been widely panned as minimising the reality of racism and racial disadvantage in the UK, and rightly so.

I don’t know to what extent the report reflects the honestly held views of the Sewell commission’s members, and to what extent they were just keen to ingratiate themselves with the Tory hierarchy and get ahead. Though overwhelmingly black or Asian, they are a privileged and conservative bunch even by the standards of such things, including six holders of MBE or CBE “honours”, a corporate executive and former banker, the head of a large academy chain, a department store owner and chamber of commerce worthy, a former police superintendent and a full-timer for a right-wing think tank. The commission’s chair Tony Sewell has been in hot water more than once before for broadcasting various bigoted and regressive opinions.

Useful left-wing criticisms of the report have already been published in the mainstream media. Kenan Malik’s response in the Guardian hits what seems to me a central issue:

“... the commission distorts the data to pursue polemical points. It criticises others for seeing everything in racial terms – but does exactly that when it suits its agenda... The underlying theme of the Sewell report is that the causes of disadvantages faced by minority groups lie primarily within those groups. This places it in a longstanding tradition of moralising social problems, from blaming poverty on the behaviour of the poor to condemning “lifestyle choices” for health inequalities. Social issues – including the complex interactions of race and class – are reframed as moral choices and the behaviour of individuals.”

The report refers repeatedly in a shallow way to class (ie socio-economic) inequality, in its introduction prominently citing a claim that "Britain is doing much better on race than on class”. As historian David Olusoga puts it, the whole thing is “wilfully blind to the interplay between race and class”.

For more on this, in the framework of how ethnicity and socio-economic inequality have interplayed to the disadvantage of minorities during the pandemic, see this response to Sewell in the British Medical Journal. See also the Marmot report on health inequalities which the BMJ article cites, linked from our summary and analysis of it here; and our review of Public Health England’s report on BAME groups and Covid-19.

A large part of racial inequality in the UK is heavily intertwined with socio-economic inequality; these structures and systems in turn provide a culture medium for racist ideas and prejudices to flourish. Class disadvantages disproportionately impact ethnic groups over-represented in the working class and in its worse-off sections - and generate additional social and cultural signals and assumptions - creating a self-reinforcing dynamic which can run over generations. Because it is not just a matter of individual prejudices, or even just of reactionary ideas, this reality cannot be addressed effectively through a managerial “training”-type approach, which earlier government-commissioned reports on racial disadvantage (see below) have tended to focus on. The Sewell report does not even rise to that level.

Key is that the Sewell recommendations contain essentially nothing to lessen class inequalities – and meanwhile the commission is covering for a regime that has dramatically and deliberately widened these inequalities, disproportionately hurting many racialised groups. But generally not, of course, MBEs, retired police chiefs and corporate executives...

All this in addition to the glaring fact that racism and racially-based disadvantage, and respects in which they remain dire problems or are even worsening, are intertwined with but not reducible to class inequality.

The report has very little to say about about the increasingly hostile environment for migrants and how this is driven by state structures and government policy. It does have something to say about policing and criminal justice, but essentially in order to play down the reality of racism in these spheres and ignore its structural aspects. The reforms it proposes in regards to the police and criminal justice are meagre in the extreme.

It must be noted that there has been a slew of (Tory) government-commissioned reports documenting institutional discrimination over recent years (Windrush Lessons Learned, Lammy on the criminal justice system, Timpson on school exclusions, McGregor-Smith on racism in workplaces, Angiolini on deaths in police custody…) Instead of implementing their very limited recommendations, the Tories have commissioned another review to basically say no need to bother.

In regards to broader ideological struggles against racism and inequality – substantive ones rather than glib platitudes – the Sewell report at best dismisses them as the “idealism” of the “well-intentioned”.

The logic of its alternative, which will be all too welcome to the Tory right, is demonstrated by what Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Marsha de Cordova called the report's "positive spin on slavery and empire". (Suddenly the commission's domination by so many "Commanders" and "Members" of "the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" - CBEs and MBEs - looks even worse.)

It's a welcome relief that the Labour leadership has attacked the report; but in reality Labour is proposing little that will make a major positive difference, in terms of class and racial inequality, policing and criminal justice, migration, and many other issues. As so often, the unions, even those with big BAME memberships, are largely silent. To combat the politics Sewell represents and legitimises, the labour movement needs radically different and stronger narrative, programme and struggles.


For more on what the labour movement should be fighting for to combat inequality, see:

• Inequality worsens the pandemic. The pandemic worsens inequality
• Seize wealth to mend inequality
• Report highlights Covid impact on BAME people. Where is the labour movement?
• To fight inequality Labour needs radical policies. How about these for a start?
• The police, criminal justice and the right to protest: what demands?
• Socialists and the prison system
• Migrants welcome: end deportations and the racist Hostile Environment

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