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The Black Lives Matter protests that swept across Britain following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis policeman last May have sparked soul-searching at the highest levels of Britain’s Commerce Department.
In a series of internal notes, senior officials told staff the protesters were right. Taking to the streets, they said, showed frustration with “white privilege” and institutional racism in Britain.
But the message flies in the face of the policy of the department’s premier, Commerce Secretary Liz Truss, who also holds the government’s tie file. Last December, Truss said she would reject “identity politics and loud lobby groups” like Black Lives Matter. And the government’s response to the protests, a report drawn up by a commission chaired by Tony Sewell, downplayed the role of institutional racism and white privilege in British society. He concluded that although racism exists, the system is not rigged against ethnic minorities.
The issues raised by protesters a year ago, however, are back in the spotlight as England footballers at the Euro 2020 tournament who knelt as an anti-racist gesture drew boos from some supporters. Asked about it on Sunday at a press conference to conclude the G7 summit in Cornwall, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “everyone should cheer on England” but dodged whether he would adopt the gesture himself.
Her Home Secretary, Priti Patel, told GB News on Monday that she did not agree to kneel, calling it “gestural politics”.
Yet at the top of Truss’ business department last June, officials acknowledged that “systemic racism and white privilege” are woven into British society, according to internal memos obtained by POLITICO through the Freedom of Information Act.
Floyd’s death, protests and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities “show how much remains to be done to achieve true equality,” wrote Antonia Romeo, then one of the two senior officials of the Commerce Department, in a memo to staff on June 3 of last year.
John Alty, who reprized the role of Romeo in January, also sent a series of messages to the staff. Alty recognized “the role of ‘white silence’ in maintaining institutional racism.” He urged staff to “recognize our white privilege” and “listen when black people talk about racism and racial inequality.”
Romeo also hosted an open Black Lives Matter discussion at the Department of International Trade (DIT) and urged staff to join the Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Allies (BAME) group.
“People shouldn’t hesitate to talk about their experiences or fear a potential backlash to discuss issues such as systemic racism and white privilege,” wrote a senior trade official and member of the Afro-Caribbean community in a guest blog post distributed to the Department. for International Trade (DIT) staff.
The heads of the trade department were joined by Lord Mark Sedwill, then head of the civil service. He told civil servants in a June 8, 2020 memo that the protests and the impact of the pandemic had “surfaced persistent and painful inequalities” in British society. Sedwill resigned last October.
“Despite our best efforts in the public service, this is an area where we are still falling short of our aspirations,” Sedwill wrote. “Discrimination can take many forms, it can be subtle or overt, and requires a series of actions to challenge and root out,” he said. Sedwill said he would “ensure that ethnic minority perspectives are mainstreamed” into government policy and that a diversity agenda is rolled out across the civil service.
The messages from senior officials are at odds with the position of their boss, the Secretary of Commerce Truss, and that of the Johnson administration more generally. Truss, gave a speech in December titled The New Fight For Fairness last December. “The equality debate,” she said, has been dominated “by those who believe that people are defined by their protected characteristic, not by their individual character.”
Rather than racial inequalities, Truss said she would “instead focus on correcting geographic inequalities, addressing the real issues people face in their daily lives using evidence and data.”
Techniques, she said, “like unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity statements do nothing to make the workplace fundamentally fairer.” The best way to reduce injustice in British society, she explained, “is to open up opportunities for all”.
This speech was followed by the release of the Sewell report commissioned by Boris Johnson in March. The 256-page document revealed that: “Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” the report said. “Obstacles and disparities exist, they are varied and, ironically, very few of them are directly related to racism. Too often, “racism” is the catch-all explanation and can simply be accepted implicitly rather than explicitly considered. “
He wondered if “the dominant characteristic of our society is institutional racism and white privilege”.
Simon Woolley, life peer and founder of Operation Black Vote, an NGO that fights racial inequality and voter registration, said he feared that by ending the debate the government was missing out on an important opportunity .
Since the protests last summer, “there have been some very intelligent and sincere conversations in public service and in business,” he said, “which have sought to recognize systemic racism and, in particular , how damaging it is both inside and outside government ”.
Confronting a history of colonialism and racism, he said, could lead to “the greatest conversation our nation can have about how the past and the institutions that were built from those eras still generate today. ‘now glaring inequalities’ in employment, housing and health.
“It is both disappointing and more than a little heartbreaking when very senior politicians characterize this as identity politics and loud pressure groups,” he said.
But others in parliament disagree. Conservative MP John Hayes, who chairs the Common Sense Group, said the officials who back the Black Lives Matter message “are sadly drawn from a disconnected, narrow-minded bourgeois left elite who have too much power in the Great -Brittany for too long. “
“Finally, the silent and hardworking majority of patriots are speaking out, challenging the misconceptions of these people and putting them in their place,” he added.
“It is certainly true that many whites and many blacks and many Asians are privileged,” he said, arguing that the real question is how to provide for everyone. “Sadly, this is lost for a large part of the liberal establishment.”
“The civil service is committed to promoting and ensuring equality and valuing diversity,” said a spokesperson for the Commerce Department. They noted that Romeo and Alty worked closely with Truss on the ministry’s equality, diversity and inclusion framework.
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