Institutional Racism or Lived Experience. What matters more? | Wasiq Wasiq

There is no doubt that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report has caused somewhat of an uproar. Some of those that vehemently deny the findings or challenge them, have drifted into territory unbecoming of them. There have been ad hominem attacks where the author – Dr Tony Sewell – has been described as a ‘token black man’ or compared to ‘Joseph Goebbels’ because both individuals have a research PhD. The criticisms against these attacks are well rehearsed and ones that I do not intend to repeat here. But what I do need to take issue with, is what matters more, institutional racism or lived experience?

To begin, it is probably worth looking at the term institutional racism and what it actually means. Following the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny was commissioned to carry out a report to identify the lessons to be learned in regards to the investigation and the prosecution of racially motivated crimes. As a result of that report, Sir Macpherson concluded that the police were institutionally racist. He therefore defined institutional racism as:

“The collective failure of an organization 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 that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Since the publication of that report, we have seen how the term institutional racism has become part of our lexicon. Your average member of the public will probably know what it is, but will likely fail to recite it verbatim. But that is not really a concern, since we generally know what racist behaviour is when we see it. But when it comes to not seeing it, there are some that seek to open the public’s consciousness to something that isn’t there but only in eyes of the beholder.

Take for example, Cambridge academic Dr Priyamvada Gopal. In 2018, Dr Gopal complained of racist behaviour from porters at King’s College London because they addressed her as madam and not as Doctor. She claimed they yelled at her and refused her entry to the English Department, after having come from there an hour earlier. Dr Gopal considers this episode to be racist. If racism is premised on the idea of power, then I am not entirely sure how much power the porters at King’s College yield over Dr Gopal – the daughter of an Indian diplomat? Whilst the university found no wrongdoing and considered the actions of the porters to be a matter of procedure and not discrimination, it mattered little. All that mattered was the lived experience of Dr Gopal, not the outcome of the investigation.

An individual’s experience and perception of racism must be taken seriously. There will of course be occasions when the treatment of an ethnic minority crosses the threshold of what is both socially unacceptable and also what is beyond reasonable doubt, racist. But to determine what the threshold is, seems to be placed with the ‘victims’ and no one else. This sequence makes no logical sense, because to challenge and essentially invalidate one’s lived experience, could earn you the charge of being racist. This is exactly what appears to have happened with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report.

The report made clear that racism exists. It stated that progress has been made and the country is different to what it was twenty or thirty years ago. However, the data – intelligently collected, analysed and formed into credible evidence by a credible team – is still at odds with the lived experience of those that claim the contrary to what the report concluded; that there is no more institutional racism.

Data is what it is. It can include your lived experience but your lived experience doesn’t mean it is the only truth. If we were to go down the slippery slope on relying solely on lived experience or opinion polls, then we are left with little evidence to advance the cause of tackling genuine inequalities that exist in modern day Britain.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report is the first step in tackling inequalities. It is fortunate that it was used as a platform for race baiters to push a narrative that unless the system is dismantled, then ethnic minorities will continue to suffer. If institutional racism doesn’t exist – as the report concludes – then perhaps it does exist when it comes to white working-class boys who are achieving lower than their ethnic counterparts. Lived experience matters, but the evidence that challenges it matters just as much. 

Photo Credit.

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