The main thrust of the recent Human Rights Joint Committee report entitled “Black people, racism and human rights” has been the failure of governments to act on previous recommendations in the sphere of racial equality. As with most parliamentary reports, I suspect few will read it. It has nonetheless been seen by some as buttressing claims of systemic racism in the UK.
Dr Nasar Meer has argued that the report suggests racial progress may be getting worse in the UK, while racial equality think tank the Runnymede Trust states, “This new report reinforces what we already know: Black and Minority Ethnic people are not given the same privileges and rights as the rest of the population as a result of systemic and institutional racism.”
However, we need to be careful about drawing inferences about systemic racism on the basis of this report. The catch-all term systemic racism obfuscates an immensely complex set of phenomena that underpin the racial disparities to which the report correctly attests.
Systemic or institutional racism (I will treat these as synonymous) is racial discrimination in social institutions such as education, housing and health care. Since the term institutional racism was coined by Stokely Carmichael in 1967, this type of racism has been thought to be characterised by its subtlety. It is less easy to identify than many forms of interpersonal prejudice, such as hate speech. But even unconscious biases can accumulate and produce large discriminatory effects in access to social goods and services. Under systemic discrimination, racial minorities may find themselves without the full protection of the law and the courts or without access to quality healthcare.
From the harassment of black activists during the 1988 Mangrove Restaurant debacle to the handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder in the 1993, the Metropolitan Police has often been accused of institutional racism. Sometimes, however, racism that transcends the individual is not linked to an established organisation, such as the Met or the National Health Service—which is why the alternative term systemic racism is often used.
As an example of systemic racism consider that the colour bar may seem a distant memory in Britain, but assumptions about behaviour based on racial stereotypes can have a significant impact on whether a property will be offered to a black tenant. When many landlords share the same bias, we have a systemic problem. This kind of cumulative bias can affect many other areas.
Because discrimination is hard to identify at times, disparate outcomes are often used as a proxy measure. But disparate outcomes can have many causes: some may be the result of non-coerced decisions and some of coercive social forces that merely correlate with race.
For something to count as institutional or systemic racism, I believe it should involve unjustified differential treatment, motivated by the perception of racial difference.
For example, if we test the hypothesis that blacks are discriminated against by landlords by sending two otherwise identical candidates door to door and find that responses to them differ, we can be confident that race is the driving factor. If, however, we send our potential black tenant out in rags and our white tenant out in a suit then their differential treatment may have another explanation. What we are looking for then is not disparate outcomes, but discrimination based specifically on race. That is the idea of institutional racism laid out in the influential Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
The real difficulty however lies in the concept of indirect discrimination in which equal treatment (or neutral policy) can result in disparate impacts for different protected classes. For example, asking all employees in a supermarket to handle pork would constitute equal treatment but would have a disparate impact on Muslim and Jewish employees. Under the Equality Act 2010 this is regarded as legally actionable discrimination because religion, like race, is a protected class.
Some forms of indirect discrimination can have a profound impact. Differential sentencing for crack verses powdered cocaine in the US is one example. The inclusion of grandfather clauses in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 is an example here in the UK. While these clauses don’t mention race, they acted as a de facto restriction on non-whites entering the country because most could not demonstrate a family connection to the UK.
But how far should we go? Suppose that the stereotype of poor time keeping were a genuine black cultural trait. This is widely acknowledged (at least in a jokey way) in informal black settings and even the Smithsonian’s controversial display about white culture seemed to endorse such an idea by claiming that white culture, by implicit contrast, entails following “rigid time scales.” If black people did display such a trait and found themselves disproportionately sanctioned for lateness in the workplace, this would create disparate racial impacts. In most people’s eyes, however, this would not be legitimate discrimination. Culture is not a protected class even if it correlates with race in various complex ways—and employers have good reasons to encourage strict time keeping.
Neither disparate outcomes nor disparate impact are sufficient to establish systemic racism. We expect some form of racial prejudice to be driving the outcome such that if all black people were to somehow wake up in white bodies tomorrow and we tracked their social progress they would end up better off than if they had remained black.
The “Black people, racism and human rights” report opens with the following statement: “In response to the awful killing of George Floyd in the US, Black Lives Matter protests in the UK have highlighted once again the racism and inequality that exists here.” But the fact that thousands marched in the UK to protest the manslaughter of a black American no more establishes Britain’s racism than the fact that many Brits also marched against Libyan slave markets demonstrates that Britain has a problem with modern slavery. The report continues: “They have drawn attention to events such as the Windrush scandal, the report by Public Health England that found that death rates from Covid-19 were highest among people in Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, and the disproportionate rates of Black people being stopped and searched by the police.”
The report explicitly states that its aim was not to acquire new data: it relies on six prior investigations for many of its conclusions. However, it includes survey results from the research organisation ClearView, who polled a representative sample of around 500 black individuals. The results reveal a profound lack of confidence in areas like policing, healthcare and migration. The key finding is that, “The majority (over 75%) of Black people in the UK do not believe their human rights are equally protected compared to white people.” ClearView concludes, “This is a damning indictment of our society and must be addressed as a matter of the highest political priority.”
However, people’s perceptions do not in themselves demonstrate the truth of a claim, particularly one concerning a profoundly complex sociological phenomenon. Also, the poll did not ask individuals abut their own experiences of racist incidents.
One further complication is that, broadly speaking, it is in the psychological interest of black people to exaggerate racism, just as it is in the psychological interest of white people to underplay it. Claims of widespread racism add to black people’s social recognition while detracting from the social esteem enjoyed by white people. There are also financial incentives: there are many organisations whose funding depends on the widespread perception of systemic racism. It makes little sense to downplay any disability or disadvantage in today’s society and this fact is well known.
We also have the negativity bias to account for: people often fail to fully attend to positive social changes. Most news is bad news and—thanks to social media—we are inundated with more bad news than ever. One interesting wrinkle in the data commissioned by ClearView is that older people have higher rates of confidence that their rights are respected than younger people. This may be due to having experienced even worse times in the past or their distance from social media. At any rate, researchers must be careful to disaggregate the effect of increased media reporting on issues of race from an increase in actual racism.
The senior research executive at ClearView states that people’s perceptions may have been based on “direct experiences of their life, stories in the community as well as research.” But research only paints a true picture when it is rigorous. If polls like ClearView’s generate a firmer belief in systemic racism then we have a circular process: the evidence for systemic racism is that people believe that systemic racism is widespread and that belief is itself influenced by the fact that so many other people believe it—as people learn from reading the results of such polls.
The report also cites a range of troubling racial disparities including the following.
- Detention rates under the Mental Health Act in the Black British group are over four times higher than for whites
- The death rate for Black women in childbirth is five times higher than for white women
- In 2018/2019 Black people were 9.5 times more likely than White people to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales
The inference that such disparities are caused by systemic racism is shaky, however. When it comes to the impact of Covid-19, for example, the report concedes that there are a host of alternative explanations: “BME groups are more exposed because they are more likely to be working outside of their home, more likely to have jobs on the front line … and less likely to be protected with adequate PPE, whilst more likely to be living in multi-generational housing and have much lower levels of pre-existing savings to buffet the economic impact of Covid-19.”
In other words, class plays a powerful role. In relation to disparities in childbirth fatality rates, Chief Midwifery Officer Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent told the committee, “I am still not confident that we know why there is an inequality in health outcomes between a black woman and a white woman. We have plausible explanations and the evidence on comorbidities is compelling, but there is something more.”
While we might agree with obstetrician Dr Christine Ekechi (cited in the report) that institutional racism is also a factor, the questions remain: how much of a factor and in what way? What percentage of variance in outcomes is attributable to bias? There is, after all, a world of difference between racial bias accounting for 5 percent of racially disparate outcomes and it accounting for 90 percent. Working out the actual figures and causes is hard work—labelling all disparities systemic racism is not.
Furthermore, attributions of systemic racism must involve discrimination. As racism is expressly forbidden by the Equality Act 2010, racial discrimination is often covert and more likely to manifest indirectly. But legally speaking something only counts as indirect discrimination when employers or institutions lack a legitimate reason for pursuing policies that do not produce racially disparate impacts.
For example: if police are more likely to be allocated to urban areas in which higher proportions of black people reside than the national average, then there is no reason to expect arrests to match population benchmarks. Whether this counts as systemic racism (via the disparate impacts generated) depends on whether this allocation of police resources has a non-prejudiced justification. The devil is in the details: if drug prevention is the justification for police devoting their energies to the inner city, we might be inclined to question such reasoning given that drug use is equally prevalent across all races and drug taking is a victimless crime. But if curbing violence is the objective, we might change our view.
Violent crime tends to cluster in cities and is not evenly distributed by race even within London. The 2010 census shows that black people made up 13 percent of London’s population (perhaps more if we think of some mixed race people as black) but, according to information from the Met, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, there were over 18,091 accusations of violent street crime involving men in 2010, and over 50 percent of those involved were black. This will obviously shape policing protocols and generate disparities.
The joint committee report often cites disparities based on population benchmarks but such benchmarking is of limited value when populations vary in their characteristics. Does this mean that the police and other institutions do not discriminate against black people? That innocent black people are no more likely to be unfairly subjected to stop and search? That black professionals in fancy cars are not profiled as drug dealers far too often? Clearly not, but it does mean that some things are messy. What is true of Covid-19 death disparities, death rates in childbirth and police interactions is true across the board: unless a careful multivariate analysis has been performed controlling for all other confounding variables then the extent to which systemic racism drives unequal outcomes remains a mystery.
These concerns over methodology are not nit-picking: they are fundamental to understanding the lack of traction on issues of racial equality. While some problems mentioned in the report admit of simple solutions (such as automatic voter registration) other acknowledged failures to achieve social change may in part be failures to identify the specific causes of racial inequality. Government bodies continue to pay lip service to the idea of eradicating racism, but reducing the class-based inequality and nepotism which drive wider disparities seems to be barely on their radar. As for an examination of the cultural factors and even the role that perceptions of racism can play in generating further disparities, that comes too close to victim blaming to be an acceptable area of polite inquiry.