One of Britain’s foremost historians of slavery has accused the authors of a controversial racial disparities report commissioned by Downing Street of giving the impression they would prefer “history to be swept under the carpet”.
Broadcaster David Olusoga, professor of public history at Manchester University, made the comments in an article for the Guardian, as hundreds of experts on race, education, health and economics joined the criticism of the report for brazenly misrepresenting evidence of racism.
Published in full on Wednesday, the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities said its findings presented “a new race agenda for the country”, and concluded the “claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence”.
MPs, unions and campaigners swiftly condemned the report, with comments made by the commission’s chairman, Dr Tony Sewell, in its foreword singled out for special criticism. Sewell wrote there was a new story to be told about the “slave period” not just “about profit and suffering”, but about how “culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain”.
Olusoga said that, as a historian, for him the most disturbing passages in the report were those in which the authors “stumble, ill-prepared and overconfident, into the arena of history”.The poisonously patronising Sewell report is historically illiterateDavid OlusogaRead more
“Shockingly, the authors – perhaps unwittingly – deploy a version of an argument that was used by the slave owners themselves in defence of slavery 200 years ago: the idea that by becoming culturally British, black people were somehow beneficiaries of the system,”Olusoga wrote in a Guardian article.
“Determined to privilege comforting national myths over hard historical truths, they give the impression of being people who would prefer this history to be brushed back under the carpet,” he added, describing the report as Britain’s version of the “1776 report” commissioned by the Trump administration, which urged the US to return to an era of “patriotic education”.
Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester, told the Guardian that the report’s foreword failed to make clear that the subjugation of millions of African people was a crime against humanity.
“It is forgetting the hundreds of years of the crimes against the African people, the deaths of millions of African men, women and children,” said Adi. “We live in a country where [many] have denied this as a reality, they have refused to make any reparation, and for this report to put it in a paragraph in that manner – the word insulting does not do it justice.”
The British theologian Robert Beckford said it was consistent with the radical and “historical amnesia and vicious historical revisionism” of Caribbean and African history by the far right. Beckford, professor of Black theology at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, said the report had reduced slavery’s racial terror and Britain’s racial capitalism to a simple exchange of cultural ideas.
Responding to the criticism, 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.”
The commission behind the report was set up by Downing Street to investigate racial disparities in the UK in response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
The report drew further criticism on Friday from hundreds of UK academics who came together to sign an open letter criticising its “selective and distorted use of academic research”.
While the report claims education was “the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience”, the letter’s signatories said it had “completely overlooked the substantial base of evidence in educational research that has shown how structural, institutional and direct racism works in and through schools, universities and other sites of education”.
Those involved had a “limited knowledge of education research”, the letter writers said, adding that research was cited so as “to present simplistic understandings of education and divisive views of ethnic minority groups”.
“The report misrepresents, omits and elides longstanding and nuanced academic debate and evidence about the complex relationship between racism and educational practices, cultures, policies, and systems,” they added.
Signatories to the letter included Arathi Sriprakash, professor of education at the University of Bristol, who said they came from a variety of disciplines within educational research – including psychology, sociology and economics – and many were leading and respected figures in the field.