April 21, 2021

UN Experts Condemn UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report

This statement is issued by independent experts* of the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council:

Geneva (19 April 2021) The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent categorically rejects and condemns the analysis and findings of the recently published report by the UK’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which, among other conclusions, claim that “geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.” Among other things, the Report blames single parents for poor outcomes, ignoring the racial disparities and the racialized nature of poor outcomes that exist  despite an increased prevalence of single-parent families in every demographic.  The Report’s conclusion that racism is either a product of the imagination of people of African descent or of discrete, individualized incidents ignores the pervasive role that the social construction of race was designed to play in society, particularly in normalizing atrocity, in which the British state and institutions played a significant role.

Stunningly, the Report also claims that, while there might be overt acts of racism in the UK, there is no institutional racism. The Report offers no evidence for this claim, but openly blames identity politics, disparages complex analyses of race and ethnicity using qualitative and quantitative research, proffers shocking misstatements and/or misunderstandings about data collection and mixed methods research, cites “pessimism,” “linguistic inflation,” and “emotion” as bases to distrust data and narratives associated with racism and racial discrimination, and attempts to delegitimize data grounded in lived experience while also shifting the blame for the impacts of racism to the people most impacted by it.  For example, the Report seeks to rely on police reports of hate crimes as a form of “objective data” without acknowledging that lived experience and prior experience with the police is highly determinative of which individuals see the police as a conflict resolution mechanism, rather than a source of further problems and potential violence. The “objective” quantitative data the Report seeks to rely upon is intimately reliant upon qualitative narratives and lived experience. Similarly, the Report’s call for “a more responsible use of statistics,” and its conclusion that hate crime incidents are decreasing even as hate crime reports increase, is speculative and convenient rather than being a necessary, accurate, or responsible interpretation of the data sets. 

The Report comes to these conclusions despite citing prior reports such as The Angiolini Review (2017), The Lammy Review (2017), and The McGregor-Smith Review 2017. Glaringly, the Report omits any recognition or analysis of institutional racism by international human rights experts, including the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’s 2012 review after its country visit to the UK, the 2016 Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’s report following her 2018 country visit to the UK.  Without exception, these reports have highlighted the damaging impact of institutional racism and deep-rooted inequities in areas such as health, education, employment, housing, “stop and search” practices, and the criminal justice system in the UK.

The reality is that People of African descent continue to experience poor economic, social, and health outcomes at vastly disproportionate rates in the UK.  The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (COBs, 2016), noted, among other things that, “There is [a] higher rate of unemployment among persons of African and Asian descent; (b) occupational segregation, with the concentration of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in insecure and low-paid work; and (c) discriminatory recruitment practices of employers.” While racial disparities may not always stem from racism or racial discrimination, there is also compelling evidence that the roots of these disparities lie in institutional racism and structural discrimination as they clearly do not reflect the preferences or priorities of the communities facing structural disadvantage. Instead, many racial disparities in the UK clearly reflect specific nodes of power and decision-making by employers, teachers, and others who dictate the opportunities and advantages available to people of African descent.  Too often this decision-making reflects legacy mindsets of racial hierarchy. In other words, institutional racism, structural invisibility, and longstanding inequalities have disproportionately impacted people of African descent living in the UK. Therefore, the suggestion that family structure, rather than institutionalized and structural discriminatory practices are the central features of the Black experience is a tone-deaf attempt at rejecting the lived realities of people of African descent and other ethnic minorities in the UK. 

Finally, the Report’s mythical representation of enslavement is an attempt to sanitize the history of the trade in enslaved Africans.

This is a reprehensible, although not unfamiliar tactic, employed by many whose wealth came directly from the enslavement of others, ever since slavery was outlawed. Seeking to silence the brutal role of enslavers, the mind-numbing generational wealth they accrued, and the social capital and political influence they gained from exploiting black bodies is a deliberate attempt at historical misrepresentation.

The Report’s sanitized version of history devalues the experiences, and deaths of millions of Africans who were violently uprooted, taken to the Americas where they were further exploited, brutalized and dehumanized. It renders inconsequential, the fact, that for over 400 years, laws classified enslaved people in the Caribbean and their descendants as non-human, chattel, property, and real estate and social rhetoric and narrative evolved to rationalize, justify, and stabilize these injustices. They lost the basic human right to their legal identity and as such remained invisible in laws, legislation and policies. The cumulative result is racial inequality, structural invisibility, exclusion, and poverty. But more importantly, the Report fails to acknowledge how the legacies of enslavement continue to shape wealth disparities, social stratification and the experiences of people of African descent in Britain.  

In 2021, it is stunning to read a report on race and ethnicity that repackages racist tropes and stereotypes into fact, twisting data and misapplying statistics and studies into conclusory findings and ad hominem attacks on people of African descent.  The Report attacks the credibility of those working to mitigate and lessen institutional racism while denying the role of institutions, including educators and educational institutions, in the data on the expectations and aspirations of boys and girls of African descent. The Report cites dubious evidence to make claims that rationalize white supremacy by using the familiar arguments that have always justified racial hierarchy. This attempt to normalize white supremacy despite considerable research and evidence of institutional racism is an unfortunate sidestepping of the opportunity to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and the contributions of all in order to move forward. That this report comes only six years after the British taxpayer finished paying reparations to nineteenth century enslavers, without any talk of reparations to those enslaved and exploited, is particularly telling.

We urge the British government to categorically reject the findings of the Report, given its own acknowledgement of institutional racism before the CERD in 2016.

The UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities should be disbanded or reconstituted to prioritize an authentic and rigorous examination of race, rather than a politicized erasure of the racialized realities Black Britons navigate.

We call on the government to show its commitment to eliminating racism and related intolerances by launching the International Decade for People of African Descent, with its important pillars of Recognition, Justice and Development. We urge the government to ensure the accurate reflection of historical facts as they relate to past tragedies and atrocities, in particular slavery, the trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism. The distortion and falsification of these historic facts may license further racism, the promotion of negative racial stereotypes, and racial discrimination. 


*The experts: Dominique Day (Chair), Ahmed Reid, Sabelo Gumedze, Michal Balcerzak, and Ricardo A. Sunga III, Working Group of experts on people of African descent.

The statement was also endorsed by E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

The Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and inquires please contact Christina Saunders: csaunders@ohchr.org and africandescent@ohchr.org

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