Sewell, Badenoch, Mirza and Patel — How the government deploy their BME MPs to fight the #WarOnWoke
Lee Pinkerton explores how the UK government are using their Black and Asian MPs and advisors to shut down accusations of racism and deny the existence of institutional racism.
The release of the long-awaited report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities at the end of March, was met with equal measures of disbelief and outrage. Race commentators queued up to condemn it, while even some of those credited as contributors sought to distance themselves from its findings.
Along with its 24 recommendations, the top-line of the report was that institutional racism was a fiction, the success of certain ethnic groups standing as proof that progress in modern day Britain was open to anyone who was willing to work hard.
But this report was not some accidental own-goal from a government who are juggling too many crises to keep their eye on the issue of race. It was instead part of a long-running, on-going campaign which has become known as the culture wars or the ‘War on Woke’. An agenda with no shortage of right-wing supporters both inside and outside of the government, who refuse to reconsider Britain’s historical legacy, and have no intention of reshaping modern-day society to make things fairer for those citizens who may be the descendants of victims of these historical wrongs.
But with so many other reports investigating racial inequality gathering dust on shelves, why commission another one?
When the Black Lives Matter movement entered the mainstream news agenda in the summer of 2020, government ministers were at pains to express condemnation for the murder of George Floyd but were equally quick to point out that such violent racism did not exist in this country. They uniformly made a point of characterising these protests as complaints about police violence in America and refused to entertain any debate about wider systemic issues in this country.
When the statue to slave trader Edward Colston was pulled from its plinth in Bristol, the response of this government was not to embark in a discussion about this country’s chequered history, but rather to categorise those involved as thugs and vandals.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said that there was ‘no justification’ for writing political slogans on the statue of Winston Churchill and that the government would tackle anyone who seeks to erase part of the nation’s history, adding this was “at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies”.
But still, what to do about the thousands of people up and down the country taking to the streets demanding equality?
In response the government did what it always does — commissioned an enquiry to kick the issue into the long grass in the hope that the energy of those demanding systemic change would eventually fizzle out.
When in June 2020 Boris Johnson announced that he would establish a cross-government commission to examine racial inequality in the UK, he promised it would look at “all aspects of inequality — in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life”.
It mattered not that scores of reports have already been written on these areas. Those reports are no good because they don’t say what he wants them to say. In separate comments to broadcasters, the PM revealed the real motivation behind the commission.
“What I really want to do as prime minister is change the narrative, so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.”
Its no accident then that Johnson chose Munira Mirza to lead his commission. Mirza, spent eight years as Johnson’s deputy mayor for culture in London, and has been an outspoken critic of previous government attempts to tackle structural factors behind racial inequality.
Mirza stands firmly against the anti-racism movement, describing it as “bogus moral crusade” imported from the USA, “…with its demented campus dramas and neuroses about ‘safe spaces’, ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘cultural appropriation’”.
She condemned an audit of racial inequalities in public services commissioned by Theresa May, writing for the Spectator in 2017 that the audit showed how “anti-racism is becoming weaponised across the political spectrum”. In the article, she took issue with David Lammy’s review into the justice system by saying that in some ways, people from BAME backgrounds have “more favourable treatment compared with whites”.
Regarding the Windrush scandal, Mirza claimed that “the real lesson is not one of racism, as in the deliberate targeting of ethnic minority groups, rather it is that the process of immigration enforcement needs to be improved”.
In an award-winning display of reductionism, in 2018 she spoke about the weaponisation of victimhood:
“The common denominator with all these stories is the simplistic conclusions that we are supposed to draw. Men are beasts. Whites are oppressors. Britain is bad.”
When Mirza was looking for someone to chair the Commission on race and ethnic disparities, she found the perfect candidate in Dr Tony Sewell — a Black man who, like her, refuses to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism.
Sewell is very hot on education. His organisation Generating Genius did great work in helping Black boys into Russell group universities to study STEM subjects. But he has always shown less concern for those without the potential to get into Oxbridge.
Way back in 2010 he said:
“What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers. Instead of challenging our children, we have given them the discourse of the victim — a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed.”
When asking for an extension for the Commission’s report at the end of 2020, Sewell gave a preview of what was to come, when he wrote that they had uncovered “a perception of racism that is often not supported by evidence” and that “wrong perceptions sow mistrust”.
The results of his final report came as no surprise then to observers who have been following his career. Sewell was the right man for the job — the job of legitimising the government’s worldview and defusing any claim of racism that might be hurled at them.
Though not a government minister, Sewell can take his place alongside the other melanted deniers of racism Mirza and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch.
The furore of the Sewell report in March had followed hot on the heals of the January spat between Badenoch and Huffington Post journalist Nadine White.
White had contacted the Minister to ask why she hadn’t taken part in a video encouraging Black and Asian people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Badenoch did not respond to the emailed question but instead took to twitter to launch a personal attack on White accusing her of “sowing distrust” and spreading “disinformation”.
That a government Minister would use the platform of twitter to launch a personal attack on a journalist asking a simple question struck many as strange. But Badenoch had not gone rogue — on the contrary she was playing her position. And she has form in this area.
Three months earlier Badenoch argued that critical race theory should not be taught in schools. She told MPs in October: “Some schools have decided to openly support the anti-capitalist Black Lives Matter group, often fully aware that they have a statutory duty to be politically impartial.”
She rubbished calls to decolonise the curriculum and went on to describe this anti-racist theory in a way that bears no resemblance to what campaigners are calling for.
“We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”
The same month she voiced her frustrations in The Spectator magazine in which she stated that she was “particularly incensed by the boom in sales of texts such as White Fragility by Robin Di Angelo and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race”. Many of these books — and, in fact, some of the authors and proponents of critical race theory — actually want a segregated society”.
If they continue to dutifully toe the party-line on race, perhaps one day Mirza and Badenoch can reach the heights of chief racism enabler, Home Secretary Priti Patel.
In June 2020, Patel criticised Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Bristol for toppling the statue of Edward Colston, calling it “utterly disgraceful”. When responding to the Labour MP Florence Eshalomi, who suggested that Patel did not understand the anger felt by people, and their desire for action to tackle structural racism, Patel responded saying that,
“I’m really really saddened that [Eshalomi] has effectively said that this government doesn’t understand racial inequality.
Well, on that basis, it must have been a very different home secretary who as a child was frequently called a Paki in the playground, (and) who was racially abused in the streets or even advised to drop her surname and use her husband’s in order to advance her career.
So when it comes to racism, sexism, tolerance or social justice, I will not take lectures from the other side of the house.
I have already said repeatedly there is no place for racism in our country or in society. And sadly, too many people are too willing to casually dismiss the contributions of those who don’t necessarily confirm to pre-conceived views or ideas about how ethnic minorities should behave or think. This … in my view is racist in itself.”
In response more than 30 Labour MPs from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds accused Priti Patel of trying to silence debate by “using” her own experience of racism.
In the letter, the Labour MPs tell Patel that “being a person of colour does not automatically make you an authority on all forms of racism” and that her experiences should not be used to “silence” others.
Priti Patel may well be the daughter of immigrants, but in her role as Home Secretary she is much keener to pander to the right of her party than to show any mercy to present day migrants.
She has vowed to make the Channel “unviable” for migrant boats and in October 2020, in a speech about the UK asylum system, Patel lambasted those she termed “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” for “defending the indefensible”.
When in November 2020 scores of black celebrities, Windrush campaigners and activists urged airlines to not to operate a “wholly inappropriate” mass deportation flight of up to 50 people to Jamaica Patel accused Labour MPs and ‘do-gooding’ celebrities of insulting Windrush victims.
She said it was ‘deeply offensive’ to liken those unjustly caught up in the scandal to Jamaican rapists, murderers and thugs who are trying to avoid being kicked out of Britain.
Sewell, Mirza, Badenoch and Patel say things that no white government minister could get away with. But they are very much sticking to the government script. If by the end of 2020 one was still not clear what the government’s attitude to race and racism was, Liz Truss helpfully made it plain.
In December 2020 the then Minister for Women and Equalities Truss gave a speech that was meant to set out the Johnson administration’s overhaul the Government’s equalities work but was in fact more like an attack on the race equality sector.
Truss declared the fight for equality should be led by ‘facts, not fashion’ and claimed notions of structural racism, protected characteristics and intersectionality were simply the flavour of the month and had all been proven worthless.
While accepting that Britain was still riven with inequality, she argued that the focus should be more on geographic inequality rather than race or other protected identities.
“Too often, the equality debate has been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic, and not by their individual character.
This school of thought says that if you are not from an ‘oppressed group’ then you are not entitled to an opinion, and that this debate is not for you. I wholeheartedly reject this approach.”
What Truss is arguing here, is that she will not allow those working in the race equality sector or even Black people themselves to inform government policy on equality. Instead, it is the government themselves who will decide what is and is not racist, and who if anyone is affected by it.
In a similar way that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Cressida Dick feels perfectly justified to assert the Met is no longer institutionally racist, despite the many Black people (both members of the public and former officers) telling her that it is.
The Government has made it clear that it dismisses the idea of structural racism and believes that the only reason black people cling to it, is because they are misled by the media and the race equality sector. In her December speech Truss said…
“As a comprehensive school student in Leeds in the 1980s, I was struck by the lip service that was paid to equality by the City Council while children from disadvantaged backgrounds were let down. While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.”
The implication here is that by focusing on racial and gender inequality, the basics of education and the removing of class inequality has been neglected. The message is clear — ‘we can’t help you poor whites while these complaining black folks keep demanding more of our scarce resources’.
Boris Johnson has long paraded his cabinet as the most ethnically diverse in British history. From a distance this appears true. The current party contains former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid; the first Black chairman of a main political party, James Cleverly; the first Muslim to attend Cabinet, Sayeeda Warsi; and the first female British-Asian Home Secretary, Priti Patel.
But while the government pats itself on the back for its diversity, ethnic minority communities continue to face extensive and persistent inequalities in the criminal justice system, healthcare and education. And it’s BME MPs seem as oblivious to these inequalities as their white counterparts. Perhaps that’s because with their comfortably middle-class backgrounds, they share little in common with the ethnic minorities they hail from. Or maybe they’ve just realised what every employee must if they want to get ahead at work — you’ll have a better time of it if you tell your boss what they want to hear.
In truth, there is very little real diversity in the current cabinet. Yes, there may be some in terms of skin tone, but not in terms of educational background or diversity of thought.
Ethnic minority cabinet ministers continue to uphold institutional racism today, using their identities to give the impression of progress and equality of opportunity when in reality they maintain and uphold systems of oppression. Such tokenism allows the government off the hook.
Priti Patel can play the long-established role of hard-nosed Home Secretary as well as any of her white predecessors, but with the added bonus of being immune to accusations of racism thanks to her own brown skin.
Patel and her ilk insist that they and their party are colour-blind. They display their own success as proof positive that ethnic minorities can thrive in this country, while at the same time supporting policies that will disproportionately disadvantage these same people.
Rather than equality of opportunity, what the success of these BME Tories show is that the golden key of an elite education can still open doors, even if you are Black or Brown.
Sadly, the majority of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people is this country do not have the resources to access this kind of education, any more than those Black and Asians exemplars can empathise with their deprivation.