Diary: Pembroke debates race

Abby Reyes 2 November 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

On 8th October, Pembroke Politics hosted Dr Tony Sewell, a social scientist, founder of ‘Generating Genius’, and Chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

Sewell’s report, released in March 2021, was a response to issues flagged by the BLM protests of summer 2020, and proved particularly controversial. Its conclusions were lambasted by sections of the media, fellow academics, and politicians, who argued that the 264-page report neglected key issues and did not help the fight for racial equality. Labour MP David Lammy stated that the paper was an “insult to everybody and anybody across this country who experiences institutional racism”.

The most divisive aspect of this report was the devaluation of race as an explanation of inequality and differences in outcomes, instead focusing on the contended paramount importance of “geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion”. Additionally, the report’s optimism in emphasising the “many instances of success among minority communities” was criticised for simply considering the experiences of ethnic minority groups who were successful whilst omitting those who did not fit this success story, a question I raised with Dr Sewell at the event.

His speech, delivered to the Pembroke Politics society, was titled “Immigrant Optimism: How Ethnic Minorities have become the success story of UK education”. Tony provided a robust defence of his report and his findings, whilst also pointing the finger at the “mischievous media” who he claimed gave a “warped” message of his conclusions. He even went so far as to say that “our liberal media wants to run a guilt trip for all of us”. Whilst I do not necessarily agree with this viewpoint, and as much as I am tempted to quote Eric Alterman’s ‘What Liberal Media?’ at Sewell, I can appreciate that news values such as sensationalism and negativity mean that the media will not likely focus on the success stories Sewell witnesses and accounts for.

Dr Sewell’s address was charming, confident and very positive. He listened to every question, made eye contact with students, gave detailed answers, and was open to ‘back and forth’ with those who fancied debate. Sewell made time to explain the Commission’s findings, and reiterated on numerous occasions, as in the report, that he was “not being light on the reality of racism”. He related his own experiences of growing up in Brixton and the racism he had faced throughout his life, using this as a means to argue that there had been progress and, “put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.

There were key moments of hilarity in his speech, particularly as he recalled that Boris Johnson took issue with the report’s emphasis on the importance of the family unit in shaping success, as he feared that promoting this idea would be hypocritical, given his track record around his own children.

But we cannot neglect the fact that serious academics, high profile politicians, and many people from ethnic minority backgrounds in Britain took issue with this report, setting anecdotal experience against the data it presented. The education system and the experience of ethnic minority students in schools was a particularly contested issue, and one that was raised by multiple students at the event at Pembroke, including myself. A vital criticism of Sewell’s approach in terms of education is that his statistics do not generally account for the everyday experiences of these students, and focus instead on attainment/grades. Research has shown that black Caribbean and African pupils experience being ‘demonised’ by teachers (Archer 2008) who were found to have ‘racialised expectations’ of students, and being far quicker to discipline them in the classroom (Gillborn and Youdell 2000).

The criticisms raised against the report are perhaps best encapsulated by Labour MP Diane Abbott’s charge that, “It’s taking us back in the argument for racial justice, not forward”.

Because of these widely held criticisms, the ‘Q&A’ section of the evening was fairly heated, and multiple students challenged Sewell on his rhetoric and the conclusions of his report. It was a very entertaining night of open discussion, debate, and some controversiality.

Perhaps it’s because I am a fellow south Londoner, but I (maybe controversially) admired Dr Sewell for his gravitas, his years of dedication to the field, and the confidence he exudes despite producing multiple pieces of controversial research over the years, which have been heavily repudiated in some cases. Whilst I disagree with some of his findings, this event reminded me of the importance of open academic discussion, something which is increasingly coming under fire. ‘No-platforming’ has no place at Cambridge, and I hope we are always able to have the opportunity to host impressive speakers and thinkers such as Tony Sewell.