Slavery was not just about making profit and British schools should instead tell a “new story” about culturally African people, a controversial government-backed report has said.
The race and ethnic disparities commission said the UK’s education system should focus on parts of the “Caribbean experience” that show how “culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain”.
It said education about the British Empire should focus on how “Britishness” influenced former colonies and those colonies “influenced what we know about modern Britain”.
“One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well known British words which are Indian in origin,” the report’s controversial chair Tony Sewell wrote in the foreword.
It went on: “There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”
Labour called on the government to explain how it published content which “glorifies the slave trade” and urged ministers to “immediately disassociate themselves from these remarks”.
The review, commissioned after the Black Lives Matter protests, has been controversial since its inception after Boris Johnson gave control of it to his top policy adviser Munira Mirza, who has previously accused an “anti-racism lobby” of fostering a “culture of grievance”.
The government has also been criticised for appointing Sewell as chair of the review after he previously claimed evidence of institutional racism was “flimsy”.
Shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said:
“This report was an opportunity to seriously engage with the reality of inequality and institutional racism in the UK.
“Instead we have a divisive polemic which cherry-picks statistics.
“To downplay institutional racism in a pandemic where black, Asian and ethnic minority people have died disproportionately and are now twice as likely to be unemployed is an insult.
“The government must urgently explain how they came to publish content which glorifies the slave trade and immediately disassociate themselves from these remarks.”
In reply, A Downing Street source stressed the report was “independent” and that the prime minister planned to “look at it in detail” before the government formally responds.
Labour shadow cabinet minister David Lammy said the commission has “chosen to divide us once more and keep us debating the existence of racism rather than doing anything about it”.
The central claim in the report, a briefing on which was only released to selected journalists on the orders of the commission, is that institutional racism does not exist in the UK.
The review dismissed the “idealism” of young people who claim the UK is institutionally racist, insisting this is “not borne out by the evidence”.
While acknowledging that “overt and outright racism persists in the UK, particularly online” and that Britain is “not a post-racial society”, the report claims that societal disparities between ethnic groups “do not have their origins in racism”.
Instead, it argues that all ethnic groups apart from Black Caribbeans outperform their white counterparts at school and this is helping to create more diverse workplaces, although disparities remain at the top of public and private sectors.
The claim was criticised by barrister Matthew Ryder QC, who cited a study showing that despite achieving worse educational outcomes, white people have better employment prospects and social mobility.
Ryder, who once represented the family of murdered Black teenager Stephen Lawrence, said the evidence suggested racism “is in the system”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Even when white working class boys have lower educational qualifications, and a lower likelihood of going to university, they have higher employment rates and higher social mobility.
“And that was highlighted in a report in 2019 by the University of Aberdeen, and they called this the ‘white working class paradox’.
“And you need to answer that question: why is it that when white boys, for example, have less educational qualifications they still have more opportunity of getting jobs and having social mobility, and Black boys don’t?
“That suggests racism is in the system, it doesn’t suggest racism has been removed from the system.”
Lammy said the report was an “insult to anybody and everybody across this country who experiences institutional racism”.
The shadow justice secretary told LBC: “British people, white and Black, are dying to turn the page on racism.
“They are working in food banks to support the marginalised. They are teaching in after-school clubs to raise awareness. They are working in rehabilitation centres to end the cycle of disproportionate mass incarceration.
“Boris Johnson has just slammed the door in their faces by telling them that they’re idealists, they are wasting their time. He has let an entire generation of young white and Black British people down.
“Just as people marched against South Africa to free Mandela and Margaret Thatcher stood in their way. Just as folk got together and marched for an enquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and John Major stood in their way.
“Now young people across the country come together and say: ‘Yes, Black lives do matter’, and guess what, Boris Johnson stands in their way.”