What is institutional racism?

IssueJune - July 2021
Feature by CORE

PN: Below are some passages from an important paper on racism in the UK, drawn up last November by the Runnymede Trust on behalf of the Coalition of Race Equality organisations. CORE brings together many of the UK’s leading Black and minority ethnic voluntary and community organisations, including the Runnymede Trust, the Migrants’ Rights Network, Operation Black Vote and the Traveller Movement.

The CORE paper was a submission to the British government’s newly-formed commission on race and ethnic disparities, led by black educationalist Dr Tony Sewell.

The commission’s ‘Sewell Report’, published at the end of March, has been condemned by anti-racist organisations in the UK and abroad for playing down the scale of institutional racism in Britain.

‘In 2021, it is stunning to read a report on race and ethnicity that repackages racist tropes and stereotypes into fact, twisting data and misapplying statistics and studies’. That was the verdict, delivered on 19 April, of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, a UN human rights body. 

CORE: The seriousness and the impacts of racism as a concept have been ignored for too long. The inequalities in health outcomes for ethnic minority groups can be explained by the differential outcomes in education, occupation, income or access to healthcare.

Racism and its structural workings are the common explanatory factor that run through them all and tie them together.

Structural and institutional racism weave their way through the workings and outcomes of health, education, occupation, income and others. It is the intersectional driving force for these inequalities.

However, there has at best been a reluctance and at worst a refusal to acknowledge and accept that this structural racism is what causes the worst outcomes for BME groups.

It is not by chance that 49 percent of BME children, rising to 60 percent for Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, live in poverty.

It is not by chance that BME groups have disproportionately found themselves in shutdown sectors during the pandemic.

It is not by chance that job applicants with Asian- or Black-‘sounding’ names have to send in twice as many identical applications as their white peers to be offered the same opportunities.

Racism is real and has been designed in to the very core of our institutions. Outcomes will be improved once society, as a whole, and in particular, our institutions can accept this.

Racism and its tentacles have long-term scarring effects on BME groups, it disadvantages people from cradle till grave and is systematically reinforced by practices that hinder the most vulnerable.

Racism at work

There is a 10-percentage point gap in employment rates between BME people and their white counterparts (Department of Work and Pensions, 2016).

Employment rates for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis stand at 54 percent, in comparison with 73 percent for White British people.

BME women also face significant barriers to the labour market, with unemployment rates at 19 percent for Bangladeshi, GRT [Gypsy, Roma and Traveller] and Arab women (Khan, 2020).

Black women are five times and Asian women twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women.

Discriminatory attitudes and institutional racism are found to be at the heart of higher rates of unemployment and barriers to the labour market facing BME groups.

The Race and Community APPG’s [all-party parliamentary group’s] report (2012) revealed that discriminatory practices and stereotypes were clear reasons for high levels of unemployment amongst BME women.

The McGregor-Smith Review (2017) concludes that ‘discrimination featured prominently as an obstacle faced by ethnic minority communities’ to the labour market.

This is underscored by evidence from curriculum vitae (CV) studies published recently, which illustrate an ‘ethnic penalty’ for all job applicants perceived to be not white British despite their educational attainment. (Khan, 2020)

BME communities are amongst those most marginalised and disadvantaged in our economy and are significantly more likely to live in poverty than white British people (Khan, 2020).

BME groups are consistently concentrated in lower-paid and lower-skilled jobs and are overrepresented in temporary employment (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015).

Most BME groups under-achieved at GCSE level until the early 2000s, following decades of educational disadvantage (Khan, 2020).

The effects of decades of low educational attainment for BME communities continue to be felt in the labour market and are predicted to have an impact on labour market outcomes until 2050 (Khan, 2020).

Black African and Bangladeshi households hold 10 times less wealth than white British people, and BME people are disproportionately more likely to have lower savings or assets than white people (Khan, 2020).

Makes you sick

The Marmot Review (Marmot et al, 2020), and Runnymede’s Colour of Money report, published before the COVID-19 crisis hit Britain, illustrates that people from deprived areas and those from a Black and minority ethnic (BME) background were not only more likely to have underlying health conditions but also to have a shorter life expectancy as a result of their lowered socio-economic status.

The following trends have been identified amongst BME communities, which illustrate the stark extent of health inequality in Britain and which pre-exist the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Black women are five times and Asian women twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women. Furthermore, these patterns were identified as long ago as the early 2000s with poorer healthcare identified as a contributing factor (Bharj and Salway, 2008; Care Quality Commission, 2020).
  • BAME people with learning disabilities die at a much younger age then their white counterparts with a 26-year difference between White and BAME people with severe/profound and multiple learning disabilities (Heslop, 2020). There is evidence that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact all people with learning disabilities, but more so for BAME groups (Public Health England, 2020).
  • Black Caribbean and Black African people have higher rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals with a diagnosis of severe mental distress. This is combined with the persistence of poorer access to talking therapies, including for children and young people (Bignall, et al, 2019).
  • Consistently higher rates of heart disease amongst Bangladeshi, Pakastani and other South Asian groups.
  • Higher rates of diabetes across all non-white people, and higher rates of hypertension and strokes amongst African and Caribbean groups. (Chouhan, Nazroo, 2020).

CORE is clear that socio-economic inequalities faced by BME communities, and outlined in this submission, contribute significantly to these health inequalities.

“Black African and Bangladeshi households hold 10 times less wealth than white British people.”

Poor housing conditions, poverty, employment opportunities, educational attainment, immigration status and levels of discrimination all inform outcomes in the health of BME people.

As Nazroo (2001) highlights, richer South Asian communities have lower levels of heart disease than their poorer counterparts, indicating socioeconomic status has a significant impact on health inequalities.

COVID racism

The Runnymede Trust’s recent research with the IPPR on the ethnic disparities in the outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis adds further weight to these conclusions.

The report estimated that over 58,000 extra deaths would have occurred during the first wave of COVID-19 if the white British population had the same risk of death as the Black population.

The report illustrated that underlying health conditions (such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes) do not explain these inequalities.

New analysis with Carnall Farrar [a health consultancy] illustrates that these comorbidities lead to the Black population only being five percent more likely to die from COVID-19.

Instead, higher deprivation levels, socio-economic conditions, citizenship status and racism, are more likely to explain these disparities.

The Runnymede Trust and IPPR’s findings clearly illustrate that ethnicity alone does not explain the inequalities in the outcome of COVID-19 for BME communities.