March 31, 2021 - 11:00am

The British government’s new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report strikes a major blow against institutional wokeness. Repudiating the grievance-based meta-narrative that has defined this institutional space, it advocates a scientific, evidence-led, incrementalist approach to reducing racial and other inequalities. This marks a 180-degree turn from the Cameron and May years, where a key aim of race policy was to soften the Tories’ ostensible ‘nasty party’ image among opinion formers in the progressive media and anti-racism industry.

Wokeness, the sacralisation of historically disadvantaged racial, sexual and gender minorities, decrees that any discussion of racial inequality must dovetail with a master narrative of noble struggle by oppressed minorities and their virtuous white allies against a racist white society. It favours simplicity over complexity, ‘lived experience’ over the scientific method, and the binary ‘majority-minority’ paradigm over complex patterns of multi-ethnic interaction. 

The current default narrative in elite institutions is that if there is a racial gap in any desired outcome, this is proof of institutional racism. Individual anecdotes from members of protected groups must be accepted as evidence even when it is unclear how generalisable they are. The Race Equalities report, meanwhile, argues for a more nuanced approach: accepting that discrimination exists only when confounding variables like income or region have been properly accounted for and competing explanations addressed. 

The report is clear that a simplistic reporting of gaps, or a crude benchmarking of minority representation against an unadjusted national yardstick, will not drive the government’s race equality policy. Minorities are younger and more urbanised, and should be compared against their white equivalents rather than older rural whites. For instance, Covid-19 does not disproportionately kill minorities, but does so when you adjust for age. 

Yet to discern whether racism is involved requires controlling for minorities’ disproportionate employment in frontline services and their multi-generational housing and higher rate of pre-existing health conditions. Instead of crude racial aggregates, the commissioners seek a new scientific emphasis on multivariate analysis of individual-level data to isolate discrimination from confounding factors such as poverty or urbanity.

The report accepts that structural racism – ‘racism without racists’ – can exist, but that the theory must be testable and measurable rather than acting as a shadowy, ethereal force encoded in society’s DNA and people’s collective unconscious. For instance, as the report notes, structural racism exists if everyone is equally prejudiced but one group makes up 90% of the population and the other 10%, in which case discrimination falls disproportionately on the minority. In which case, structural racism can be readily discerned from surveys or experiments which deploy a scientific framework. 

The upshot of all this is a report that stresses Britain’s relative success compared to its own past and that of other countries. There is a preference for evidence-led policy which replaces quotas or targets with ‘nudges’ such as name-blind CVs or family-friendly policies that can address all forms of hidden inequality, not just race. There is an openness to criticism of dominant paradigms, allowing that even CV studies reporting lower minority callback rates for foreign names have been criticised for conflating class, race and culture. The new emphasis, whether in health, education, policing or employment, is on what works and what doesn’t. 

Diversity training that focuses solely on whites discriminating against others, and ignores the ample evidence we have that whites do not discriminate more than other groups, is to be retired. Unconscious bias training, which has been shown to be ineffective or even counterproductive, is criticised as the virtue-signalling it is:

The Commissioners were not impressed by those companies that pointed to their ‘unconscious bias’ training as proof of their progressive credentials…We were impressed by more conscious attempts to foster talent from a wide range of backgrounds.
- Tony Sewell, Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

The report’s shift of narrative from a presumption of national guilt to one of a country that has achieved much, and in which all citizens, regardless of background, have agency, represents a significant change of emphasis. Building minority resilience, celebrating progress, placing remaining problems in international context and tackling remaining racism through incremental, evidence-led, change throws down the gauntlet to the totalising victim-driven narrative of the anti-racism industry:

Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined. The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.
- Tony Sewell, Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

While not discounting racism, the report rebalances the picture with critical context, explaining that differences within races are greater than those between, and all groups are responsible for biases against all groups. Differences in group culture, economic capital at the time of migration, settlement area and other factors affect group outcomes more than racism. 

Beyond this, the report outlines an optimistic vision that departs dramatically from the pessimistic tale of a perpetually racist country locked in a zero-sum struggle for resources. What defines success, as the report notes, is a positive-sum optimisation of outcomes among groups of all kinds, not a narrow maximisation of outcomes for racial minorities. 

While there is no room for complacency, the report establishes, for the first time, a clear need for guardrails to check anti-racist overreach so as to achieve an optimum outcome. As the authors warn: ‘In a sporting match, we care about penalties, but we also care about referees who call too many fouls or players who claim they have been fouled when they have not been.’ 

Specifically, calling false positives sows resentment among members of the majority who feel their group has been unfairly slighted while undermining a sense of agency and national solidarity among minorities, who may be overly sensitised to racism by activists, erecting it as a larger barrier to their flourishing than it actually is. 

When racism comes to be defined so broadly as to encompass any speech that offends the purported sensibilities of the most sensitive minority individual, this shuts down vital discussions around crime, education, health, immigration and national identity.

We shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of this report. The willingness of the government’s official equalities commission to stand against claims made on behalf of the identity Left’s sacred category of historically disadvantaged minorities strikes at the epicentre of wokeness. 

This should prompt a hard reset of diversity and equality programmes across government, redefining best practice in the private sector and thereby spelling the end of the ineffable march of gap-based reasoning and grievance meta-narratives in this country.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of the upcoming Taboo: Why Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press UK, June 6)/The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism (Bombardier Books USA, May 14).