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Middlesex University responds to the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

23/04/2021
Middlesex University rejects the Sewell Report and its conclusions and acknowledges the existence of systemic and institutional racism, particularly in higher education

In response to the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published on 31 March 2021, Middlesex University wishes to emphasise that it acknowledges the continued existence of systemic and institutional racism including in higher education and the wider education, healthcare and criminal justice systems. The University endorses the statement prepared by its Anti-Racism Network, representatives of the Middlesex University and College Union, Students’ Union and members of the University community (statement below).

Middlesex University is committed to developing a complex, intersectional understanding of how racism operates at different levels, be it structural, institutional or individual; to conducting open and honest discussions about racism; to listening to and supporting students, staff and wider community who experience racism; and to challenging racism in all its forms.

Statement on the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities:

We - the MDX Anti-Racism Network Steering Group, representatives of the MDX UCU and Student Union, scholar-activists and members of the MDX community - would like to raise the concerns we have with the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) published on 31/03/2021. Stakeholders and ‘contributors’ to the report have been increasingly distancing themselves from its conclusions in recent days, many of which believe the report deliberately misrepresented their work and / or their agreement with its content (Guardian 2021). The conclusion of the report, which we reject, is that there is no institutional racism in the UK. We disagree with the fundamental tone and much of the content of the report, which denies the true extent and effects of institutional racism in the UK, particularly on the educational outcomes and life chances of young people from racial / ethnic minority backgrounds. According to the report, we should ‘look beyond race’ (p. 29) when addressing social, economic and educational disadvantages. The report’s main conclusions with regard to educational success focus on individual attainment, family socio-economic status, and geographical location, claiming that very few of the existing impediments and disparities are directly to do with systemic racism. This undermines the extant social science research which evidences structural and institutional factors affecting minority racial / ethnic young people in the UK. It also fundamentally misunderstands the inextricability of race to class formation, and class to racial formation in the UK (Virdee 2017) and demonstrates an unwillingness to grapple with nuanced and academically-informed understandings of contemporary racisms.

Despite evidence of institutional racism, a term introduced into popular discourse by anti-racism activists Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton in the 1960s and stillharnessed and evidenced by scholars, activists and leading equality campaigners today, the report claims that there is no evidence to support claims of institutional racism (p. 34).We refute this on the basis that there is a plethora of robust quantitative and qualitative data (including but absolutely not exhaustive to the Lammy Review, the McGregor-Smith Review, the Covid-19 Marmot Review, research by the Runnymede Trust, the Resolution Foundation, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission) documenting the existence of ‘lived’ racisms and racialisations endured by individuals in the UK today across most sectors of industry as well as academia, education, the healthcare system and the criminal justice system.

Institutional racism manifests in a number of ways. Conclusions from the IFS Deaton Review show that for Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups in the labour market, employment rates, occupational attainment rates, and pay tends to be far lower than White groups due to a number of intersecting factors in which ‘systematic racial discrimination in the labour market’ plays a significant part. In higher education, there exists a 13 per cent awarding gap between Black, Asian and ethnic minority students and White students, and in a typical gathering of 100 professors just two would be Black, Asian or ethnic minority women according to Universities UK (2019). The Equal charity, the Sentencing Council and the Prison Reform Trust have all suggested that there is a ‘long way to go to reduce racial and ethnic disparities across the criminal justice system’ (The Independent 2021). The report reduces the role of racisms across the healthcare system to ‘pessimism’ (p. 30). It fails to give due credence to the shocking fact that 90 per cent of doctors and 70 per cent of nurses who died of Covid-19 were from racial / ethnic minority backgrounds (BMA 2020), and that the rate for deaths involving Covid-19 from March to May 2020 was highest among males of Black ethnic background at 255.7 deaths per 100,000 population (ONS 2020). Many of our students and staff have palpable feelings about the inflammatory nature of the report and how it negates their experiences of systemic racism particularly during the course of this pandemic.

The report recognises different graduate outcomes: although the figure of students from racial / ethnic minority backgrounds attending UK universities is higher than that of white students, Black, Asian and ethnic minority students are less likely to secure employment in their chosen career after university, and are more likely to drop out, have lower levels of attainment, and lower earnings (pp. 96-7). The recommendation of the report, however, is not to tackle the systematic exclusions and inequalities in secondary and higher education, but to improve ‘informal choices of support’ and ‘careers guidance’. These measures don’t go far enough. Further, there is a risk of perpetuating a deficit-model where students who are underperforming academically are guided out of higher education and into alternative vocational routes. This is suggested in the report’s statement that ‘too many people are dropping out of university or not getting good graduate jobs […] we need to promote a wider range of alternatives to HE’ (p. 56). We are concerned this creates a racialised binary of ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ student categories, rather than making financial and pastoral resources available to support everyone to reach their potential and creating a tertiary education system that enables all learners to access different types of learning throughout their lives.

The report dismisses the diverse range of experiences relating to racism and racial exclusion that racial / ethnic minority people and multiple generations of racial / ethnic minority scholars of race have documented. It further seeks to disprove the interlinking of racial and economic inequalities, and to discredit ongoing anti-racist work by deflecting attention from structural issues to ‘the attitudes of minority communities themselves’ (p. 11), giving credence to long-discredited deficit hypotheses. The ‘agency’ narrative they also deploy suggests that inequality is to some extent a matter of individual choice, and that it is up to individuals to correct it. This further props up colourblind approaches to dealing with racial inequality which critical race scholars in education, particularly, have long taken issue with (see: Gillborn 2006 for example).

We also stand alongside critiques by public historians which have accused the report’s rewriting of Britain’s history of colonialism and slavery. The report’s attack on movements to decolonise curricula as tokenistic gestures or disproportionately focused on the banning of white authors is a gross mischaracterisation of current efforts by committed educators in schools and universities to redress the racial imbalances in the educational system.

We ask that Middlesex University London publicly rejects the report and its conclusions, acknowledges the existence of systemic and institutional racism, particularly in higher education, and continues to support the cause of combating these forms of discrimination wherever they may be found.

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