TNL Founder Sam Green reflects on and responds to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report and why our platform will continue to advocate for anti-racism.
As is so often the case, the incisive intervention of Liz Pemberton has prompted me to step outside of my privileged position – in which the contents of this week’s report from the Commission on Race & Ethnic Disparities have little impact on me personally – and to respond publicly and unambiguously to what it says.
Before articulating the specifics of my response, I feel it is important to set my words in their proper context. I am writing this article whilst wearing several different hats.
- I write as the Founder & CEO of That Nursery Life, a business on a mission to radically improve the impact of early childhood education in the UK.
- I write as Co-Founder & CEO of The Good Box, a new start-up making rapid progress with our innovative answer to the challenges of changing consumer behaviour for the better.
- I write as the leader of Prasinus, the organisation at the heart of my professional life and which is dedicated to developing and growing entrepreneurial projects under my direction.
Whilst I am an extremely long way from being the largest employer, the most influential leader, or the most powerful force for change in our society I feel it is important to be clear that the views and thoughts which follow represent my whole-hearted and full-throated position, and by extension, represent the corporate position of the organisations I lead.
Centuries of Racism are the root cause of many contemporary inequalities
The Commission’s report repeatedly attempts to draw a distinction between disparities in British society caused by racism, and those caused by other “socio-economic” factors. To select a single example for the purposes of illustration, the report says:
“The increased age-adjusted risk of death from COVID-19 in Black and
South Asian groups has widely been reported as being due to racism – and as exacerbating existing health inequalities. However many analyses have shown that the increased risk of dying from COVID-19 is mainly due to an increased risk of exposure to infection”
That the Commission has published such a flawed and ill-thought-through position is frankly appalling.
For most of the 188 years since British slavery was abolished, Black people and those of other diverse heritage backgrounds have faced intense and overt racism. Openly prejudicial views that Black people are less capable of doing certain forms of work, violent persecution of our South Asian and East and South East Asian citizens on the streets, and the exclusion of people from non-white communities from much of British sport and cultural life was rife in our country for decade after decade. Whilst the Commission is correct that such forms of racism have been and continue to decline, to suggest that the after-effects of those decades are disappearing at the same rate is moronic.
We need only go back three generations – to my Great-Grandparents – to find ourselves in overtly and toxically racist Britain. Were my ancestors from Black or South Asian heritage, the overt racism of the time would have all-but guaranteed that my grandparents were born into a poor, under-educated family, dependent on low-paying manual jobs in an inner-city. Even as such overt racism became progressively less acceptable through the 1950s and 1960s, having started out life in racially-marginalised poverty, it is highly likely that the next generation – my parents – would have also been born into a similarly poor, under-educated family which lived in an inner-city location close to the source of the same manual, badly paid work. That my forebears did not experience this life is in large part because they had the good fortune to be born White.
The fact that Black and South Asian families are much more likely to live in more dense areas of our cities, to do work which puts them at greater risk of COVID exposure, and to have multiple generations of families living in one home are unquestionably the direct result of that historic racism. That Black people are much less likely to be violently assaulted because of their race today does absolutely nothing to change the “baked-in” inequality from the decades when that was a daily risk. Socio-economic factors are inescapably tied to race and ethnicity, and by extension the impact of those factors on the lives of our fellow citizens today is a product of racism.
Being Anti-Racist is not the same as being Anti-White
Much of the Commission’s report returns to a critical stance on the principle of an “anti-racist agenda”. The suggestion, raised multiple times through the report, is that advocates of such a view are “ill-informed or uninformed”. Setting the deeply frustrating superiority implicit in such an attitude aside, it is also fundamentally wrong.
In much the same way that some people attempt to characterise feminism as being determined to “bring men down”, the suggestion that those of us who are proactively anti-racist want to undermine White people is nothing more than a means of deflecting the deeply challenging points we raise.
My position on being anti-racist is not about taking anything away from White people or communities, and of course there are thousands upon thousands of White people who do not have the life, opportunities, health or happiness to which they are entitled. However it is a reality is that while 1 in every 25 White Britons lives in poverty, 1 in 10 of their Black and South Asian peers do1. This is a result of generational inequality and it is important to be clear in our collective understanding that race plays a role in how likely people are to experience poverty in the UK, and that that is unacceptable.
A final word here on one of the most disturbing sections of the Commission’s report – their treatment of percentages and raw figures. In various places, the Commission appears to minimise the importance or relevance of percentage-based data by citing the raw numbers involved. Using similar statistics to those I’ve quoted above, the report explicitly proposes that the higher incidence of poverty in Black, Asian and racially minoritised communities isn’t so much of a problem because 1 in 10 Black people is a smaller raw number of individuals than 1 in 25 White people. For the authors of a report on racial disparity in our society to start down such a path is deeply disturbing, and in my view undermines the credibility of the Commission outright.
The current speed of change is unacceptably slow
My characterisation of the report as a whole is that it attempts to paint a largely optimistic picture on the basis that the situation today isn’t as bad as it was before, and that by most measures, things are heading in the right direction. So why worry?! If we continue as we are, things will keep getting better and so the order of the day is “steady as she goes”.
Such a stance is abhorrent. Whilst progress in the right direction is clearly better than the alternative, such progress as we are making is nowhere near swift enough to warrant us giving ourselves a collective pat on the back.
One area that stood out to me in particular is the section of the report which discussed disparities in income and wealth. “It is less encouraging” the Commission tells us that wealth and property ownership remains wildly disparate based on the ethnicity of a citizen, but after all “one would expect wealth accumulation to take longer in generational time”. If you think that sounds reasonable, bear in mind that the median total wealth for a family in Britain with a Black African “head” is £34,000. The same measure for a family with a White British “head” is £314,000. That the median White family is almost 1,000% more wealthy than the equivalent Black African family is disgusting, and anything less than progress at the fastest possible rate is unacceptable.
The full report from the Commission is long, detailed, and – to give it its due – does contain some interesting perspectives and useful statistical insights. However, in its entirety it undermines and in places seems to directly try and curtail the substantial increase in awareness of, anger about, and impetus to change the pervasive race-based inequalities which remain in British society. For that to be its principal impact underscores why the criticism of the document has been so intense.
For my part, I will continue to implement a proudly anti-racist agenda in my life and in the work of my organisations. I will continue to seek out voices who are able to kindly but unreservedly point out where we can do better. We will continue to place conversations about race and equality at the heart of our decision making every day. Little by little, with each in-built disadvantage we find a way to tear down, we are making progress towards a society where race and ethnicity is something that brings only positivity, vibrancy, and the joy of our differences. May that day come soon.
Some final thoughts for our early years community
As I laid out at the beginning of my response above, I have several different hats to wear, of which being the CEO of That Nursery Life is one. I felt it was important to supplement my more general response with a few additional thoughts about the relevance of the Commission’s report in early years.
In early years we have the privileged position of being the first community with which each new generation first engages. Most children’s first friends will be made in our settings, and early years professionals will usually be among the first adults outside of an immediate family unit with whom children first build meaningful relationships. The fact that a system of such incalculable importance in children’s lives is riddled with economic, structural, and regulatory flaws is at the heart of what That Nursery Life is trying to achieve.
Issues of racism and a lack of diversity are some of the most significant areas in need of radical reform within our sector, and in addition to the points I highlighted in my main response there are a handful of early years specific things add:
Tackling “baked-in” racism means being proactive
It is really easy to not think about racism, if you’re White. Racism does not crop up in our lives every day, and just as I failed to make time to engage with the Commission’s report until Liz gave me a boot up the backside, we can all sit comfortably in our bubble assuming that because we don’t notice it, it can’t be much of a problem in our area at least. It is incumbent on all of us who don’t have a personal experience of racism to reach out to those who do. Making an additional effort to encourage job applicants from diverse communities, engaging directly with faith and community leaders who represent those of diverse heritages, and yes, finding your own “Liz” who can, in a productive and positive way, call you out on things you could be doing better are all steps you can start taking today.
We need to model the future we want
For decades overt, obvious racism literally stopped people of diverse heritage from being part of many areas of society and the economy. Until relatively recently, the overwhelming majority of police officers were White for example. As great as it is that overt racism is in decline, we in early years need to be especially ready to counter the long-term effects that linger. Think of the small world police figures in your setting, or of the illustrations of police officers in books or on posters – how many of those depictions of officers show White people? Making toys and books more diverse is never going to “fix” racism, but the value of modelling to the next generation that people of any ethnicity can be and do anything must not be understated. For a young Black girl to have her imagination triggered by seeing a Black woman depicted as a police officer in a book is the sort of formative experience which will open her ambitions and make her less likely to accept false “barriers” in her future.
Talking about race isn’t racist
Until relatively recently I felt very uncomfortable talking about race. A lack of understanding about the significance of different terminology, anxiety about unleashing a social media storm of criticism, and generally feeling as though my White-ness made me the wrong person to discuss race publicly are perspectives which might resonate with you too. Thanks to Liz and passionate, open-minded advocates like her, I have come to recognise that we all need to talk about racism more. There is a world of difference between the person who leaves a comment on Twitter dripping in racism and anger, and the person who tries to share an honest self-reflection on issues of race and might make some clumsy use of language in the process. Have the confidence to be open about what you don’t understand, invite constructive criticism, and be humble in hearing it and trying to make changes.
That Nursery Life is resolutely committed to an Anti-Racist agenda in the early years sector, and society as a whole. We are working hard to change the way we hire staff to build a more diverse team, our Content Team keeps considerations of race, diversity and representation at the forefront of their editorial process, the colleagues who manage our social media output similarly work hard to ensure our feeds are diverse and empowering to all members of our audience, and Liz remains a key part of our leadership team with a clear mandate to point out where we can do better.
If you would like to learn more about how you can implement an Anti-Racist agenda in your own early years setting, please consider joining us on Friday 9th April for the launch of TNL’s new “Anti-Racism Pack”. Liz and I will be hosting this webinar together, and I’m sure it will be quite a session as we discuss why TNL has produced this pack, what it contains, and how you can get your hands on it.