Racism: The basis for bias

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on April 8, 2021

The UK has come a long way since the time when notions of race and racism underpinned the British Empire, but furore over a new report shows that challenges remain

The game of cricket is imbued with the history of the British Empire, but when India, Pakistan or other former colonies play against England, which side should the British Indians or British Pakistanis support and cheer — the country of their parents’ origin or the country where they were born, raised and live?

Known as the Tebbit Cricket Test, millions of cricket lovers in the Asian diaspora consistently fail it when they lustily cheer for India or Pakistan during encounters against England. This was as much reflected in England’s recent tour of India or during the 2019 World Cup held in England, when Jitesh Gadhia, an Indian-origin member of the House of Lords, declared: “The so-called Tebbit Test, asking immigrants to choose between their old and new countries, now seems outdated, as people are increasingly comfortable with multiple identities.”

Many were reminded of the test last week when a major report on race pushed Covid-19 from the headlines, highlighted Britain’s mixed record on tackling racism in another round of intense debate, and reinforced entrenched views on the sensitive subject.

Set up by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in July 2020, the 258-page report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities chaired by educationist Tony Sewell is the latest of such reports in recent years and decades. The BLM movement put the focus on how Britain, historically, benefited from slavery, when activists sought to pull down statues of slave traders and those associated with the empire in Bristol and elsewhere. Since British imperialism does not figure in school textbooks, many Britons learnt more about it in few weeks from news reports of the statues being taken down and protests. That racism, or discrimination on the basis of race and skin colour, exists in Britain is widely admitted, but the report’s conclusion that it found “no evidence of systemic or institutional racism” prompted a huge backlash, with campaigners alleging that it downplays evidence of discrimination and “whitewashes” the daily challenges faced by minority communities. Previous reports on the subject had insisted that institutional racism existed in several public and private bodies, while several witnesses gave evidence to the commission of the forms of institutional and structural racism they faced. Campaigners want Johnson to reject the report and first implement recommendations of previous reports. The prime minister himself faced accusations of selecting individuals on the commission to deliver politically convenient findings.

The report nonetheless revived concerns about racism. There are several events and reference points in race relations, including the Tebbit Test, which was expounded by Tory grandee Norman Tebbit, who asked in 1990: “When England play India, which team do Britons of Indian or Afro-Caribbean origin, who were born and grew up here, support or should support?” He proposed it as a test of loyalty of immigrants and their degree of assimilation in British society, suggesting that they should rather support England and not India or the countries from where they or their parents migrated. His statement led to some furore as Asian leaders declared them hurtful and disgraceful, while Labour MP Jeff Rooker called for Tebbit to be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred.

Another key reference is the infamous “rivers of blood” speech by Enoch Powell to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham in 1968, warning of the effects of mass immigration from India and the Commonwealth. If some see Tebbit’s remarks as benign examples of concerns about assimilation, Powell’s speech is considered the “most incendiary racist speech of modern Britain”. More than 50 years after the speech was delivered, Powell’s words continue to rile many. It is known as the “rivers of blood” speech due to his making an allusion to a line from ancient Roman poet Virgil’s poem Aeneid: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.” The speech made him a poster boy of extreme right groups such as the British National Party. The enigmatic Powell, who died in 1998, had several links with India – he once aspired to become its viceroy and was posted in New Delhi in 1945 for the Military Intelligence – but the speech came to define his career in public life and his legacy.

After World War II, people from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia were encouraged to come to England to meet acute labour shortages, but on arrival here they often faced racism and discrimination, which was not illegal until 1965, when the Race Relations Act was passed. Over the years, amidst protests, demands and riots, there was a clamour for change, prompting initiatives to enact more equality legislation and other measures to clamp down on racism. Attacked by right-wing extremists, the immigrants found various forms of resistance alongside allies, organising political actions or demonstrations such as the Grumwick Strike in 1976 and the Black People’s Day of Action in 1981 in London. There were various protests against police and racist violence in the 1970s and 1980s. The response also included forming defence organisations such as the League of Coloured Peoples and the first Indian Workers’ Association established in the 1930s. Questions were raised about police neutrality during race-fuelled riots in Southall in 1976 that began with the killing of Gurdip Singh Chaggar by a racist gang. The latest measure to prevent racial discrimination was the Equality Act of 2006 (amended in 2010) and the setting up of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Against this discursive backdrop, the commission’s conclusion that there is “no evidence of systemic or institutional racism” came in for trenchant criticism, particularly from left-liberal commentators and campaign groups, while Conservative voices admitted continued racism but also wanted to use the findings to drive the government’s anti-racism agenda. Public health experts denounced it as being “divorced from reality”, while Doreen Lawrence, mother of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, whose murder by a gang of white men in a racist attack in 1993 led to the conclusion that the police were “institutionally racist”, warned that the report could push the fight against racism back.

Critics particularly rounded on Sewell’s foreword, in which he says: “Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined. The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism. That said, we take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK.”

Historian David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian that the “poisonously patronising Sewell report is historically illiterate…If the report had intended to help address racism in Britain, it must surely be written off as a disaster…The report minimises and at times denies the existence of institutional racism in Britain, despite the fact that, as the government now acknowledges, several witnesses gave detailed evidence of the forms of institutional and structural racism...”

The report reproduced data on a range of social and economic indicators: that the White Irish, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups are on average earning notably more than the White British; that in the area of education, Black African, Indian and Bangladeshi pupils perform better than the White British group, once socio-economic status is taken into consideration; that the Indian group is close behind the White British group on household wealth; that Indian and Chinese groups, who have the most success in British society tend to see fewer obstacles and less prejudice, while those groups that do less well, Black people and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, tend to see and experience more of both; that children in the Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese groups have high performance rates in schools; and that the White British and Indian groups have the highest employment rates.

As the report was furiously debated, Prime Minister Johnson welcomed it, adding that the entirety of government remains fully committed to building a fairer Britain. Among those who welcomed the report included Claire Coutinho, the Goa-origin Conservative MP from East Surrey, who wrote: “Racism exists in this country; of course, it does. And we must do all we can to combat it…The Sewell Report provides a data-rich analysis of ethnic minority disparities in Britain today. Overall, the scorecard is unquestionably one of progress…The report is far from universally positive. When it comes to racism, both historic and current, it does not allow us to rest on our laurels…From prejudices in the labour market, to biases in facial recognition technology to incidences of racial hate crimes — which have dramatically fallen but are still too high, the Commission challenges us to use all the levers at our disposal to root out racism.”

There is broad consensus that the current young generation of non-whites does not face the same extent of racism their parents or grand-parents faced when they arrived, but challenges remain. For example, medical professionals from the Indian sub-continent have often raised the issue of racism in the National Health Service and how their prospects of progression in their career are thwarted by racism. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (Bapio) and the British International Doctors Association have raised the issue with examples of doctors being victimised. “There is a stark contrast in the way Indian and white doctors are treated for the same offence. As an organisation we are working for equal treatment for all,” says Bapio president Ramesh Mehta.

Adds Liverpool-based Shiv Pande, who gained medical qualifications in India and moved to the UK in 1971: “Due to discrimination, I couldn’t get further in cardio-thoracic surgery beyond the registrar’s post and had to move into general practice. But it was a nice move as I could do more for my patients. No doubt, there was tremendous discrimination in the 1970s. Things have changed since. Discrimination has gone down; people have accepted the value of international doctors and there is also large number of vacancies. But it is still often the case that if there are two candidates for a job, and one is named ‘John’ and the other ‘Janardhan’ – ‘John’ will get priority”.

Pande, however, agrees with the commission’s point of the need for minority groups to ‘participate’ more in the wider British society. The report notes that the UK has fundamentally shifted over the decades and has become a more open society, adding that the commission found that some groups have been able to ‘participate’ better than others. He says: “The government cannot and should not try to solve everything. There is a role for culture and traditions that immigrants come with. We (immigrants) are living in ghettos, prefer to talk among ourselves, we don’t mix as much we should do. We are also contributing to discrimination. We immigrants bring our traditions and customs with us, which is great for diversity, but we should not seek to impose them on the British. Are we also contributing to our own discrimination?”

Students from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere coming to study at UK universities mostly have a good experience, but some recount instances of racism. New Delhi-based Venkata Vemuri, who was a PhD student based in Leicester between 2006 and 2011, says: “Racism in England is internalised, like casteism in India. We initially got unsolicited assurances from people but we did encounter it, though. Locals on the streets would frighten my little girl or make indecent gestures and wait for me to confront them. Motorists would boo us. Things get coarse as you leave the southern coast, past the Midlands and right up to the North. The vacant stare in, say, Surrey, turns into a sneer in Birmingham and finally into open dislike in Liverpool or even Sheffield. But is it life-threatening, like the streets of Berlin at night? Not in my experience of England, though some South Asians are not alive to recite their tale. The university campuses, however, were refreshingly different. So were the offices where I and my wife worked part-time.”

Anticipating strong criticism, the commission regretted that many commentators and campaign groups seemed reluctant to acknowledge their own past achievements, and offer solutions based on the binary divides of the past which often misses the point of today’s world. In essence, the commission sought to talk up the progress made over the decades while acknowledging continuing challenges as part of the mandate set by Johnson, to “change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination”.

Taken aback by the furious reaction, the commission noted that in some cases fair and robust disagreement had tipped into misrepresentation, saying in a rare response: “We have never said that racism does not exist in society or in institutions. We say the contrary: racism is real and we must do more to tackle it…There has also been a wilful misrepresentation by some people of the Commission’s view on the history of slavery. The idea that the Commission would downplay the atrocities of slavery is as absurd as it is offensive to every one of us…”

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a London-based journalist.)

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