Under the banner of Inclusive Britain, the equalities and levelling up minister, Kemi Badenoch, on Thursday set out a raft of measures (68 in all) aimed at reducing disparities between black and minority ethnic people and the white population. She also committed the government to a new approach to data and language in this area: the term BAME will no longer be used in Whitehall. Instead, more attention will be paid to the specific experiences of different groups. That has raised concerns that broader issues of racism will be overlooked or dismissed. This much was expected, and had been trailed in last year’s report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to which her announcement is the official response. The report earned well-deserved criticism for its Panglossian view of race relations and lack of enthusiasm for the term “institutional racism”.
Ms Badenoch’s response marks an improvement on the report itself, although she shares its authors’ determination to take a broadly positive view of multicultural Britain. This week’s news of a grotesquely inappropriate strip search carried out by police on a 15-year-old black girl in an east London school vividly conveys the limitations of this approach. Investigators decided that racism was likely to have been an “influencing factor” in the way the girl was treated, and she remains extremely distressed.
While the details of this incident are shocking, its basic features are familiar. There is a wealth of evidence, in both individual cases and statistics, revealing racial disparities in experiences and outcomes across all walks of life – education, health, and the criminal justice system. These have been explored in detail by numerous previous government-ordered reports.
Of course, there are good things about multicultural Britain and other factors than race that determine life chances. Class, economic and other inequalities overlap in important ways. But minimising racism – whether societal, institutional or individual – will not make it go away. We need to embed understanding of the way it operates – including in organisations such as the police, or in the Home Office’s handling of the Windrush scandal – and not pretend that this is all in the past.
The new emphasis on enforcement and litigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission announced by Ms Badenoch could be constructive, if adequately resourced. Currently, the burden of proving discrimination rests heavily on complainants. Her promise to improve alternative provision, where children excluded from school are taught, is also welcome, along with firmer guidance on exclusions. A new model history curriculumcould be a useful tool, though not if it becomes another battle in the divisive “war on woke” being promoted by some ministers.
Other measures appear vague and unanchored in existing policy. Local panels to scrutinise police, including the use of force and stop and search, are unlikely to build confidence until well-founded concerns about institutional discrimination have been dealt with. There is no sign of the resources that the NHS will need if it is to reduce health inequalities, or of the poverty-reduction strategy that would underpin any serious move in this direction. Educational inequalities are widening rather than narrowing. Against this backdrop, it is hard to believe that “inclusive Britain” will amount to more than warm words.