The government’s landmark race review has been criticised as “culturally deaf” after it stated that there was a “new story” to be told about slavery, which is not about profit and suffering.
The report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, formed last July after the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests across the UK, argued that the slave era was also about how “culturally African people transformed themselves”.
The remarks, in a foreword written by Tony Sewell, the commission’s chairman, were condemned within hours of publication on Wednesday. Labour said they sought to “glorify” and put a positive spin on slavery and empire.
The document said that Britain is no longer a country where the “system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. The commission said geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion all affect life chances more than racism.
It also criticised the “confusing” way the term “institutional racism” has been applied, saying this should only be used when deep-seated, systemic racism is proved and not as a “catch-all” phrase for any microaggression.
The report proposes a Making Of Modern Britain teaching resource to “tell the multiple, nuanced stories of the contributions made by different groups that have made this country the one it is today”.
In Sewell’s foreword to the report, he said the recommendation is the body’s response to “negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum”.
He wrote that the resource should look at the influence of the UK during its Empire period and how “Britishness influenced the Commonwealth” and how local communities influenced “modern Britain”.
He added: “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 remodelled African/Britain.”
Highlighting the passage on Twitter, shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said it was “one of the worst bits” of the report which was “putting a positive spin on slavery and empire”.
Halima Begum, chief executive of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, said: “Comments about the slave trade being a Caribbean experience, as though it’s some kind of holiday… this is how deafening it is, cultural deafness, it’s completely out of kilter with where British society is, I believe.”
Lord Woolley of Woodford, a crossbench peer who founded Operation Black Vote and used to chair the government race disparity unit’s advisory group, said: “The only good narrative about the enslavement of Africans is that we survived.”
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “Institutional and structural racism exists in the UK, in both the labour market and wider society.”
Speaking last night, Sewell said: “It is absurd to suggest that the commission is trying to downplay the evil of the slave trade. It is both ridiculous and offensive to each and every commissioner.
“The report merely says that, in the face of the inhumanity of slavery, African people preserved their humanity and culture.”
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