How Government Appointed Research on Race Sparked an Angry Backlash in the UK. Lessons to be Learnt for Researchers.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

eorge Floyd’s death sparked a physical, global and mental movement. The former was more obvious in BLM anti-racist rallies across the world; the latter a series of deep introspections across industries and leadership.

Coupled with the impact of COVID-19 a general question emerged, how could society renew its efforts to address racism?

The tundras of research, its dry dispassionate language, hours of tedium searching data and cohering narratives can often invite sighs of the days ahead; it’s a marathon, not a sprint and requires energy and commitment.

Research’s usefulness, if it ever needed stating, is in its thoroughness, no stone left unturned, and compared to journalism its perception of profundity is rarely questioned. As is its transparency, and humility, of a recognition of perceived flaws and of an addressing of biases. It is piecemeal. Research funnels its way into stories that shape readers’ understanding of the world. It should not cherry pick sources to fit a pre-conceived narrative — which is more partisan journalism.

Psychology Today says

“ A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone. Some biases are positive and helpful — like choosing to only eat foods that are considered healthy or staying away from someone who has knowingly caused harm”.

At the highest level of societal institutions, the UK government under PM Boris Johnson looked to research for an investigation into race and ethnic disparities in the UK. The PM’s choice to lead the Commission was Dr Tony Sewell. To insiders with a deep knowledge of race or Sewell, the appointment raised concerns.

The Guardian reported soon after his appointment last June, that Sewell, when he was a columnist for the Voice newspaper, wrote the following against footballer Justin Fashanu who was gay. He said:

“We heteros are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty.”

He would swiftly apologise for his actions. I’m not the same person I was when I made this 30 years ago, he said.

“I am sorry for my comments from 30 years ago which were wrong and offensive. They do not reflect my views today nor indeed the views of modern society. I am committed to championing the cause of equality and diversity across all of our communities, including for LGBT people’.

Afterwards publicly, the work of Dr Sewell and his appointed commission members got underway outside any scrutiny.

hen March 31st 2021 came — some 9 months later. A summary of the report was released to journalists late in the day. Notably, some key figures who write on race, like Nadine White and the Huffington Post, were omitted from the distribution. But even then criticism became noticeable. Why? That’s the premise to look at.

Going through a 258 page report requires time for a deep read from initial heuristics. It’s the equivalent of a PhD thesis. Some academics habitually frame their digestion of a report by looking at the foreword, intro and the conclusions and how they align with the research question/s and sub chapters. A cursory look at the references helps frame how in-depth and meaningful the research is. Then comes the deep read. This is but a snap shot.

For the Sewell report, this on page 75

“The Review found no evidence of systemic or institutional racism”

on pg 7

We were impressed by the ‘immigrant optimism’ of some of the new African communities. They are among the new high achievers in our education system. As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classrooms, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement.

pg 8

There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.

These are but three examples, and in isolation could have momentarily evoked shrugs of the shoulders and raised eyebrows, but as more of these emerged a pattern begins to colour the report’s reception.

At its heart and for framing’s sake, the report draws criticism from chapter heads all too familiar to undergraduate, Masters and PhD students, who are partly my audience.

  • Introduction
  • Research Question
  • Literature review
  • Methodology
  • Conclusion

Now here any reader could themselves be wrong, bringing their own framing, so critical theory is required and a conscious reliance on years of rigorous academic research and simulation theory of empathy or construal level theory. In the latter, how distal events impact people’s judgement; the former, how you place yourself in the researcher’s shoes to see what they see. Both are cognitive abstractions but they help question one’s own judgement.

By the time the full report was being digested, there was wide anger, frustration, disappointment and hurt.

On the introduction, respected historian David Olusoga writing for The Guardian called the report, “poisonously patronising” , “historically illiterate ill prepared and overconfident” He referenced amongst other aspects the sentence on “...a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period…”

Olusoga wrote:
That new story is exactly what historians are currently disentombing from beneath a mountain of denial and a monomaniacal focus on abolition and the white abolitionists. It was that William Wilberforce-centric history that characterised enslaved people only as victims — passive beneficiaries of British mercy.

The Sewell Report looks to literature for the view that “White working class children trail behind their peers in almost all ethnic minority groups, although the extent of these disparities vary by area”. It is part of the transitive logic to dismiss systemic racism.

And yet, writing for the FT, Amanda Parker, director of Inc arts, draws attention to The Sewell Report’s evidence of GSCSE results proving racism doesn’t exist as flawed and the “research from Aberdeen University that shows white people have better earning and social mobility outcomes irrespective of qualification”.

Further research on earnings by a team of experts: Professor James Nazroo of The University of Manchester, Dr Saffron Karlsen of the University of Bristol and Dr Neil Smith of the National Centre for Social Research point to persistent racism for the reason black people lagged behind in jobs.

Alex Stevens, a Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent says the following:

He called The Sewell report “ a verbose, sloppy and intellectually dishonest piece of work”.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) took aim at its methodology in a blog, for amongst many other things:

Its methodology and language, its lack of scientific expertise, and the well known opinions of its authors make it more suitable as a political manifesto rather than an authoritative expert report.

Like other researchers the BMJ questioned why there were no experts drawn from the fields of, say health, and crime, and a wealth of experts on race in the UK.

A number of key experts who were consulted for their experience were ignored. Michael Eboda, chief executive behind Powerful Media which yearly produces the list of Britain’s top 100 leading Black and brown people in industry said No 10 requested a number of talented people from him to sit on the commission but was told later they were “not suitable”.

Some that were cited in the report state they were taken out of context or not even informed that their contributions were being used.

Dr Matteo Tiratell said on Twitter

Historian Stephen Bourne attended a meeting at the request of №10 special adviser only to be baffled by his appearance alongside the Commissioners. He later admonished the advisor for the “disrespectful and unprofessional” manner of his invitation to the Commission’s meeting. He’d find his name in the Commission’s report. Black historian SI Martin was labelled in the report as a a stakeholder. He says he wasn’t.

The conclusion that “The Review found no evidence of systemic or institutional racism” drew some of the most vocal ire.

The highly distinguished Lord Woolley CEO of Operation Black Vote, and a former Chair at Race Disparity Unit Advisory Group-10 Downing, called it a “incredulous” stating on LBC, how the report erroneously commenced with a conclusion it then tried to justify.

Lady Doreen Lawrence, who lost her son Stephen to racist thugs, and has been a tireless campaigner on racism said the Sewell report risks pushing the fight against racism “back 20 years or more”.

As you’re reading this, there’s a petition to urge the government to distance itself from the report.

The Commissioners says they stand by their report. One of the ten, Space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, says she’s been hurt by comments and that “fair and robust disagreement with the commission’s work has tipped into misrepresentation”.

So what are some of the things the commissioners could have done, which undergraduates and Masters students will be aware of.

  • Narrow down the research question, and focus deep into a field rather than a panorama of many race and inter-related fields. Ensure a more reasonable time frame.
  • Be more respectful of existing data, including that which cuts across the grain of one’s hypothesis. Academic reporting is about acknowledging leading literature’s contribution to the debate, even when it’s disagreeable.
  • Peer review is an accepted norm in report enterprises. What’s more, in situations where the research may seemingly attract wider interest, with different views, acknowledge such correspondence with critics etc. and impartially defend your position in your report.
  • Place conclusions at the end of the report that at the very least suggest they arise deductively from the report.

The conclusion is this was a missed opportunity, in spite of its direction on dropping the use of BAME. This report could have drawn on a breadth of specialists to shape new knowledge that could lead to innovatory and pragmatic recommendations. As it stands it has the potential to be turned into policy, which like many, I agree could be dangerous. As an undergraduate or Masters thesis adopting elements from the aforementioned would, I’m certain, warrant a meaningful discussion with your supervisor.

Postscript. Criticism of the report continues to be reported.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is from Cardiff University. He lectures in thesis and dissertations.

He’s a former broadcast journalist, with amongst others, BBC Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the BBC World Service having been stationed in South Africa from 1992–1994.

In the late 90s he got together with colleagues to examine diversity from the Macpherson report.

He is co-founder of Representology — new journal on diversity between Cardiff University / Jomec and Birmingham City University and the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity.



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Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

Creative Technologist & Associate Professor. International Award Winner Cinema journalist. Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled Top Writer,