Former Chair of Social Enterprise UK, Claire Dove CBE has written this piece responding to the recent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and the continued existence of systemic racism across institutions.
Last year the world was shocked and horrified by the death of George Floyd. People rightly took to the streets demanding change. Black Lives Matter was ringing in all our ears and I wrote a blog, it was one of hope in which I asked; ‘Dare we believe that there can now be systemic change?’ It coincided with the pandemic and the disproportionate numbers of Black and brown people dying on the front line of the services they provided to our country.
Many organisations including local and combined authorities and the public sector including NHS hospital trusts started to look at themselves with a view to making the kinds of change most Black communities had been demanding for years. So, in response, the government set up an Independent Commission to look at Race Disparities and produce a set of recommendations.
The Sewell Commission released its report two weeks ago and the sense of outrage has been palpable. Is it the case that they are reflecting the preconceived views of some of its individual members? The previous commissions in which I have formally participated have focused on the evidence presented as the basis of their conclusions and not based on the commissioners’ preconceptions.
Several of those named as contributors to the report, me included, wish to disassociate ourselves from many aspects of the report. Some have stated they took no part in compiling the report, or in some cases only attended one meeting. For my part, as Crown Representative for the Voluntary, Charity and Social Enterprise sector, I was asked to submit a piece on how in central government we have changed our methods of procuring by using the new criterion of Social and Environmental Value as a tool with one of the key outputs of bringing a diverse range of suppliers into government. To implement this, I have worked throughout, with a taskforce of Black and minority ethnic-led organisations.
Like others I did not have prior sight of the report and if asked, I would never have allowed my name to be included in it.
The report asks us to believe that there has been a radical shift in the life chances of Black and brown people. We are being told that the UK is a model country in terms of race relations. This has left many of us dumbfounded as we look around our communities and feel no such sense of optimism or radical change, particularly in communities outside of London.
My two main concerns are that this report, like many, is London-centric and does not reflect on Black communities up and down the country; and that it particularly neglects their place in our own national history. Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff and Southampton have had a black presence for centuries, it is now constantly inferred that race disparities only began when the Windrush generation came to the UK. It started way before this: racism has long since been endemic in our society. It is in every structure, but we can create change.
The report talks about Caribbean children underachieving and attributes this to many factors like housing, class and other societal issues. Whilst this is true, it leaves us asking: why then have these issues been there for generations and embedded in the institutions precisely which are supposed to support our growth and our ambitions? Why do black and mixed-race children in general (not just second generational Caribbean children as the report purports) still fall behind? Over the years, report after report has documented how expectations of the education system tend to write these children off. In Liverpool most black and mixed-race children still do not get their first, second or third choice of secondary school. Instead, they are ghettoised into two underperforming schools.
Few of those with the potential make it to University. Our universities do have a black presence, but these are usually overseas students who bring lucrative income to these institutions. For those who then go into the FE sector, there is a lack of the necessary support, which leads to disproportionate failure. Traineeships and Apprenticeships fail to level up the opportunities for local black youth.
In Liverpool, we note how in London and other cities that Black and brown people are employed in major stores, businesses and in hospitals as we in the North slowly creep to having the odd black person in these positions. Even in the NHS, many hospital trusts are effectively closed shops. They only advertise their posts on the NHS websites, so you have to know to look there. They recruit their student intake of nurses and doctors from the Universities, so perpetuating their lack of diversity. Hospital Trusts short of staff, instead of investing in local people, recruit overseas. Whilst this creates some diversity in their workforce it still lacks a local black presence, instead of this, it takes skilled health workers that are needed in their own countries, who have often struggled to pay for their training.
In our communities we have nonetheless resisted these barriers: we have created organisations and raised our voices against the deep-seated institutional racism. Those from Black and ethnic communities who have joined police forces have faced overt racism, some have left, but others continue to fight for a diverse police force. Many of our doctors have faced overt racism; a Trust that I have served on has reported parents stating they do not want BME doctors or nurses to touch their children. This is still happening in 2021.
Some are saying that this report takes us back some 20 years, but why would we allow this to happen? We have come too far for this: and although some of the report recommendations are good, a fair proportion need retraction and reimagination, as they are not founded in the history or realities of our communities up and down the country. Instead, they use the distinctive Caribbean experience to explain away the impact of the much older institutional racism of the UK on all our communities, African, Asian and Caribbean.
These issues are structural, cultural, societal, environmental, and economic. It is only through tackling these issues through an intersectional lens that we will make any genuine progress. Anything else is simply playing whack-a-mole with racial inequity and disparity.
This why I believe in social enterprise and the power of voluntary action; this why I continue to serve the sector and advocate for it – because it addresses the intersectional issues that drive and maintain the division and inequity that I see every day before me.
We all deserve better than this, but my heart really does go out to our young people. Most young people have only ever known times where chances, opportunities, and hope, have deteriorated.
We need a national debate and urgent action. We need to acknowledge the pain and outrage that has been felt not just in our Black and brown communities but also across working class, white society where inequity and a lack of social mobility is also endemic, divisive and an issue of fairness and equality.
We can and must do so much better.
Claire Dove CBE