April 1, 2021

The law of the instrument — or “Maslow’s hammer”, as it is sometimes known — has become an indispensable tool for negotiating the current world. It holds, as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, that “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”.

In recent decades, this law has held firm nowhere so much as in the business of “race relations”, where one hammer in particular has been on very public display: the casual accusation of “racism”. Allegations of racism have for decades been among the most serious accusations that can be made against a person; likewise, since the publication of the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, an allegation of “institutional racism” has been the most serious accusation that can be made against an organisation.

With this in mind, it was perhaps inevitable that, by virtue of their potency, such accusations would end up being wielded as a substitute for evidence. And so for years, to set up an investigation into an institution on matters to do with race was to pre-ordain the outcome: the institution always had to be found guilty.

So the list of institutions that have been subjected to accusations of institutional racism has come to encompass almost every corner of British public life. The Church of England has been described as “institutionally racist” by no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is in good company, along with the The National Trust and the entire “British countryside”.

Of course, the problem with these accusations is not just their inaccuracy or predictability. The problem is that they distract from any genuine, meaningful attempts to investigate the complex issues of race in Britain. It is, therefore, fortunate that a new report ordered by the British government following the Black Lives Matter protests last year has shown it is possible to buck this trend.

Indeed, the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published yesterday, is proof that we can do without Maslow’s hammer. Its findings are nuanced and well-researched; it concludes that while Britain is not an entirely “post-racial” society, the success of much of the ethnic minority population “should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries”. It also details how certain ethnic minorities are driving high educational achievement for children, and that this in turn is creating fairer and more diverse workplaces.

All in all, despite its acknowledgement that more work needs to be done, the report paints an encouraging portrait of race relations in Britain. And yet, predictably, this news has not gone down well in all quarters. While conceding that he had not yet read the report, Labour leader Keir Starmer said that he found it “disappointing”, because there is still “a reluctance to accept that that’s structural”. For his part, Starmer has invested heavily in the “racism is institutional” narrative, and so of course it must be deeply unsatisfying for someone to suggest that any remaining issues cannot simply be solved by, for instance, “taking the knee”.

The same applies to Rehana Azam, the national secretary of the GMB trade union. Before the report was even released, she did what any campaigning union leader might be expected to do. Fulsomely quoted in the headline of a Guardian report, and elsewhere, Azam managed to accuse the Commission’s findings of “gaslighting” and “ignoring black and ethnic minority workers’s worries and concerns”, of being “cynical”, “irresponsible”, “immoral” and more. “Institutional racism exists,” said Azam, and is “the lived experience of millions of black and ethnic minority workers”. Her evidence? That ethnic minorities are dying in greater numbers from Covid.

Her allegation, like the question of educational attainment, is a fine example of the problem of the hammer approach. For if it is the case that specific demographics are disproportionately likely to die from Covid, then there might be a variety of reasons for that. It could have something to do with underlying health conditions in those communities; or with the type of jobs members of that community disproportionately perform; or even with their household arrangements and social habits. Members of Britain’s Orthodox community, for example, have been accused of flouting lockdown rules by continuing with mass-participation events. If the statistics show a larger uptick in Covid-related deaths in the Orthodox community, then might such social factors be at least a part of the explanation? The answer, of course, is “yes”.

But if you have only one tool — and that tool is “institutional racism” — that can never be the case. If you have already decided on the explanation for the problem, any attempt at sensible analysis is impossible.

Nowhere are the effects of this doctrinaire approach more pernicious than in the area of educational attainment. In the past, differentials in educational attainment were put down by some to genetic factors; the outperformance of a particular racial group was explained by making reference to the genetic superiority of one group over another. For reasons to do with inaccuracy as much as unpalatability, this explanation has declined in popularity. But if someone today were to enter a discussion wielding the hammer of genetic traits, we would all be able to see what they were doing: rather than being interesting in discussion, their conclusion had already been decided.

Today, with its emphasis on “institutional racism”, a new all-purpose tool has come into existence. But as anyone can see from the evidence provided in the Commission’s report, certain groups do outperform other groups — but this doesn’t necessarily point to “racism”. It notes, for instance, that “the average GCSE Attainment 8 score for Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African pupils were above the White British average”. It is the same with the issue of an alleged “pay gap” between ethnic minorities and the white majority population. The Commission’s report says that this pay gap did exist, but that it has shrunk to 2.3%. It further concludes that in 2019, among the under 30s, there was no significant pay gap between any ethnic minority group and the white majority in work.

This is in line with what a range of sociologists and commentators have tried to point to in recent years: namely, that where disparities do still exist in Britain, they might be explained by a whole range of factors, including social class and family structure. As the Commission concludes, “some of the disparities we examined, which some attribute to racial discrimination, often do not have their origins in racism”. And so it’s no wonder that so many self-proclaimed “progressives” have responded to the report with such fury. After all, the one tool that they have wielded to solve every problem, both real and imaginary, is in the process of being prised carefully from their hands.

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