“Would you write a profile of black people in Britain.” Seldom has a request from the editor of ConservativeHome filled me with greater perplexity.
I consulted a young white woman who has been on several of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. She warned me, as she would warn any 62-year-old white man: “You have to understand that you will never understand.”
Next I consulted a black woman, a writer who has lived for many years in Harlesden, in north-west London. She said:
“How can anyone write a profile of black people in Britain? Black people? Somalis, Nigerians, St Lucians, Brazilians, Canadians, Guyanese – there are so many nationalities, languages, religions, customs, cultures – can they even tentatively be labelled one cohesive group?
“In London a typical schoolchild will tell you, ‘My mum’s half Thai and half Ibo, she was born in Swansea but grew up in Hong Kong, and my dad’s half Latvian and half Jamaican, he was born in Paris but he grew up in Kenya.’ Is this child black? White? Label free?
At the 2011 census, 67 per cent of the population of Harlesden identified themselves as BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. About a fifth of the ward’s 17,162 people described themselves as Black Caribbean, another fifth as Black African, and there are also substantial numbers of Portuguese and Brazilians, with Portuguese and Somali the foreign languages one is most likely to hear.
My friend the writer did what she could to help:
“I do know that the local black teenagers in Harlesden are constantly being stopped by the police for no reason. Many innocent young men I know have been ‘roughed up’ by the police.
“I also feel that school teachers have low expectations of Caribbean youngsters and will not push or challenge them to achieve academically. Teachers are often scared of black boys and find it easier to leave them to their own devices. Leaving teenage boys to their own devices is never a good idea.
“Black girls have an easier time of it at school as the predominantly female teaching staff do not feel so threatened by girls. As a result, the girls achieve ridiculously higher grades than the boys.
“But just as you’re about to say such and such a group (Ghanaians) are achieving academically and such and such a group (Afro Caribbeans) are not doing so well, you’ll read the opposite statistics from some other source. It’s such a fluid subject.”
Few writers about blacks in Britain attempt to convey that fluidity – the sense that things are changing, and even the categories in which we think are dissolving or evolving.
One is instead presented with competing snapshots, generalisations, moralities, and an overwhelming urge to condemn anyone who ventures, no matter how politely, to question the line being taken.
Which puts a writer like myself in a difficult position. One of my many defects is a desire not to give unnecessary offence. If only I enjoyed annoying people, I would be better known.
When I reviewed Afua Hirsch’s book, BRIT(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, for ConHome, I argued at the end of the piece that being British is not a racial but a political characteristic, so the House of Commons is “the essential British institution”.
It goes against the grain to write a profile of black people in Britain, or indeed of white people in Britain, as if we can divide ourselves along racial lines.
When the late Richard West used to visit South Africa in the apartheid era, and was asked to state on some form what race he belonged to, he would write “human”.
But the House of Commons is now much preoccupied by questions about race. On Tuesday, Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Equalities, made a statement in the House on the latest report by Public Health England into the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups. The report found:
“An analysis of survival among confirmed COVID-19 cases showed that, after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death when compared to people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50 per cent higher risk of death when compared to White British.”
“If we want to resolve the disparities identified in the PHE report, it is critical that we accurately understand the causes, based on empirical analysis of the facts and not preconceived positions.”
Alison Thewliss (SNP, Glasgow Central) put it to Badenoch:
“it is one thing to say that black lives matter and quite another to force black people and people from BAME backgrounds out to work who have no choice other than to go to work because they have no recourse to public funds. No recourse to public funds is a racist policy. Will she abolish it now?”
Badenoch retorted – the clip can be watched here:
“I must push back on some of what the hon. Lady said. It is wrong to conflate all black people with recent immigrants and assume, which is what she just said, that we all have to pay a surcharge. That is wrong. I am a black woman who is out to work. My employer—[Interruption.] This House has done everything it can to make sure that I am following the guidelines and that all of us are. It is absolutely wrong to try to conflate lots of different issues and merge them into one, just so that it can get traction in the press. I go back—[Interruption.] I go back to what I said in my original statement. It is not right for us to use confected outrage. We need courage to say the right things, and we need to be courageous in order to calm down racial tensions, not inflame them just so that we have something to put on social media.”
Rupa Huq (Lab, Ealing Central and Acton) quoted a placard she had seen at a Black Lives Matter demonstration, “Being black should not be a death sentence”, and called for “a detailed plan” from the Government, “so that this does not just look like a box-ticking exercise”.
“I agree that we cannot be seen to be doing a box-ticking exercise, but we also should not just accept statements such as ‘being black is a death sentence’ in this country. It is not true, although it is true there are disparities and other factors that can make outcomes worse. Let us look at that, but let us not in this House use statements such as ‘being black is a death sentence’. Young people out there hear that, do not understand the context and then continue to believe that they live in a society that is against them, when actually this is one of the best countries in the world in which to be a black person.”
The Commons is working out what the argument is about, and so are the political parties. Boris Johnson, to whom it comes naturally to preach a gospel of hope rather than moral condemnation, will with the help of Badenoch and others promise that racism can be dealt with and our country become ever more wonderful, with black Britons ever more successful along with everyone else.
Badenoch herself, stiffening at any suggestion from the Opposition that Britain is irretrievably racist, promises “evidence-based action to address the disparities highlighted”.
So what is the evidence? In the last few years, the Government has commissioned half a dozen reports into what is actually happening.
The reader of these reports is presented, unfortunately, with an almost irresistible temptation to cherry-pick from them the evidence to support whatever view he or she already holds.
Space does not allow for examination of all the reports, but here is one of the most important and informative.
In January 2016, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, commissioned David Lammy MP (Lab, Tottenham) to investigate evidence of possible bias against black and other ethnic minority defendants in the criminal justice system.
This work received strong support from Theresa May, who on becoming Prime MInister in July 2016, said she would fight “the burning injustice” that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.
The Lammy Review was published in September 2017. Its opening lines could have been written by Badenoch:
“Across England and Wales, people from minority ethnic backgrounds are breaking through barriers. More students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are achieving in school and going to university. There is a growing BAME middle class. Powerful, high-profile institutions, like the House of Commons, are slowly becoming more diverse.”
Lammy went on to say that “our justice system bucks the trend”, for those who are “charged, tried and punished are still disproportionately likely to come from minority communities”:
“Despite making up just 14 per cent of the population, BAME men and women make up 25 per cent of prisoners, while over 40 per cent of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds.”
Lammy freely admits that this is not a simple story:
“The focus of the review is on BAME people, but I recognise the complexity of that term. Some groups are heavily over-represented in prison – for example Black people make up around 3 per cent of the general population but accounted for 12 per cent of adult prisoners in 2015/16; and more than 20 per cent of children in custody. Other groups, such as Mixed ethnic adult prisoners, are also over-represented, although to a lesser degree.The proportion of prisoners who are Asian is lower than the general population but, within categories such as ‘Asian’ or ‘Black’ there is considerable diversity, with some groups thriving while others struggle. This complexity mirrors the story in other areas of public life. In schools, for example, BAME achievement has risen but not in a uniform way. Chinese and Indian pupils outperform almost every other group, while Pakistani children are more likely to struggle. Black African children achieve better GCSE exam results, on average, than Black Caribbean children. Wherever possible this report seeks to draw out similar nuances in the justice system.”
He hopes his recommendations “will benefit white working class men, women, boys and girls too”, and offers some international comparisons:
“In France, Muslims make up an estimated eight per cent of the population and between a quarter and a half of the prison population. In America, one in 35 African American men are incarcerated, compared with one in 214 White men. In Canada, indigenous adults make up three per cent of the population but 25 per cent of the prison population. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners make up two per cent of the population, but 27 per cent of prisoners. In New Zealand, Maoris make up 15 per cent of the population, but more than 50 per cent of the prisoners.”
These figures constitute a warning against supposing that deep-seated inequalities are likely to be caused entirely by defects in the criminal justice system. Nor does Lammy make that error:
“many of the causes of BAME over-representation lie outside the CJS, as do the answers to it. People from a black background are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those from a white background. Black children are more than twice as likely to grow up in a lone parent family. Black and Mixed ethnic boys are more likely than White boys to be permanently excluded from school and to be arrested as a teenager. These issues start long before a young man or woman ever enters a plea decision, goes before a magistrate or serves a prison sentence.”
Lammy goes onto remark that “trust in the CJS is essential”:
“The reason that so many BAME defendants plead not guilty, forgoing the opportunity to reduce sentences by up to a third, is that they see the system in terms of ‘them and us’. Many do not trust the promises made to them by their own solicitors, let alone the officers in a police station warning them to admit guilt.”
When Lammy’s report came out, Munira Mirza, profiled recently on ConHome, had stopped working for Boris Johnson at City Hall, and was yet to take up the role she accepted last summer as Director of Johnson’s Policy Unit at Number Ten.
She subjected the report to scathing analysis:
“Lammy claimed his report ‘clearly shows BAME individuals still face bias — including overt discrimination — in parts of the justice system’… this is not what the statistics in his report revealed at all. Rather, they showed the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision-making was broadly proportionate, once other factors were taken into account. Jury conviction rates were similar across ethnic groups at between 66 and 68 per cent. In some measures, BAME groups actually had more favourable treatment compared with whites. It is true that in the area of rape and domestic abuse, black and ‘Chinese and other’ groups had disproportionate rates of prosecution, and the report rightly called for more research to understand why. But if racial bias were a problem throughout the system, one would expect the overall conviction rates to reflect this. By and large they don’t.
“In fact, the detail of Lammy’s report concedes that there are many reasons outside the criminal justice system for the ethnic disparities it describes… there are many social and economic factors that go a long way to explain these ethnic disparities. It makes no sense to blame racism or the failings of professionals in the criminal justice system. Differences in racial outcomes are not the same thing as institutional racism any more than the fact that far more men than women are incarcerated is evidence of institutional sexism.”
“When anti-racist lobby groups criticise the authorities for their racism, it is not surprising that BAME communities start to believe they cannot trust their own professional solicitors. They then make decisions that might harm their chances in the justice system.”
So in her opinion, by undermining defendants’ trust in lawyers, the anti-racist lobby groups are harming the very people on whose behalf they campaign.
Blaise Pascal remarks somewhere on the danger of mistaking a part of the truth for the whole. One’s error is not to believe something which is wrong, but to fail to believe something else which is also true.
It seems to me there is truth on both sides of this argument. The nuances to which Lammy refers get lost once combat is joined.
It ought to be possible to believe both that racism is a serious problem, and that in many ways, whether one is black or white, this is a wonderful country in which to live.
Instead each side strives to put its own righteousness, and its opponents’ depravity, beyond question.
Perhaps any readers on either side of the argument who have managed to get to the end of this article, and are dissatisfied by the modest conclusion that has been reached, will be content to agree with the young white woman whom I consulted at the start: “You have to understand that you will never understand.”