17 January 2023

We should take the UN’s blinkered view of Britain with a pinch of salt


The UN’s highly trained diversity experts will be in town next week to carry out an investigation into the UK’s problems with racism, xenophobia and ‘Afrophobia’.

The ‘Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’, which is set to meet Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, is not a big fan of this government. It concluded that the 2021 Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities was guilty of ‘normalising white supremacy’ and ‘repacking racist tropes and stereotypes as fact’. Not only was the report wrong, the panel concluded, but it even had the potential to ‘license further racism’. And they went on to say that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was only set up in 2020, should be ‘disbanded or reconstituted’.

Anyone who has actually read and engaged with the Sewell report will see the Working Group’s criticisms for what they really are: the outpourings of yet another intergovernmental institution laid low by the virus of identity politics.

Far from sweeping things under the carpet, the Sewell Report made clear the seriousness of racism in the UK and the need to tackle it head on. One of its main recommendations is the creation of a new ‘Office for Health Disparities’, which would focus on research expertise and tailored communication to reduce health inequalities across a variety of groups living in the UK. While the UN accused the authors of making ‘ad hominem attacks on people of African descent’, the Sewell report explicitly made reference to the impressive academic performance of black pupils of African heritage in England. In this context, it is worth noting that the average ‘Attainment 8’ score across eight GCSE-level qualifications for Black African-origin pupils is 8.2 points higher than the average for Black Caribbean-heritage pupils (52.2 and 44.0 out of 90 respectively). Black African-origin pupils are also performing better than their white British peers, while pupils of Caribbean heritage are performing notably worse, on average.

Those stats are an important reminder of one of the great weaknesses of the modern ‘anti-racism’ – the tendency to to treat a diverse set of ethnic groups as a homogeneous bloc on the grounds of nothing but a shared skin colour. But the truth is that the idea of a single Black or ‘African origin’ identity or experience here in the UK is utter nonsense.

Population data is often broken down into ‘Black African’ and ‘Black Caribbean’ categories – and the two sizeable groupings are completely different in terms of both political attitudes and social behaviour. That includes attitudes to racism, in fact. Brits of Black African origin, who are more likely to born outside of Britain in relatively unsafe countries, are notably more positive about the state of UK race relations and less likely to believe that we live in a racist society. As well as being more likely to attach importance to their religious identity, Black British Africans are less likely to say that they had an unstable family life during their childhood — and, crucially, more likely to report satisfaction with their life in Britain.

And even within the wider ‘Black African’ ethnic group – which now represents 2.5% of the population in England and Wales – there is an astonishing level of heterogeneity. This is an ‘ethnic category’ which incorporates well-established Nigerian Christian migrants and more recently-arrived Somali Muslim refugees who fled civil unrest in their country of origin. Indeed, the experiences of British Nigerians – which includes Hausa Muslims from northern Nigeria and Igbo Christians from the south – are anything but uniform.

None of this is to diminish the experiences of people who have experienced racism and discrimination, of course. There remains plenty we can do to strengthen equality of opportunity, bolster police-community relations, and improve the responsiveness of healthcare institutions to the complex needs of an ever-diversifying population. What isn’t helpful is homogenising diverse groups and throwing around phrases such as ‘white supremacy’ when attacking perfectly reasonable accounts of race relations in Britain.

That’s why I’m concerned that the UN’s latest sortie into British politics will just be another dirge about how this country is hopelessly beset by prejudice and racial hierarchy. Beyond generating a few shrill headlines, what is the actual point of this self-aggrandising exercise?

It bears repeating that, for all of its flaws, ours is one of the most successful multi-racial democracies in the modern world. We are a world leader when it comes to  anti-discrimination protections on the grounds of race, ethnicity and religion – outperforming the likes of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. It’s also encouraging to see a new study which shows that ethnic segregation in England and Wales is at an all-time low. If a harmonious society is one in which people of varying backgrounds rub along pretty happily together, we are certainly pulling in the right direction.

Perhaps the UN Working Group should take some of this into account before it releases its next tirade about an incurably racist Britain that exists largely in their own imagination.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert in social cohesion and institutional trust.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.