How Boris Johnson's Vow To Tackle Race Inequality Stands A Year On

The PM took office a year ago. From BAME Covid deaths to his questionable commission appointments, here's his track record on race.

From Brexit to a global pandemic and the rebirth of a civil rights movement, Boris Johnson’s first year as prime minister has been uniquely tumultuous.

And it has coincided with a series of events that exposed just how the deep the lines of racial injustice lie across the country.

Simon Woolley, founder of Operation Black Vote, told HuffPost UK: “Historians will look at back on 2020 and ask but one question: how did our national leader react to this perfect storm that laid bare deep-seated racial inequalities as never before?

“The devastating impact that Covid-19 has had on BAME communities, along with the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, demands our prime minister lay out a race equality strategy now.”

Before taking office, Johnson already had a worrying track record on race, referring to Black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. Prior to last year’s general election, many Black people told HuffPost UK they were fearful about Johnson re-entering Number 10.

Robin Gentry / EyeEm via Getty Images

A year on, what do they make of his time in office so far?

These are the key moments that show how Boris Johnson has responded to major tests in race relations.

‘Perilous for ethnic minorities’

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“Boris Johnson cannot deny that he has presided over a period where the denial of the existence of stark, overt racism in the NHS has cost lives of people who are simply working to support those who are sick and vulnerable.“

These are the words of a senior NHS manager, who has asked to remain anonymous.

“The lack of PPE and the sacrifice of [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] staff in the Covid-19 pandemic will forever characterise the reign of Boris Johnson and evidence that he and the government – which has led us on a merry dance of death – have blood on their hands.

“If the racial inequalities [in society] that were known about had been addressed, then the disproportionate impact would not have been so stark.”

There have so far been more than 56,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate.

NHS England data for the first 12,600 deaths from the virus revealed that Black people were dying from the virus at almost twice the rate of their proportion of the population.

Following public pressure, the government eventually asked Public Health England (PHE) to conduct in a review into the disparities of risks and outcomes of Covid-19.

Former equalities chief Trevor Phillips was appointed to assist with this review, sparking widespread criticism from BAME communities – many branded the move “shameful” and “alarming” given Phillips’ suspension from the Labour Party over Islamophobia allegations and previous offensive comments on race.

Phillips and Professor Richard Webber – who together run specialist research company Webber Phillips – were asked by Public Health England (PHE) to provide expert support to an inquiry into why such high numbers of victims of the coronavirus pandemic were from BAME backgrounds.

When the review was eventually published in June, it simply confirmed what many had known for weeks prior: Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people are more likely to die of coronavirus than their white counterparts.

The data was published late with ministers under pressure amid reports it was delayed due to the Black Lives Matter protests.

People in deprived areas “may” be more at risk of infection because they live closer together, or because they live in places that contain a higher proportion of workers in jobs more likely to be exposed to the virus, the report said.

Indeed, public sector staff such as bus drivers and NHS workers – many of whom are from BAME communities – told HuffPost UK they felt disregarded as UK authorities battled to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, as they were forced to work without adequate PPE.

Windrush generation nurses also gave their opinion on being asked to fight the battle against Covid-19 after the travesty of the scandal.

Nelson Abbey, author of 'Think Like A White Man: A Satirical Guide to Conquering The World...While Black'
Nelson Abbey, author of 'Think Like A White Man: A Satirical Guide to Conquering The World...While Black'

More than half of pregnant women who were admitted to hospital with coronavirus in the UK were from a Black and minority ethnic background, prompting campaigners to demand greater protection for pregnant mothers from these communities.

Reflecting on the past year of Johnson’s government, Nels Abbey – author of Think Like A White Man: A Satirical Guide to Conquering The World...While Blacktold HuffPost UK: “The first year of Boris Johnson’s leadership has proven perilous for ethnic minorities, especially Black people. And sadly, given Johnson’s highly successful – and largely unchallenged – relationship with racism, things are not going to change any time soon.

“His response to ethnic minorities dying in disproportionate numbers from Covid-19? Appoint a despised, discredited and unqualified, yet ideologically compliant, Black man to lead the review.

“His response to the murder of George Floyd? Exactly the same as his response to Covid-19.”

Abbey said that, in his opinion: “From journalist to editor, mayor of London to leading Brexiteer, to foreign secretary to prime minister, racism has served as the oxygen of Boris Johnson’s career. Without it he would not be where he is now.”

He added: “From the moment he announced his candidacy he went straight for the racism card. In his first campaign video, he proactively offered a white male he is speaking to on the doorstep ‘more stop and search’. The dog whistle was heard loud and clear.”

New race commission

Following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by US police, a wave of Black Lives Matter protests took place in London across July.

These demonstrations were in solidarity with the US, and also called for systemic racism to be tackled in Britain.

In response, the government announced it would form an independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

Munira Mirza, the current head of the No.10 policy unit, led the commission’s formation.

This sparked concern in light of the fact Mirza had previously cast doubt on the existence of institutional racism and condemned previous inquiries for fostering a “culture of grievance”.

The commission will aim to report its findings on the priority areas of health, education, criminal justice and employment by the end of this year.

Some have questioned how this commission differs from the Race Disparity Unit, established by Theresa May in 2017 to tackle systemic inequalities in Britain

HuffPost UK has sought clarification from Downing Street but has not received a response.

Johnson chaired the commission’s first meeting on Monday, where he said: “We cannot go on like this. We do need to make progress. [...] There’s an alternative story to be told – there’s an alternative narrative about success, achievement, championing lots of positive things that needs to be told in addition to some of the obstacles that unquestionably exist.”

The commission will be chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, an international education consultant who is head of the charity Generating Genius. It works to ensure talented students from disadvantaged and diverse ethnic backgrounds are positioned to excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.

Sewell, who worked with the prime minister in 2013 when he was mayor of London, has previously described any evidence of institutional racism as “flimsy” – and concerns have been raised regarding his suitability for the role.

In an interview with The Times newspaper last year, the former teacher suggested the root cause of knife crime and gang culture among Black youths was absent fathers, citing figures showing about 50% of Black children grow up without a father.

Responding to Sewell’s appointment, Dr Zubaida Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust, tweeted a 2019 clip of Sewell appearing on Channel 5 News discussing the issue.

Sewell will be joined by nine others in the group, comprised of representatives from the fields of science, education, broadcasting, economics, medicine, policing and community organising. They will look to deliver a report on race disparity within the health, education, criminal justice and employment sectors by the end of this year.

This includes equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who recently rejected claims “systemic injustice” is the reason ethnic minorities are more likely to die from coronavirus in England – sparking criticism when findings of the PHE review appear to suggest otherwise.

These have prompted doubts around her role, too, in the government’s new race commission.

HuffPost UK has put these concerns to Downing Street but has not received a reply.

National lockdown


Out of 13,445 contraventions where the individual issued with the notice had a self-identified ethnicity recorded, 5% of recipients issued with fines were Black, according to National Police Chiefs’ Council data. Black people only account for 3% of the England and Wales population.

Analysis by the Guardian last month confirmed Metropolitan Police officers enforcing the coronavirus lockdown were more than twice as likely to issue fines to Black people as white people.

This renewed concerns about the Black people being over-policed in the UK yet under-protected from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, researchers found BAME people in Britain had been hit harder by job losses during the coronavirus crisis than the population as a whole, Reuters reported. And data from the Fawcett Society and West Midlands Women’s Voice found BAME women in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester were more likely than white women to have taken a pay cut because of the pandemic.

As of July 19, 2020, approximately 9.5m jobs, from 1.2m different employers were furloughed in the UK as part of the government’s job retention scheme.

The scheme, introduced in response to the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, covers 80% of an employee’s usual monthly wage, up to £2,500 a month.

In a column for The Voice newspaper, broadcaster Dotun Adebayo wrote: “When the furlough scheme ends, it will be Black workers that will suffer the most.”

A man wearing a protective face mask passes a mural showing BAME medical and transport workers, in Waterloo, London.
A man wearing a protective face mask passes a mural showing BAME medical and transport workers, in Waterloo, London.
Dominic Lipinski - PA Images via Getty Images

Angela Phillips, a Black woman who worked in the media on a fixed term contract, was furloughed in May before being dismissed four weeks ago – just prior to easing of the lockdown.

Reflecting on Johnson’s first year, she told HuffPost UK: “I believe Boris Johnson has bumbled his way through his first year and all the credit for recent measures of support should go to Rishi Sunak.

“His bumbling on Brexit, his refusal to bend the knee in support of Black lives when he is known for his clapping for the NHS and other gestures [...] plus his flip-flopping and stuttering are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to assessing Boris Johnson.”

Sir Simon Woolley who received the Honour of Knighthood during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London.
Sir Simon Woolley who received the Honour of Knighthood during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London.

Public sector workers on the front line of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic will be given a pay rise, the chancellor announced this week.

Doctors, teachers and police officers are among those who will see extra money in their pay packet after a testing few months since Covid-19 hit the UK.

But social care workers, who have also been at the forefront of the battle at the deadly virus, are not part of the group being given an increased wage.

Woolley, of Operation Black Vote, is calling upon the PM to prioritise tackling race inequalities. “Implementing the recommendations from previous race reviews is the lowest hanging fruit,” he said. “Having a strategic plan that ensures BAME communities do not have another hit as we enter an unprecedented economic downturn is the role of our leader, the prime minister Boris Johnson.”

Angelo Irving, a Yorkshire-based comedian, portrays a Black version of Boris Johnson in popular online sketches as means of raising awareness around sociopolitical concerns through satire.

Reflecting on Johnson’s year, he expressed disappointment.

“By any objective measure, Johnson’s tenure has been a failure. He is the exact wrong prime minister for this moment. The things that he is good at – soundbites, bluster, ingratiating himself and presenting himself as a loveable buffoon to conceal the nastiness underneath – are absolutely not enough to meet the moment that we are in.

“Where he would normally be just a bad premier like the two previous ones, his premiership has been singularly awful for ethnic minorities. In my opinion, his defence of his adviser Dominic Cummings broke this country, which had followed the rules and saw them flagrantly flouted by someone who had drawn them up.

“Johnson has been a failure and no soundbite or sycophantic cheering by Tory MPs at PMQs will change that. His government has been awful when it comes to acknowledging, let alone tackling, racial inequalities in 2020.

“The fact that the report had to be leaked before it was released and that there are claims that a section of that report said that discrimination played a part in the increased number of deaths ‘did not survive contact with Matt Hancock’s office’ all serves to paint a picture of a government that wants to do the minimum when it comes to tackling racial inequality.

“This has also been seen with government responses to #BlackLivesMatter. Whether it was the painful interview with Matt Hancock on Sky – where, when asked how many Black members Boris Johnson had in his cabinet, he talked of ‘diversity’ and ‘BAME’ as a feeble attempt to deflect from the truth – or Johnson’s speech where he acknowledged the ‘incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice’, whilst at the same time praising peaceful protest but threatening those that protested in a violent way, it is clear again that Johnson doesn’t have the desire for any real change.

“Johnson claims that we are right to say that Black lives matter, but says nothing about the fact that between March and May during lockdown a quarter of all Black males aged 15 to 24 were stopped and searched in London.

“Covid has served to shine a light on the inequalities in the health system, policing and race relations. Johnson’s peculiar habit of leading from the back, in particular leaking policy days before announcing it, has led to a confusion on the rules and a leadership vacuum.

“He is a failure for the whole country and a ruinous failure for ethnic minorities. I shudder at the thought of four more years of this. As to the new race commission, it is amazing how often they find Black faces that will sit comfortably within their ideological sphere.”


Chris J Ratcliffe via Getty Images

Of course, one of the greatest stains on the Conservative’s government’s conscience is the anguish caused by the Windrush scandal.

Paulette Wilson, a Windrush campaigner who was left destitute while fighting for her rights as a British citizen, died unexpectedly age 64 on Thursday, sparking grief and renewed anger at the injustices that she – and others – faced.

Wilson, a former chef, died while still selflessly campaigning for justice for Windrush victims.

It emerged in July that the government had asked victims to prove their case “beyond reasonable doubt” before being given compensation.

It is the same level of proof required to convict defendants in criminal courts across the UK. Immigration lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie told HuffPost UK that as compensation claims are civil cases, the burden of proof should be “on the balance of probabilities”.

The compensation scheme has been criticised over its slow progress in offering payouts to those wrongly told they no longer had a right to be in the UK. At least 83 victims with the right to live in the country have been deported.

By the end of March, 1,275 people had applied under the scheme. But to date, just 60 people have received compensation through the scheme, which was launched more than a year ago, with £362,996 paid out to them. Some estimates suggest the total fund could be between £200m and £500m.

A Downing Street spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The prime minister is proud to lead the most diverse ministerial team in this country’s history. He campaigned on a commitment to level up across the nation and has repeatedly made clear that there is no place for racism in our country.

“The government continues to take action to address the disparities that exist across society, including implementing recommendations from reviews that we have agreed to take forward.”


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