‘We need to tear up the idea of BAME’

Tony Sewell on the myth of systemic racism in Britain.


Topics Identity Politics UK

Want to read spiked ad-free? Become a spiked supporter.

When it comes to racial equality, Britain has made huge strides over the past few decades. A 2021 UK government report, produced by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, found little evidence that black, Asian and ethnic-minority (BAME) Britons are still being held back due to their race. Racism certainly exists in modern Britain, it noted, but it is no longer the major social force it once was. Yet for stating these facts plainly, the commission’s chair, Tony Sewell, was confronted with an almighty backlash. He and his fellow commissioners were branded ‘Uncle Toms’ and racial heretics. To the UK’s race lobby, Sewell’s positive message was intolerable. It posed a fundamental challenge to the all-too-familiar narrative of so-called institutional racism.

Tony Sewell joined Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show to discuss his report and the reaction to it, as well as his new book, Black Success: The Surprising Truth. Listen to the full episode here.

Brendan O’Neill: How do you explain the incredibly negative reaction to your report?

Tony Sewell: The reaction was quite interesting. A lot of the people who criticised the report didn’t even bother to read it. If they had, they would know that it was actually very reasonable. I got a lot of pushback before I even wrote anything. The politics around it was very clear. I even had journalists tell me that, because it was commissioned by Boris Johnson, they were going to go after the report irrespective of its actual content.

We were just following the data, but the conclusions weren’t what most people wanted to hear. We never even denied that institutional racism exists. We just didn’t find much evidence for it. But everybody was so drunk on Black Lives Matter that they were just rushing to cancel or condemn anything that didn’t seem to go along with that way of thinking.

There are so many other key issues mentioned in the report that people could have focussed on. One of these was geography. In fact, another report came out just last month reinforcing this. Post-16 education and training outcomes in Wales are actually the worst in the country at the moment. But everyone is so invested in this idea that if you’re BAME you have the worst outcomes on every single level. This is obviously not true. In England and Wales, for example, mortality rates for white people are much higher than black people. And in terms of employment, 40 per cent of specialist doctors in the NHS are from an Asian background.

What the report did was tear up this whole idea of ‘BAME’, this idea that there is some black, Asian, minority-ethnic hivemind. The outcomes for a Muslim taxi driver in Bradford are a world away from the life and outcomes of an Indian doctor in Harrow. Yet they’re categorised as the same thing. What we did is break that all up, we disrupted it.

O’Neill: How can we actually start to improve outcomes for black people across the country? What’s the real key to ‘black success’?

Sewell: The whole notion that kids must be taught black history, must have black ‘self-esteem programmes’ and have access to black mentors is nonsense. These have no meaningful proven effect on outcomes. The main impact is to make the people introducing these schemes feel as if they’re doing something.

One of the biggest misconceptions is this idea that black teachers are the answer to all problems. Supposedly, if you have enough black teachers in the classroom, underperforming black kids will magically become academic high-achievers. But it’s not the colour or the background of the teacher that matters. It’s the quality of the teaching and the expectations those teachers have of their pupils.

Where I worked in Hackney, we tried out lots of these types of programmes. They didn’t move the dial. What we then ended up doing was having a drive for high expectations. At that time, Hackney was known as the worst educational district not just in England, but in the whole of Europe, too. Attainment on the Afro-Caribbean end in particular was on the floor. The answer to this was raising expectations for all students.

High expectations became the primary driver of the curriculum. We also strove for numeracy and literacy in primary schools. These are the core tools that children absolutely need to succeed. And, I’ll be honest with you, this included very little black-focussed teaching. But despite that, the outcomes were tremendous for Afro-Caribbean students.

This is hard for people to get to grips with. I’m actually in Jamaica at the moment, where kids here are taught overwhelmingly by teachers who look like them and who come from a similar background. But the education system is still collapsing. Black teachers can’t work magic. There’s something else other than race that drives people towards success or failure.

The real key to success is to teach these kids they have agency. That’s not to say that there are no racist teachers or racist schools. But black kids need to learn how to take things on themselves. This idea that you can only be successful once you’ve ‘beaten racism’ is nonsense. In reality, you can only be successful when you realise how to be free, and when you realise your own agency.

Tony Sewell was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Matt Ridley and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

Matt Ridley and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation


Thursday 21 March – 7pm to 8pm GMT

This is a free event, exclusively for spiked supporters.

Picture by: House of Lords.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Identity Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today