Leading article

The false narrative of white vs BAME

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

Almost 20 years ago, Michael Howard spoke about the ‘British dream’: that immigrant families like his could come to this country and find every door open for their children. The same was true for Priti Patel’s parents, both refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has spoken movingly about his father, who was a refugee from the Nazis. Our islands are and have always been a beacon of light for those fleeing darkness, or simply seeking a better life for their families.

Over the years, our country’s reputation has drawn millions of people who have settled here in search of the British dream. They have faced headwinds of racism and bigotry, as migrants and their families invariably do. But overall, how good a home is Britain for ethnic minorities? This week, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has released a landmark report which casts new light on multiracial Britain. It exposes huge differences in attainment: educational, economic and even criminal justice.

But the biggest differences are between ethnic minorities — and concealed by the acronym BAME. The phrase ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ lumps all non-whites together as if they were a homogenous whole. But, as the report says, this is ‘a group that is held together by no more than what it is not’. The bundling of these separate groups together disguises problems that cannot be addressed or analysed unless they are broken down. Anyone applying the label BAME before coming to conclusions about Britain is destined to get things wrong. The children of Indian, Chinese and black African parents are likely to do better than whites at school — and in the workplace. The children of Pakistani, Traveller and black Caribbean parents tend to do worse. The vital question is: why?

Crucially, members of the commission were not drawn from the race relations industry. They were instead chosen from all kinds of backgrounds and asked to follow the evidence, wherever it led. The chair, Dr Tony Sewell CBE, runs a charity to help underrepresented young people pursue STEM subjects and careers. Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a scientist who presents The Sky At Night. Keith Fraser, a former police superintendent, and the economist Dr Dambisa Moyo are also commission members. Their 262-page report, full of facts and insights, reveal a spread of results: both stunning attainment and baffling under-attainment.


Both David Cameron and Theresa May accepted the simplistic white vs BAME narrative. As they both must have known, this encouraged a damaging and false narrative, but they did it because it was politically useful to them. Cameron even perpetuated falsehoods, wrongly claiming that a poor black boy in Britain is more likely to go to prison than a good university. May spoke about stop-and-search as if it were racially motivated, when she had been told that the searches fairly reflected the ethnic mix of who was on the street at the time of searching. Because they wilfully ignored the facts for political advantage, the Tories are guilty of shirking the task of tackling racial inequality.

The report attacks the unduly ‘pessimistic narratives about race’, which it says ‘have been reinforced by a rise of identity politics, as old class divisions have lost traction’. It looks more deeply into age-old problems. Take, for example, the fact that young black men are more likely than whites to be imprisoned for offences. The commission points out that they are less likely to plead guilty, which would reduce their sentence. Understand this, and the problem becomes clearer: better legal advice is needed for young black men.

The report also grasps the nettle of family structure. Some 63 per cent of black Caribbean children are in a single-parent family. The percentage is far lower — 43 per cent — for black African and just 6 per cent for Indian. The report makes a point that few politicians would dare to: children need time and resources, both of which are more likely to be available when both parents play active roles in their upbringing. ‘Government cannot remain neutral here,’ it says.

It’s clear from the report that anything the government can do to support families would disproportionately help under-performing ethnic groups. The same is true for schools. In 2016, some £285 million was given to selected head teachers for more after-school activities: a valuable ladder up for those who need it. The commission criticises the government for abandoning this commitment, which helps those ethnic minorities who need it most.

Make no mistake: the racial disparities unveiled by this report are shocking, and morally indefensible. But what is also indefensible is the use of simple labels like ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, which disguise the huge inequalities that exist within these groups. Caribbean teenagers have less hope of attending a university than teenagers of black African heritage: this is a problem. The prospects for a girl from a Mirpuri background tend to be worse than for a girl with Gujarati parents. This is a problem too. And to tackle these problems, we first need to recognise them.

The report will be lambasted by the race relations industry, as it both challenges and exposes the groupthink. The question is whether the agenda can now be seized under this Tory Prime Minister — or whether he will, like his predecessors, choose an easier life and go along with the campaigners. Britain may be the most successful melting-pot in Europe — but there is all too much scope for us to be more successful still. It would take a government with the courage and confidence to break from identity politics, ignore its practitioners and open a new chapter in the fight against racial injustice.

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