Truth, lies and racism:

The story behind the “Sewell Report”

Today remembered as the report that said institutional racism doesn’t exist, insiders tell Seun Matiluko what critics and defenders got right and wrong about the 2021 report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

On 25 May 2020 a Black man was killed by a white police officer in the United States. While there had been a number of Black deaths at the hands of the police in preceding years, the nine minute and 29 second video of George Perry Floyd Jr’s life ending – recorded by a teenage girl called Darnella Frazier – travelled across the world, and soon millions were marching in protest, including thousands in the United Kingdom.

As British protestors talked about the disparities of treatment and outcome Black people encountered in criminal justice, immigration, education, and healthcare many felt obliged to show they were doing something to combat racism.

Some posted black squares on Instagram. The British Museum said it would “continue to research” the provenance of its colonial artefacts. And, on 14 June, then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced in the seventh paragraph of an article defending Winston Churchill for The Telegraph that it was “time for a cross governmental commission to look at all aspects of inequality” in Britain.

Later known as the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED), it would become one of the most controversial government commissions of the 21st century.

Over a year later, many involved were apprehensive about speaking with The House about their experiences – one commissioner, approached over the phone, said “I’m afraid I don’t know too much about race policy,” before abruptly hanging up. Others, including some who spoke on condition of anonymity, felt it was time to tell all.

As CRED chair Lord Tony Sewell CBE put it: “I’ve got nothing in the game to say no to this”.

Two things are clear. For those involved, the scars from the report’s controversial landing remain raw. People on all sides of the debate were upset, and still are. And as a result of the noise that surrounded it, the significance of CRED, and its potential impact on British race policy, has not been fully understood.

“You had to really battle to get your point across. People really challenged you.”

ithin days of Johnson’s Telegraph announcement Number 10 staff, including then race adviser Sam Kasumu and policy director Munira Mirza (who had been publicly critical of previous government reviews on issues of race) – started whittling down names for possible commissioners. CRED’s full terms of reference were published a month after The Telegraph announcement. The independent commission was to focus on “outcomes for the whole population” in “poverty, education, employment, health and the criminal justice system”.

Its membership was announced the same day. It was to be chaired by Sewell, an academic and the founder of Generating Genius, a charity that empowers young people from marginalised backgrounds to pursue careers in science and technology.

Sources close to the matter told The House that Trevor Phillips was in the running to be chair, but Sewell was eventually chosen because he was seen as less controversial – in 2020, Phillips had been suspended by the Labour Party following allegations of Islamophobia, before being reinstated the following year (he defended his statement at the time by saying it was right to argue Muslims are “different” because “in many ways, I think that’s admirable”).

The other commissioners were Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist; Keith Fraser, Chair of the Youth Justice Board; Dr Samir Shah CBE, former head of the Runnymede Trust; Lord Ajay Kakkar, a crossbench peer; Dr Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist (who, in December, was made a Baroness); Mercy Muroki, a policy researcher and social commentator; Naureen Khalid, a school governor; Aftab Chunghtai MBE, Vice-President of the Asian Business Chamber of Commerce, and Martyn Oliver, the CEO of education charity Outwood Grange Academies Trust, and the sole white commissioner. There were also two co-opted members of the Commission – Kunle Olulode, Director of Voice4Change, a charity dedicated to uplifting ethnic minority voices in the charity sector, and Blondel Cluff, Chief Executive of the West India Committee.

There doesn’t appear to have been consistency in how appointments were made: Fraser told The House he “went through about four interviews” before he was finally chosen but Muroki, for example, said she didn’t have to interview, she was just “approached and asked”.

When the names of the commissioners were announced, there was an immediate backlash. A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, for instance, argued that “many are partisans of a culture war keen on downplaying race disparities”.

Such criticisms were likely prompted by two of the names: Muroki and Sewell.

Muroki, a recent Queen Mary and Oxford graduate was, at 25, the youngest of the commissioners and had made a name for herself as an "anti-woke” commentator. She told The House she believed she was appointed because of her experience studying social policy – her Oxford thesis focussed on ethnicity, migration, and welfare – alongside her rising media profile. Soon after George Floyd’s death, Muroki wrote for The Times about her concern that Black communities in Britain were being encouraged to “import the anarchic racial hysteria we have seen in some US cities”.

Sewell, an admirer of the Black conservative academic Thomas Sowell –  who famously argued disparities cannot solely be linked to discrimination – had been a public figure for decades prior to his appointment. He first became well-known in the 80s and 90s, having published a well-received book about Black Caribbean boys in British schools and appearing as a columnist at The Voice, Britain’s longest running Black newspaper.

His work had been controversial at times, particularly when it raised the issue of institutional racism. In an interview with the BBC in 2000 Sewell, then a lecturer at Leeds University, was quoted calling “the mantra” of institutional racism “a hurdle”.

“It almost felt like the report was like The Satanic Verses. People just didn’t read it.”

Sewell told The House it was unfair to label CRED as right-wing or “anti-woke”, arguing it was full of “experts”. He added that, to prevent accusations of bias, he even went “to [shadow foreign secretary] David Lammy and asked him to come on the commission. What happened is that he wanted to do it. He then went and spoke to [Labour leader Keir] Starmer. And then he said, ‘oh well because of the politics I can’t come on’”. (A Labour source told The House this claim was “utter nonsense” and that “David never intended to be part of the Commission” but Sewell stands by the claim. Lammy did not respond to a request for comment).

The commissioners started work in late 2020. They were tasked with looking at race and ethnic disparities in four areas of British life: education, employment, health and crime and policing. It was decided that they would approach work on these areas by dividing into four subgroups, with specific commissioners heading up each subgroup. Oliver chaired the education group, Moyo the employment group, Kakkar (before he had to leave at the end of 2020 to take up a prior commitment) the health group and Fraser the crime and policing group. The other commissioners then slotted into the subgroups that best suited their expertise.

The subgroups met up regularly over Zoom, discussing evidence that had been provided to them by external groups and experts, newly commissioned data and data which had previously been developed by the Race Disparity Unit launched by Theresa May in 2016. Following subgroup meetings there would then be wider meetings, where each subgroup would feed back to the rest of the commissioners.

This was intensive work. One commissioner explained to The House that they were told, upon joining CRED, they would only have to sacrifice one day a week but it soon “got very intense,” and often commissioners would find themselves debating fine points in the “early hours of the morning”.  

While some who gave evidence to the commissioners later accused them of lacking diversity of thought, Fraser stressed that subgroup and group meetings were not plagued with a hivemind mentality. “You had to really battle to get your point across. It wasn’t just Keith comes in with his view and then everybody accepts it. It wasn’t like that at all. People really challenged you,” he said.

This level of rigour, however, didn’t mean the commissioners were immune to missteps. In October 2020 a Black History Month roundtable discussion was set up in Downing Street between then business minister Kwasi Kwarteng MP, standing in for Boris Johnson, and some experts on Black British history. The Commissioners caught wind of this meeting and made it known to civil servants they would like to sit in. A video link was set up at the last minute, alarming the experts who said they did not know who the people appearing over Zoom were or why they were there. One of the experts, Dr Stephen Bourne, was later listed as a report stakeholder – to his surprise. Bourne told Southwark News, “there’s no way I would have taken part if they had told me what I was going to be contributing to”.

The original plan was for commissioners to finish their work by the end of 2020, but Sewell wrote to Kemi Badenoch MP, then minister for Equalities, asking for more time – citing delays due to Covid-19. An extension was granted and the final 258-page report was published on the morning of 31 March 2021.

There were groups of people mobilising different organisations to come together and using the Guardian as a mechanism.

A Hard Landing

Clive Lewis

The report primarily consisted of a three-page foreword, a short introductory chapter and four key chapters: Education and Training, Employment, Fairness at Work and Enterprise, Crime and Policing and Health.

There were several significant findings: while ethnic minorities were more likely to go to university than white British people, the latter achieved better grades while there; only 30 per cent of Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Black African groups lived in households with enough savings to cover one month of income; 16 to 24 year-old Black people were 11 times more likely to be victims of homicide than their white counterparts, and Black and South Asian people had lower all-cause mortality rates than white British people.

The government was quick to support the report. Sewell told The House Boris Johnson’s “bad track record” of offensive statements on race left him with a “problem” in how to respond, adding the then-prime minister even admitted “the race thing’s difficult for me” in a meeting. “He can't […] deliver a nuanced argument about race given his track record,” said Sewell. Johnson gave public thanks to “Sewell and each of the commissioners for generously giving their time to lead this important piece of work” in a brief statement. (A spokesperson for Boris Johnson said that there had been a “misunderstanding” and that Johnson had “properly declined” to present the report following a suggestion he should do so, because it was independent of government. “Mr Johnson has an excellent track record. He appointed the most diverse cabinet in UK history with 18 per cent from BAME backgrounds,” they added.)

Marsha de Cordova

The external reaction, however, was febrile from the start, and those close to the situation say it was exacerbated by the media strategy around the launch. Typically, before a government report is released, relevant civil society groups and the media are made privy to its contents so they can respond and report accurately immediately after publication. Few were briefed in advance about CRED’s findings, leaving those wishing to promptly respond little time to sift through the report’s contents.

The main organisations briefed appeared to be those friendly to government, such as The Telegraph, which revealed one of the report’s final recommendations two days before it was published.

The fact a preview of the report (a “trail”) was sent out to lobby journalists only at 5pm the day before publication, with the caveat that journalists were not permitted to reach out to relevant groups and experts for comment before publication (a “no approach” embargo) attracted the ire of some. This included The Guardian, which ignored the embargo and led its coverage with the line the report had been “widely condemned”.

A senior Tory source told The House Number 10 didn’t intentionally choose to provoke the lobby, but were following guidance from figures including former Downing Street Director of Communications Robbie Gibb, and were unintentionally naïve because of their lack of experience dealing with government communications about race. Gibb did not respond to a request for comment.

The negative media coverage stoked a furious response online, which included Labour MP Clive Lewis tweeting an image of a Ku Klux Klansman alongside the hashtag #RaceReport. Samuel Kasumu, the government’s race advisor, resigned amidst the fallout. When asked by broadcaster Nick Ferrari to name non-government supporters of the report, then-equalities minister Liz Truss MP said she “would be guessing” if she did.

Sewell felt bruised by the response: “it almost felt like the report was like The Satanic Verses. People just didn’t read it”.

Among those who did, there were four strands of criticism. The first focussed on some of the language used. Sewell wrote in the foreword regarding “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”.

Some took this to be, in the words of Labour MP Marsha de Cordova, “a positive spin on slavery”. Sewell said he had been “vilely misrepresented” and a clarifying footnote was added, but commissioners who spoke to The House were keen to put some distance between themselves and the offending foreword. Muroki, for example, said: “people have been very critical about how he chose to phrase things and I think that's fair enough”.

The second criticism centred on CRED’s perceived “sloppiness” with evidence – such as claims the ethnicity pay gap had shrunk despite more rigorous analysis of the same data suggesting otherwise. This and similar issues may have been due to time constraints. One commissioner admitted: “a couple more months wouldn’t have hurt”.

The third surrounded notable omissions from the report. For instance, despite being tasked with looking at “the whole population,” groups including the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, anti-discrimination charity Friends, Families and Travellers and race equality think tank British Future noted the report failed to adequately discuss Jewish, Muslim,Gypsy, Roma, Traveller and mixed race groups. Sewell was initially defensive when asked about this, but later conceded “there could have been more mention of other groupings”.

It is likely none of these alone would have been enough to spark the overwhelmingly negative response that followed. What did, however, was the way the report handled institutional racism.

“We took time to read the report and think about what we wanted to say.”

Institutional racism

The idea that racism can be unintentional is key to the concept of institutional racism.

The 1981 Rampton Report, an interim report on racial disparities in British schools, generated controversy when it found “racism, both intentional and unintentional, has a direct and important bearing on the performance of West Indian children in our schools”. This finding was widely condemned by the media, with The Times education correspondent suggesting the Rampton commissioners were wrong to assume “West Indians are in fact performing at a level below their (intellectual) capabilities”.

The concept was first described in 1967 by activists Charles Hamilton and Kwame Ture in Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America. Lord Macpherson, in his 1999 inquiry into matters arising from the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence, built upon Hamilton and Ture’s work to define institutional racism as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.

The Macpherson definition included a crucial caveat: “we will not produce a definition cast in stone, or a final answer”.

CRED affirmed the Macpherson definition, confirming it had “stood the test of time”. However, it also cited concerns it was being “liberally used” and argued there was need for a new “clear” definition. CRED’s “clear” definition of institutional racism was: “applicable to an institution that is racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours in a single institution”.

When asked about the provenance of this definition, some involved expressed misgivings and spoke of how they found the new definition confusing. Others, like Fraser, were reticent to get into “that kind of micro detail”. Nevertheless, some stood by it – Muroki explained the definition was merely intended to be a “paraphrasing of the Macpherson definition”. If so, it is striking that references to “unwitting prejudice, ignorance (and) thoughtlessness” were removed, key aspects of the original Macpherson definition.

The report did not say institutional racism does not exist in Britain. Rather, it suggested there was no evidence of it – according to the new definition – in CRED’s four areas of focus: education, employment, crime and policing, and health.

For many, this was untenable. Critics piled in, from The Runnymede Trust (“frankly disturbing”), to the University and College Union (“an insult to all those in Britain who experience racism”), to the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (an “attempt to normalize white supremacy”). Historians listed as report stakeholders spoke of their outrage of being “attached to such a shameful document”.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a report stakeholder and Director of The UCL Institute of Health Equity, wrote of his surprise that CRED was “so ready to dismiss structural racism” and emphasised that “structural racism can be one cause of the social determinants of health”.

The Observer reported that even commissioner Kunle Olulode’s charity, Voice4Change, said “the report does not give enough to show its understanding of institutional or structural discrimination”. (Sources emphasised that Olulode himself was not quoted as saying this).

The public outcry came in alongside various media outlets, from the BBC to The Sun, discussing the report as though it had made a totalising statement about the existence of institutional racism in the UK.

Sewell told The House that while it was nice to be defended by the likes of The Telegraph and the Daily Mail – which each suggested the report had said Britain was not institutionally racist – “Sometimes you have friends you don’t want to have. Sometimes the people you think are writing something friendly, you actually say, ‘please don't even go there, because you're not getting it right.’”

Even commentators who recognised CRED’s limited scope were left confused by its conclusion.

Sunder Katwala, the director of the think-tank British Future, for example, points to a key passage of the employment section which highlights that “to receive a call back (for a job), people with ethnic minority names had to write 1.6 letters for every one written by someone with a majority name”. If a workplace is less likely to call back someone with an ethnic minority name, that would suggest that workplace has “discriminatory processes”.

In a public debate soon after the report was published, between Sewell, Katwala and others, Sewell said the commissioners “believe racism exists. It exists in institutions, it exists in structures, it exists across the piece. And we have found that in the report”.

Keith Fraser was disheartened by the backlash, which he felt unfairly represented what CRED said about institutional racism. However, he retains cordial relations with some of CRED’s most ardent critics: “I don't want to get into an argument with those people because I want to work with anybody. I want to work with people that disagree with me”.

Sewell, on the other hand, is less inclined to make peace. He described the Guardian, which hosted several critiques of CRED, as a “dangerous newspaper,” adding: “There were groups of people mobilising different organisations to come together and using the Guardian as a mechanism. Remember, the Runnymede [Trust] comes out of the Guardian as well, because it's in the same offices.” (The House found no evidence of The Runnymede Trust and the Guardian ever sharing an office).

He is not alone in criticising Runnymede. Soon after the charity published its critique of CRED, 20 Conservative MPs wrote to the Charity Commission alleging it was evidence of the Trust engaging in unlawful political activity. The Commission found no breach of guidance.

Sewell also suggested the aforementioned UN Working Group was contacted as part of a coordinated attack on CRED. Dominique Day, the former chair of this Group, refuted this, stressing to The House that it took three weeks for them to draft and publish their response, “we took time to read the report and think about what we wanted to say”.

Of all CRED’s critics, none attracted Sewell’s ire more than Marmot.

Marmot came out against the report eight days after it was published. However, giving evidence before the Women and Equalities Committee two months after the report’s publication, Sewell said he had “breaking news. Professor Marmot has rowed back a little bit on his criticisms of the report now and has come in alongside us”. This was news to Marmot. He told The House: “It isn't accurate to say I've walked back my criticism of the CRED report”.

When asked why Sewell might believe he had, Marmot said this could be due to a public seminar he was part of in 2021; at that seminar it was put to him that some ethnic minorities had lower all-cause mortality rates than white people, which appeared to contradict his view that health disparities reflect structural racism. Marmot says he “mused” publicly about this, but ultimately did not walk back his view.

When asked why he claimed Marmot had “come in alongside” CRED, Sewell said “I don’t know what he’s saying. He’s coming up and down every minute”. He added that Marmot was “quite dangerous because, in the end, what happens is he comes out and, because he’s white and liberal, won’t say what the nuanced and complex issues are around health disparities”.

While he said he retains some respect for Marmot’s work – “I agree with Marmot, I do think structural racism still plays a part in health outcomes” – he was frustrated with what he saw as an understanding of British racial health disparities based on American studies and an overemphasis on structural racism as a root cause, likening Marmot’s scientific method to that of “19th century explorers going to Africa and getting skulls and measuring them against white people and saying ‘this is more intelligent’”.

Marmot said this characterisation was “offensive and wrong,” adding: “The conclusions of my colleagues and I on the causes of health inequalities have always been based on careful analyses of the evidence. The recommendations we have made to the World Health Organisation and to governments around the world, over decades, are based, to use Lord Sewell’s language, on interpretation of nuanced and complex issues around health inequalities.

He added that a commission he led in the Americas, “whose members from the North, South and the Caribbean could in no way be described as ‘white liberals’ – produced overwhelmingly strong evidence on the damaging effects of structural racism. There is a serious debate to be had about how widespread structural racism is in Britain. Trotting out tropes about white racist scientists is not a meaningful contribution.”

“This was a disruptive piece of work and that’s good. Usually, government reports are pretty lame.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

The ferocity of the row distracted from discussion of the report’s recommendations, of which there were 24 – most uncontentious.

The first was to reinforce the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – a recommendation that had been made in several reports prior to CRED, including the 2020 Joint Committee on Human Rights Black people, racism and human rights report (Labour MP Harriet Harman was the chair of this Committee and Sewell says she encouraged CRED to include an EHRC recommendation).

Other recommendations included a call to disaggregate the term BAME, to extend the school day, to establish an Office for Health Disparities and to open up access to apprenticeships.

The government’s response to these recommendations, Inclusive Britain, was published on 17 March, to a far more muted response. It incorporated some politically charged language: its foreword, written by Badenoch, quoted Thomas Sowell to make the claim CRED had told people “the truth”.

Nonetheless, the rest of it was markedly neutral, focussed on laying out a 75-point action plan. A Government spokesperson told the House it “sets out how we will build a fairer and more inclusive society for all, with actions across education, health, employment, criminal justice and family support.”

Muroki says some of the Inclusive Britain actions are “bringing in policies that already existed and kind of trying to paint them as if they're new actions”. For example, the response to CRED’s recommendation to clamp down on online racist abuse is a commitment to introduce the Online Safety Bill, a bill that has been in the works since 2020.

However, as she points out, there are some new actions. These include a commitment to extending Project ADDER, a scheme designed to divert drug users from the criminal justice system, following a CRED recommendation that called for the development of an evidence-based pilot to move low-level Class B drug possession offences from criminal justice to the public health system.  The government has made the commitment despite current Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s reported opposition to cannabis decriminalisation.

Sewell said the recommendation was born of the police arresting more children for low-level cannabis offences while trying to patrol areas with high levels of violent crime, leading to those from deprived areas being unfairly targeted.

He went on to say CRED “fought for” the Class B recommendation, saying “The Telegraph didn’t like it" and that Badenoch “wasn’t that comfortable with it,” but “realised she had to take an independent report and run with it.” 

He throws up his hands: “Why didn't the Guardian run with that headline? Why didn’t all the groups who are always campaigning about cannabis legalisation? Why weren't they all over this thing?”

Appearing to confirm commissioners’ suspicions that some critics didn’t read the report, when told by The House of this recommendation one prominent detractor exclaimed: “Oh, I wasn’t aware of that! I would support that!”

Sewell is also hopeful about getting the Department for Education to pay more attention to vocational outcomes for Black students: “Gillian Keegan [Education Secretary] is the vocational queen… I've got some clout now because I'm a Lord, so I’m going to […] talk to [her] about how to make that happen.”

Some critics of the CRED report feel more positively about Inclusive Britain. The Runnymede Trust said Inclusive Britain signalled “a welcome de-escalation” and that “many of its recommendations echo…the wider race equality sector”. It also called for greater clarity on some of the action points.

Katwala was struck by the muted public response to Inclusive Britain in comparison to CRED, “I think it’s a challenge for race equality. When you’re being constructive, there’s a risk nobody notices”.

Many The House spoke to expressed concern about what they saw as a growing political divide on race since the culture wars erupted during the Johnson years. Muroki hopes, whatever the results of the next general election, “whichever government comes into power does take forward the (CRED) recommendations”.

As Britain has entered a cost-of-living crisis and continues to witness considerable political turmoil, Fraser stresses the importance of maintaining focus. He says the public “need to be challenging the government on the 75 actions they say they’re going to do. Because to just focus on undermining 12 independent people… is that the right place to be?”

Only time will tell whether the Inclusive Britain strategy will have any success at tackling racial and ethnic disparities. Only time will tell if Black people gain any benefit from it; lest we forget government created CRED in response to one of the biggest protests against anti-Black racism the world has ever seen. The UN Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent will be among the first to officially question government about it when they conduct a country visit from 18 to 27 of this month.

For Sewell, who was rewarded for his efforts with a peerage late last year, one thing is certain: “this was a disruptive piece of work and that’s good. Usually, government reports are pretty lame”.