ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Institutional racism in the UK

Unsplash_James Eades Protestors take part in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in central London

“Attempting to rectify institutionalised racism, without truly accepting its existence, is an art form that successive British governments have learnt to master”- Imarn Ayton, founder of the Black Reformist Movement

By Khushi Narula

Institutional racism in the United Kingdom can be observed through the existence of systematic policies or laws and practices influenced by racial prejudice and stereotyping. Generally speaking, the significance of individual mindsets and racial biases is often overemphasised, which leads to a diversion of focus from the far more critical problem of institutional racism that impacts every aspect of life for ethnic minorities, from housing, employment, and healthcare to their interactions with the criminal justice system. All of these are connected by a common thread: the violation of human rights perpetrated by the state. 

In May 2020, a 20-year-old black student was arrested by police in London, which followed seven police officers kicking her, punching her, lifting her up by her braids (and hence ripping her hair from her scalp) before proceeding to intimately strip-search her. She was released without charge.  

This incident (and many more like this), combined with the statistics, show the differential levels of policing between different ethnic groups. People of racial minorities are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched and more likely to be arrested. 85 per cent of these searches never actually result in a formal charge, whereas white people are more likely to be found guilty. Racial minorities are targeted by the police due to racial biases and are more likely to be deemed ‘suspicious’, even when they are not actually guilty. More often than not, police lack any credible evidence against black and brown people, and the stop-and-searches are based solely on racial stereotypes. Even in the justice system, Lady Justice is rarely blind to colour. Black barristers are underrepresented and experience racism from judges, magistrates, and panel members, as reported by the Black Barristers’ Network. Sentencing outcomes are also harsher for ethnic minority defendants 

In January 2023, an independent UN human rights expert described racism in the UK as “structural, institutional and systematic.” The continued relevance of institutional racism made itself known during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Public Health England, among others, found that the pandemic disproportionately put ethnic minorities at risk: in the nature of their jobs, their ability to access healthcare, and their housing situations. For example, people from Black ethnic groups were most likely to be diagnosed, and death rates were highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups. 60 out of the first 100 NHS clinical staff deaths were from ethnic minorities, although only 20% of the NHS staff has this background. This is mainly credited to their housing situations, as Black and Asian ethnic minorities are more likely to live in overcrowded households and deprived areas, as well as have jobs that expose them to higher risk.  

In England, every eight minutes, someone from an ethnic minority group becomes homeless or is threatened with homelessness. This is augmented by policies like the No Recourse to Public Funds policy, which disproportionately prevents ethnic minorities from accessing the welfare safety net and statutory homelessness assistance if they need it. Immigration policies, discriminatory rental legislation, and social welfare policies are also among the main factors responsible for minority ethnic communities being subjected to unequal housing outcomes.  

Additionally, institutional racism continues to impact the employment opportunities available to minority ethnic communities. Only 52 of the 1,099 “most powerful jobs” in the UK are held by people from minority groups. Ethnic minorities fall behind in terms of promotions and success rates as compared to white workers, regardless of their qualifications and skills being of the same standard. Unemployment among Black and minority ethnic communities also rose twice as fast compared to white workers during the pandemic.  

A solution for institutional racism isn’t easy to identify. A report published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in March 2021 was used by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reject the very existence of institutional racism in the UK. The recommendations made by this report in an attempt to combat racial inequality included a removal of the acronym ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian, Minority, and Ethnic). These recommendations were widely regarded by UN experts, among others, as an insult to ethnic minorities, as they failed to focus on the actual consequences of the problem of institutional racism.  

In order to start the process to ending institutional racism, first and foremost, racial awareness training is essential. The focus needs to be less on curbing individual racists and more on institutional racism. At present, the lives and livelihood of ethnic minorities continue to be threatened by the state, from the bias they face from the criminal justice system due to racial stereotypes, to the economic disadvantages they face due to discriminatory public policies and unequal opportunities. Moreover, institutional racism was elevated to fully-fledged state racism when the UK used the Brexit debate as a way to announce its stance on immigrants and other races, as the core theme of the pro-Brexit campaign lied in the belief that immigration is the unravelling of the nation.  

To conclude, it is time for the state to finally acknowledge that institutional racism is a problem, and ensure that the next report published actually addresses the deep-rooted presence of institutional racism in the UK in order to implement solutions that deal with its consequences. Additionally, it is pertinent that these solutions are direct responses to the main issues faced by racial minorities. For example, an article released by openDemocracy in April 2021 highlights ten reports that, unlike the report published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, reveal clear evidence of racial inequality in the UK. Equality campaigners are calling for the government to acknowledge the deep-rooted presence of institutional racism in the UK. The government’s current report threatens to push the fight against racism “back 20 years or more” according to renowned racial justice campaigner Doreen Lawrence, as it has essentially given racists the green light to have their racist behaviour waved off as “racism does not exist”.  

The experts thanked in the government’s current report have said that they were not consulted about its contents, and “were unaware that they were contributing to the final document”. Therefore, similar to what civil society actors are calling for, the next report published by the UK government would be able to have an actual impact if a public inquiry precedes the report, and if institutional racism experts are consulted for it, in order to provide the government with a reality check of how prominently institutional racism still exists in the UK.   

[ISCI Intern Article]