Elite wars

Unproductive disagreement over the Sewell Report, plus Nick Clegg and David Essex, what more could you ask for?

Tony Sewell. Photo: Vicki Couchman

This week - thoughts on the reception of the Sewell Report. Epistemic status: low, in that I’m not immersed in the political and sociological conversations on racism in Britain, although my focus here is really on how elites get stuck in pointless disagreements. Comments open. Scroll down for the Miscellany etc.

One of my suggestions in CONFLICTED is to try and figure out, when mired in a frustrating argument, what the disagreement is actually about. People can get stuck in acrimonious back-and-forths without really disagreeing on any point of substance. The argument can’t resolve or make progress because nobody even agrees on what the point of difference is. This is basically how I feel about the row over the government’s report on racism.

Critics of the Sewell Report responded to its publication as if it were a clear affront to decency - just obviously terrible, disgusting, outrageous, a “divisive polemic”. But read the report - or if you don’t have time read this short summary of it by Sunder Katwala - and you will discover a disappointingly inoffensive paper with some rich data on education, health, employment, crime and policing. Its overall argument is, in essence, that racism is a problem in Britain, but one which plays a relatively marginal role in disparities of outcome among racial groups when compared to other economic and social forces. The best way to fix racial inequalities is therefore to address wider social ones. It makes a series of policy recommendations, specifically addressing racial inequality, which are narrow in scope.

If you’ve only seen the outrage you would be surprised to hear the report even treats racism as a problem, but yes, the authors take it seriously. The report notes Britain’s progress but emphasises that the UK is not yet “a post-racial country with equality of opportunity”. It presents detailed data on how ethnic minorities perceive racism, and recognises that these perceptions are important. It accepts concepts to which many on the right are opposed, like “unconscious bias” and “affinity bias” and indeed “institutional racism”. It criticises the police for not doing enough to address racism. It argues for a more liberal approach to the prosecution of class-B drug offences. It identifies worrying disparities of outcome in the NHS and suggests an “Office of Health Inequalities” to address them. If a Labour government had published this, many on the right would be screaming woke. You can certainly disagree with the thrust of the report’s argument and with some of its claims, which are often vaguely asserted rather than closely argued. It’s sloppily written, and I wouldn’t call it a first-rate piece of work. But it’s not some crazed right-wing screed.

Unless you’re attuned to the elite discourse around anti-racism it can be hard to understand what the vociferous disagreement is actually about. It’s not like the report’s critics have converged on a particular recommendation they object to, or a glaring omission. In fact it’s striking how few of the critics actually outline their preferred solutions.

Some, including the Labour leader, seem content to say they’re disappointed that the report doesn’t address “structural” racism, which isn’t even true (structural or systemic or institutional, take your pick - the report calls for a more disciplined use of these hazy and apparently interchangeable terms. I agree, although I also think these semantic debates are a waste of energy). And the critics rarely get pressed on what “structural” means in practice, or what it implies about policy, none of which is clear to me or, I suspect, to many of those who repeat it. These words seem to act primarily as markers of what side you’re on.

The report is repeatedly accused of being ‘divisive’. At first I was puzzled by this. It is determinedly inclusive; its whole argument is that Britain is a country where people of any background have a good chance of getting on in life. It takes as a given that minorities have a right to be as British as anyone else. It recognises that younger generations may have less desire to “assimilate” fully into Britishness but that “strong ethnic identities…are not an obstacle to nation-building”. (Again, right-wingers frequently pop blood vessels when they hear this kind of talk). Surely a “divisive” report would be one which singled out particular communities for blame, that demonised cultural practices, or even called for expulsions? You don’t have to look very far around the world to see that kind of politics in practice. A more plausible critique of this government’s report is almost the opposite - that it presents a glibly unifying narrative of British identity which effaces real divisions underneath.

But I came to understand that what these critics mean by “divisive” is that they feel it to be an attack on them - that the report sets out to provoke the institutional elites who campaign against and write about racism. Again, this is ‘obvious’ to anyone in the game, not quite so much to those outside it. Now, I understand why they might be offended, since the report was presented in a needlessly confrontational style. At the launch, Sewell went out of his way to declare he found no evidence that Britain is “institutionally racist” (even though the report itself doesn’t reject systemic or institutional racism) purely in order to signal his distance from current left orthodoxy.

However, the intense hostility from critics on the left also stems from having their assumptions questioned. Since they all agree with each other on how to think about racism, any disagreement feels intolerably “divisive” (divisiveness is an odd, second-order charge - good argument requires disagreement; politics, conflict).

In recent years, campaigners, journalists and activists on the left have coalesced around a relatively new orthodoxy about racism, imported from America. The orthodoxy assumes that racism is an ever-present, often invisible but defining force in the lives of minorities. It’s a perspective that is not necessarily shared by racial minorities, but among its proponents, it is adhered to rigidly; any evidence or argument that doesn’t fit is treated as a pathogen that must be repelled.

A central tenet is that any disparity in racial outcomes is evidence of currently practiced racism. That is simplistic and can have a distorting effect; for a recent illustration, read this analysis of the Guardian’s recent report on racism in schools. The Sewell Report assumes that racial disparities of outcome can be the result of history, economics, class, geography, and culture, as well as current racism. That’s why it has provoked an allergic reaction.

The danger of the Sewell approach is that, since it’s so hard to isolate racism as the causal variable behind a social disparity - it’s so hard to isolate any variable - you end up defining racism away altogether. Absence of indisputable evidence becomes evidence of absence. The opposite problem is assuming that racism drives everything and working back from there. The argument becomes circular: what is the cause of this disparity? Racism. How do we know the disparity is caused by racism? Because the disparity exists (it’s a bit God of the gaps). The disparity fallacy makes it impossible to distinguish between racism and other forces, or between current acts of racism and the legacy of past racism, which makes it harder to design effective solutions. Even if Sewell’s challenge to the orthodoxy on this point was clumsily executed, it feels like a necessary one.

Some of the Sewell Report’s authors come from a different, older generation of activists who regard the new orthodoxy as elitist and distant from the real lives of minorities (Sewell is a former Brixton schoolteacher who, as a Cambridge professor was quick to point out, does not have an extensive academic pedigree). The critics of the report might ask if there is something in that, and question whether they themselves have a monopoly on truth. I understand why campaigners and commentators are upset by Sewell’s tone and by the over-managed press launch. But loudly complaining about this kind of thing while refusing to engage constructively with the arguments of the report seems irresponsibly trivial. After all, what’s at stake here is far more important than a dispute between elites over tone, terminology and media management. Everyone is in agreement that racism is a serious problem in Britain. Shouldn’t we focus our disagreements on what to do about it?

Another tip in CONFLICTED is ‘avoid mindless reciprocity’ - don’t respond to a provocation in kind unless there’s a strategic reason to do so. Yes, the government is partial to ‘culture war’ stories, but that stuff actually gets little traction with the public. Not every bait needs to be risen to. The fuss over flags, for instance, is stoked at least as much by the left as it is by the government. It’s a pity Sewell himself didn’t feel able to do it, but at least one side has to rise above this dynamic. As John and Yoko might say, the culture war is over if you want it.


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”The fact that we have conflicting interests makes politics necessary, and the fact we have common interests makes politics possible.” Alan Ryan, paraphrasing Rousseau.

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