The 2021 Sewell Report: a Vindication of the Young Historians Project
On the 31st of March 2021, the British government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, commissioned by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, concluded that there is ‘no evidence of institutional racism’ in Britain. One might wonder what monumental structural and societal upheaval has taken place since the publication of the Macpherson Report in 1999, the Race Disparity Audit in 2017, or perhaps most recently, the Windrush Report, published in July 2018. All of these investigations illustrated the pervasive nature of institutional racism in Britain. In fact, including these aforementioned audits, reports and reviews, there have been six independent reports in the past four years, each meticulously outlining the existence of institutional racism within Britain.
So, has Britain ‘solved racism?’ Anyone familiar with the work of the Young Historians Project will know that the work we do in highlighting the inadequacies of the British education system and curriculum demonstrates that the answer is a resounding ‘no’. One passage from the report was particularly egregious:
Reframing the wholesale brutality, plunder and genocide perpetrated by the British Empire during colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade as a positive moment of cultural reinvention is grotesque, but this erasure is nothing new when we look at how the story of Britain’s relationship with race and Empire is approached in the curriculum. I can only think back to my school experience of Black History Month, where for thirty days we acknowledged the contribution of a handful of exceptional black individuals to Britain. The customary hagiographies of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano were supplemented by fables of Martin Luther King and the ‘peaceful’ Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. But what was happening in Britain at the same time? We were taught about the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, while the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 was ignored. We knew about Jim Crow and racial segregation in America, but not about Britain’s Colour Bar, which saw Black and Asian people in Britain barred from bars pubs, and restaurants, refused housing by landlords and prohibited from jobs in certain industries, such as British railways. The Colour Bar was legal until 1965, just one year after the American Civil Rights Act abolished discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.
The work done by YHP has been invaluable in helping to uncover the hidden histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain. Our 2017 project on the Black Liberation Front (BLF) culminated in the production of a documentary featuring several former members of the BLF and an exhibition, which was used to educate students in our partner schools. Since then, work has been ongoing in producing another project, this time examining the historical contributions of African women to British healthcare, both before and after the establishment of the NHS. The ‘historical illiteracy’, (in the words of David Olusoga) of the Sewell report serves as vindication of the hard work done by YHP to provide accessible tools for historical education to the public.
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seeks to advance the narrative that institutional racism is something that happened ‘over there’, and if it did happen here, it has long been defeated by a liberal, tolerant Britain. It is only without the knowledge of Britain’s racist history, coupled with distortions of its present, that the idea of Britain as a ‘tolerant’, accepting nation free from institutional racism seems credible. With the establishment of this narrative, anyone arguing for the contrary can be deemed to be ‘divisive’ or ‘uppity.’ In the words of YHP’s Florence Adeoye, ‘the UK has been built on a foundation of consistent erasure that makes it look like a generous and superior caregiver to the ungrateful and unruly.’ Such erasure is made all too clear with the recent death of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, whose notorious and unapologetic racism and bigotry has been repackaged by the media as endearing ‘gaffes’ to be looked upon with wry smiles and a wistful shaking of heads.
The 2021 Commission is a cynical, transparent piece of state propaganda, and it has been picked apart and thoroughly discredited by several experts, public figures and advocacy groups. Notwithstanding, it is useful in the lessons it can provide us. Tony Sewell and Boris Johnson’s Commission should be a clear example that individualistic campaigning for ‘black faces in high places’ can never be the strategy for dismantling the racist structures and institutions that govern daily life in Britain. At best, this can help uplift a slim minority of exceptional individuals against the odds, and at worst, these exceptional individuals can be used as a cudgel to bash the majority of working class black and brown people who experience the realities of institutional racism. The oppressive structures that perpetuate social inequalities can only be challenged through collective organising and direct action, such as the inspiring successful demonstration of young students at Pimlico Academy, who refused to attend classes in protest against school policy banning Afro hair and colourful hijabs. Fundamentally, the Commission teaches us that the work YHP does to uncover, acknowledge and teach the hidden histories of Empire and Britain’s relationship with racism is central to confronting the fabricated narrative of Britain as a post-racial society.