Boris Johnson has revealed that Tony Sewell, an education charity boss with a long record of rejecting the idea of institutional racism, will chair the government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities.
The prime minister announced the commission last month in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, saying there was “much more that we need to do” to tackle racial injustice.
The plan had already run into controversy when it emerged that the head of Johnson’s policy unit, Munira Mirza, who has previously criticised the concept of structural racism, had been tasked with setting up the panel.
Sewell will chair a 10-member panel that includes Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the Sky at Night presenter, and Keith Fraser, the chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales and a former police superintendent.
The government said: “The commission is independent and will be comprised of esteemed representatives from the fields of science, education, broadcasting, economics, medicine, policing and community organising.”
Sewell runs a charity called Generating Genius, which works with BAME children to prepare them for careers in science and technology. He carried out a review of London schools when Johnson was the capital’s mayor.
He has repeatedly warned against the sense of “victimhood” that he believes is engendered by the notion of institutional racism, and his appointment has sparked concerns among BAME campaigners.
Wanda Wyporska, who heads the Equality Trust charity, said Sewell’s views were seen as somewhat niche: “If the establishment wants to get a black person to head something up and align with their thoughts, we know who those people are – Trevor Phillips or Tony Sewell. And the rest of us just think, ‘Oh no, not again. Another wasted opportunity for change.’
“It’s disappointing. Not just as a black person but as executive director of the Equality Trust, I know that the structural inequalities are undeniable. If you want to say the UK is a totally meritocratic society, then you have to ask why is it that almost everybody at the top happens to be a white, middle-class man, with a few women thrown in?”
Suresh Grover, a veteran campaigner who runs the Monitoring Group, which helps victims of racial violence, said: “The appointment of Tony Sewell as the chair of the government’s new commission on race disparity confirms a widely held view within the UK’s BAME communities that its establishment is simply paying lip service to [the] deeply entrenched systemic problem of racism that exists within state institutions. It can now be regarded as a deeply hurtful and cynical exercise that has buried all hope for any meaningful and positive change for race relations in the UK.”
Sewell contributed to a 2010 edition of Prospect magazine edited by Mirza. In a piece entitled “Master class in victimhood”, Sewell argued against the notion that teachers were failing black boys or discriminating against them. He also argued that “much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy”.
He wrote: “What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers. Instead of challenging our children, we have given them the discourse of the victim – a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed.”
He said he was not convinced by the idea that teachers had low expectations of black boys, partly leading to them underachieving. “I believe black underachievement is due to the low expectations of school leaders, who do not want to be seen as racist and who position black boys as victims,” he said.
In a 2017 column for the Sun, Sewell hit out at the then government’s race disparity audit, which lay bare inequalities in society. “Too often we have statistics which are misused in a way which casts minorities as victims of racism and white privilege,” he wrote. “I believe it’s an attempt by the Tory party to shed its nasty party image and the prime minister to place herself to the left of centre in her party.”
He claimed the report was “overly pessimistic”, adding: “I’m not denying that racism exists, but why should we think that race alone is the key factor when accessing public services? For government ministers to use emotive terms like ‘racial injustice’ without acknowledging the many underlying factors creates a false perception of victim status.”
Asked whether Sewell’s views on institutional racism were shared by No 10, Johnson’s spokesman said: “The PM’s view is that he’s asked the commission to examine inequality in the UK across the whole population and he’s very pleased to have assembled a group of talented and diverse commissioners who each bring a wealth of experience across a range of important sectors.”