“A very interesting piece of work” was the most enthusiastic comment the normally ebullient Prime Minister could manage, as the fallout continued and Samuel Kasumu, his most senior black advisor, resigned for reasons that Number 10 insisted were unrelated.
It was on Wednesday morning that the first findings emerged from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, set up in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in London, Leeds, Bradford and around the country.
If there was division between communities, it postulated, it was more likely a consequence of geography, family influence and economic deprivation than of racism.
There was no evidence that there was institutional racism in Britain, said the commission chairman, Dr Tony Sewell.
He might have reached a different conclusion had he and his fellow commissioners been able to visit West Yorkshire, one of his leading critics said last night.
“If they had spent some time and spoken to people in Leeds or Bradford, Birmingham or Greater Manchester, they’d have got a better sense of what the problems are and what the solution is,” Nazir Afzal, former chief prosecutor for North West England, told The Yorkshire Post.
He is among a growing chorus of commentators to have forensically dismantled the conclusions of Dr Sewell, a former teacher who grew up in Brixton, south London, and who chaired the Education Inquiry panel in the capital when Mr Johnson was Mayor of London.
The controversy he stirred this week was perhaps not a surprise. As soon as his appointment to the commission was announced, the Muslim Council of Britain ventured that he was “keen on downplaying race disparities”.
But the scale and ferocity of the attacks, and their singular tone, was unexpected. Labour said the report was a “divisive polemic” which had insulted its readers, while unions said it ignored the experiences of black and minority ethnic workers.
David Isaac, the former Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman, said the focus on institutional racism was a distraction, and that while many of the report’s suggestions were sound, major inequalities remained.
Mr Afzal went further, dismissing the recommendations as “so high level I don’t know what difference they could make”.
The report, he said, “actually wants to minimise the impact of racism, and focus on class, poverty and communities’ own actions as being somehow responsible for their state”.
But he added: “Why focus on everything other than race when you’re supposed to be a race commission?
“There are complexities here which this report hasn’t addressed at all, or if it has addressed them it mentions them as headlines and then moves on very quickly.”
The outcome, said Mr Afzal, read like a manifesto for a Government narrative of post-Brexit Britain as a role model for the world.
“It’s very selective in its choice of data. Research is out there which shows that there is employment discrimination, there are social mobility problems, issues with crime and with health, but you wouldn’t guess that from the nature of this report – because it just seems to want to make the case for putting the blame on families on communities themselves.”
It amounted, he said, to weighing provable causes of deprivation – such as poverty and absentee parents – against the psychological impact of racism.
“They can prove you’re poor because you haven’t got any money, and they can prove you’re from a broken home – but they can’t prove racism, so they ignore it.”
Mr Afzal, a native of Birmingham who suffered racist violence as a young man, was also critical of the negative values attached to parenting in some minority communities.
“Historically, family structure and cultural differences have been really positive as far as larger communities are concerned. Now, they’re seen as holding us back,” he said.
It was hard, he added, to reconcile Dr Sewell’s conclusion on institutional racism with the report from Mr Isaac’s Commission only five months ago, which suggested that the Labour Party was institutionally anti-Semitic.
“How does that square with this new Commission saying it doesn’t exist. I don’t understand, and nor will people who are not getting the employment opportunities they think they deserve given their qualifications. They will be absolutely devastated that a Government commissioned report, which was pretty much the only official thing that came out of Black Lives Matter, has come back and said, it’s your own fault.”
And while the Commission had recognised that online hate was a problem, it had not acknowledged that “real world people and institutions” were behind the inflammatory messages, said Mr Afzal. He called for the operators of social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to take more responsibility for content published on their sites.
“Even if posters wish to remain anonymous, I believe strongly that the platforms should know who they are. That might give people pause for thought when they start posting derogatory or abusive material,” said Mr Afzal, who as a lawyer prosecuted some of the earliest honour killing trials and led the case against a child sex abuse ring involving underage teenage girls in Rochdale – a campaign he recounts in his book, The Prosecutor, which has just been published in paperback.
He said a more constructive approach to the present issues could be found in the West Riding, where racial tensions had eased significantly since the Bradford riots of 20 years ago.
Police and other authorities in Bradford were now engaging with groups of people – especially women – who had not previously had a strong enough voice, Mr Afzal said.
“My experience with the agencies in West Yorkshire is that they understand the need to be more diverse. As a result, tensions have been reduced and there’s less hostility between authority and communities. I’ve seen that myself.
“They’re all still on a journey, but the first step is to recognise that you have a problem.”
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