Born in Brixton, London, England in 1959, Sewell is now considered to be an education expert. He has two honorary Doctorates in Law.
Formerly a teacher, he currently runs education charity Generating Genius. According to the government website, the “charity…works to ensure that talented students from BAME backgrounds are positioned to excel in STEM careers. The website continues, “Sewell has been an international consultant in education for the World Bank and Commonwealth Secretariat, he’s served as a board member of the Youth Justice Board for England & Wales and he was formerly a columnist for the Voice newspaper- publishing widely on race, masculinities, Black history and Education.”
In 2013 Sewell led the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson’s Education Inquiry into London Schools. This resulted in the London Schools Excellence Fund, a programme that helped London schools to achieve the top grades for their students.
In article entitled, Black Lives Matter isn’t needed in the UK – protesters are focusing on the wrong issues, published in The International Business Times on August 5, 2016. Sewell wrote:
So why is it that we now have the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the UK, when we have had only one shooting of a Black man by the police, five years ago? Young Black men continue to languish in custody with no one treating their biggest demon. They will then be released into a world where magistrates and Black activists are all in denial. Thank God for Tory prime ministers who are willing to face the real issue.https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/black-lives-matter-isnt-needed-uk-protesters-are-focusing-wrong-issues-1574545
Sewell wrote for The Sun, a right wing paper in the UK, on 11 October 2017, that Black students
“are NOT facing a world that deliberately or indirectly is trying to trip them up because they are black. In fact one of the things we do on our programme is ban “victimhood”.No one is allowed to use race as an excuse for their problems.”
On 22 August 2018, Sewell wrote in the Daily Mail, a right wing national news publication, that Labour MP, Dawn Butler, who is Black, was “desperate to build a mood of victimhood”: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-6084925/Despair-finger-waggers-angry-Jamie-Olivers-rice-black-men-stabbed.html
In 2018, Sewell wrote in The Telegraph, a national newspaper in the UK known for its right wing views and readership that “a culture has “taken hold” in the US and UK, “where Black men produce children without feeling the need to take responsibility for them”.”
Sewell has written regularly for The Telegraph:
It is clear from the tone of Sewell’s articles that any report produced by a Commission chaired by him was going to match the government’s chosen narrative.
Appointment as Chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic disparities
In July 2020, he was appointed as the chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic disparities having been selected by Munira Mirza, Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit under the government of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Miss Mirza had previously questioned the existence of institutional racism.
Sewell was instructed by Alexander de Pfeffel to investigate claims of institutional racism following the Black Lives Matter movement which saw mass protests in several UK cities last year.
Last year Sewell described the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as a “lower middle-class revolt”.
The report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic disparities drew strong criticism when it was finally published on Wednesday 31 March 2021, after the report concluded that there was no evidence of “institutional racism” in the UK.
Past statements on institutional racism
In 2010, Sewell wrote,
“In the early 1950s, the British government, hungry for cheap labour, encouraged the mass immigration of Caribbean people to Britain. But they did not prepare the hosts or the guests. My generation, the children of those migrants, were burned out in a racist schooling system. In schools, many able Caribbean students were assigned to the lower streams, with teachers refusing to deal with them, or ill-prepared to adapt to a changing school population. In 1971, education expert Bernard Coard wrote a pamphlet, “How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system.” He described the notorious units for struggling students, where a large percentage of children from the Caribbean were placed on the basis of linguistic difference, cultural attitudes and a belief that Black children were intellectually inferior.
African-Caribbean boys are still at the bottom of the league table for GCSEs. They start school at roughly the same level as other pupils, but during the course of their education fall further and further behind their peers, including white working-class and Bangladeshi boys. In 2008, the department for education reported that only 27 per cent of black boys achieve five or more A*-C GCSE grades. African-Caribbean boys are also the group most likely to be excluded from school; in some areas they are three times more likely to be excluded than other groups.
As someone who has experienced the education system throughout this period—as a child in the 1960s, as a teacher in the 1980s, and as a researcher today—I can say that, while the level of underachievement for black boys has remained the same, the reasons behind it have changed.
The MP Diane Abbott has claimed that “teachers are failing Black boys,” arguing that “Black boys do not have to be too long out of disposable nappies for some teachers to see them as a miniature gangster rapper.” Researchers such as David Gillborn and Heidi Mirza claim that teachers and schools indirectly discriminate against Black boys. Gillborn cites the reason that schools try to protect their position in league tables: teachers enter Black children into GCSE exams in which they can only get a maximum grade of C because if they were entered for harder exams they might fail, lowering the school’s results.
My challenge to these claims is that times have changed. What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour.
They are not subjects of institutional racism.
They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers.
Instead of challenging our children, we have given them the discourse of the victim—a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed.
Gillborn and Abbott imply that white teachers have low expectations of Black boys and this is partly why they underachieve. I have never been convinced by this. I believe Black underachievement is due to the low expectations of school leaders, who do not want to be seen as racist and who position Black boys as victims.” Tony Sewell, Prospect Magazine, 22.09.2010: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/black-boys-victimhood-school
Appointment as Chair of the Commission
His appointment to the role in June 2020 was criticised by the Muslim Council of Britain who argued that Dr Sewell was “keen on downplaying race disparities”.
He has previously been criticised for his comments on race and the LGBT community.
He also described protests over statues in London and Bristol as a “side-show”.
Sewell was also forced to apologise last year after comments he made criticising gay people in a newspaper column 30 years ago resurfaced.
In July last year, after his appointment as Chair, The Guardian reported that Dr Sewell penned a homophobic column while working for The Voice newspaper in which he referred to gay people as “tortured queens playing hide and seek”.
“We heterosexuals are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets,” he wrote in the 1991 article. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty.”
Dr Sewell apologised last year over the comments, saying he was “committed to championing the cause of equality. I am sorry for my comments from 30 years ago which were wrong and offensive,” he said in a statement.
“They do not reflect my views today nor indeed the views of modern society. I am committed to championing the cause of equality and diversity across all of our communities, including for LGBT+ people.”
Sewell said that although there was “anecdotal evidence” of racism in the UK, the use of the term “institutional racism” needed to be reviewed.
“No-one denies that racism exists, we’ve found anecdotal evidence of this,” he said on Monday.
“However, what we did find is that the actual evidence of institutional racism – no, that wasn’t there, we didn’t find that in our report.
Reaction to the Report
Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered by white Supremacists in April 1991 said that the report has pushed fight against racism back 20 years or more:
“My son was murdered because of racism and you cannot forget that. Once you start covering it up it is giving the green light to racists. You imagine what’s going to happen come tomorrow. What’s going to happen on our streets with our young people?
You are giving racists the green light,”
“Those people who marched for Black Lives Matter? It’s denying all of that. The George Floyd stuff? It’s denied all of that. So
those who sit behind this report [saying] that racism doesn’t exist or it no longer exists need to speak to the young boys who are stopped and searched constantly on the street. They need to speak to those young people.
“They [the report authors] are not in touch with reality, basically. That’s what it boils down to. When you are privileged you do not have those experiences,” she said.
Kelechi Okafor, social commentator:
“It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so unbearably tragic that due to the Black Lives Matter protests last year, a Prime Minister (who has referred to Black people as ‘picanninies with watermelon smiles’) would put a commission together to investigate whether Britain is structurally racist. An oppressive government is investigating the oppression it relies on to remain in power? What a farce!
I would love to write something extremely eloquent about the ways in which Black and Asian communities are being gaslit by this report, but I don’t have anything in me but rage. It would be a disservice to my community to intellectualise our collective feeling because in some regards that too is a white supremacist patriarchal tool – to extract all feeling from something in order to prove oneself astute and ‘logical’.
What we are seeing happening in real-time is a white washing of the very real experiences of Black and Asian communities in the UK. We are watching a callous government implement doublespeak as a way to tell those affected by racism, that it isn’t what they think it is.”
Dr Shola Mos-Ogbamimu, Political and Women’s Rights Activist:
“It was depressingly predictable that the report would claim institutional racism does not exist in the United Kingdom. To me, this is untrue, gaslighting an entire nation into believing that racism is not a structural issue that causes longstanding inequalities experienced by Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups. Despite the commission’s claims, the UK is not a model of racial equality to any country, and this report proves it.
The Race Commission acknowledges overt racism exists in the UK but refuses to accept that it is the product of, proof of and predicated on endemic institutional racism. Utterly diabolical. The Race Commission is wrong.
The failure to acknowledge and tackle structural racism is why London’s Metropolitan Police was found to be institutionally racist following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry 20 years ago; why the Home Office was held to be institutionally racist in 2020 following the Windrush Scandal inquiry; and why Public Health England, in its Covid-19 2020 report, pointed to “racism and discrimination as a root cause affecting health and the risk of both exposure to the virus and becoming seriously ill.” The refusal to accept the existence of structural racism means that it is allowed to fester and grow unchallenged.”
Errors in the report regarding contributors
At the top of the report’s Appendix D: Stakeholders list of organisations and individuals, the commission said it had “heard evidence from many during the course of its work” and “would like to thank the following for their participation”.
Author SI Martin, who is Black, said he only discovered his name was in the appendix, under a sub-heading entitled “Academics and individuals”, on Thursday morning and claimed the commission had not contacted him.
Asked for his reaction, he told the PA news agency:
“Initially, hilarity. Because of all of the names that could have appeared on that document attesting to its credibility, mine would have been the least.
“If they’d known the first thing about me I’d have been the last person chosen…publicly and in writing, in every public arena, all of my ideas and sentiment are diametrically opposed to practically everything in that document”.
“Those who know me, those who know anything about me, would understand the ridiculousness of my name being associated with that,” he added.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, after seeing his name on the list, told the Telegraph:
“Totally news to me. I never spoke to them…”
Stephen Bourne, who has written about black British history for 30 years, told PA he was contacted by recently departed No 10 adviser Samuel Kasumu last June and asked if he would take part in a meeting with other historians of Black Britain.
He later accepted an invitation to Downing Street in October but this “didn’t say anything about a commission”. “I knew nothing about this commission, knew nothing about a report, they didn’t even mention historians, but I just assumed that is what it would be,” he added.
Bourne was subsequently asked to deliver a presentation to a group of people on Zoom, without being introduced to them. He was later “gobsmacked” to learn of their commission roles after looking up their names online.
Bourne said he contacted Kasumu and “read him the riot act”, saying it was “unprofessional and discourteous” to lead him to believe he was attending a roundtable discussion when it was for the commission.
He said he had been “misled” and felt “very disappointed and very upset” that his name was “attached to a report as a stakeholder when I didn’t have anything to do with it and I don’t actually agree with the report. The report is flawed and I’m not happy with the report,” he added.
Sources: news.co.uk, gov.uk, huffingtonpost.co.uk, theguardian.com
See further: institutional racism, the Sewell Report, Stephen Lawrence