The recent announcement by Boris Johnson of a new government commission formed to carry out a review on racial inequalities, led by No 10 adviser Munira Mirza who doubts the existence of structural racism, has been met with dismay by many.

The commission, set up in light of the current global movement of Black Lives Matter protests, has been criticised by experts and MPs, such as David Lammy, as a move to produce yet another report and avoid direct action to tackle root causes of systemic racism. Mirza has herself attacked previous reviews as generating a “culture of grievance”.

Without someone at the helm who understands that structural factors cause inequalities, it is difficult to see how this commission will produce anything of substance or indeed lead to change.

Structural violence

Structural racism, or structural violence, exists alongside the more visible acts of physical violence against individuals and pervades many sectors of society such as housing, policing, health, education and employment. Structural violence means that individuals are held back in their potential due to discrimination and lack of access to resources, which then contributes to trauma.

It means that black people in the UK are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.  It means that discriminatory hiring practices in employment exist, such as individuals with ‘more English sounding’ names being preferred over others. These systems have to be proactively addressed so, for example, when I worked in recruitment the application process for jobs had to be anonymised so that employers were unable to see the names of applicants.

Structural factors contribute to black people being four times more at risk of dying from Covid-19 than their white counterparts.  This is due to socio-economic disadvantage such as overcrowding in housing, health and other factors.  Also those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are more likely to work in frontline roles that may expose them to coronavirus. Due to structural racism they are also less likely to seek care or demand access to protective work equipment.

Some have criticised the notion of structural violence as being too general and therefore lacking any useful purpose by linking racism with multiple structural factors.  However, to try to ignore structural violence would be to dismiss the factors that also give rise to the lived experience of individuals of racial inequality.

Policies need to be addressed and changed, rather than just a focus on unconscious bias.  It is not just bias that led to almost a third of young black males to be stopped and searched in London during lockdown.  Or that led to the hostile environment policy and subsequent Windrush scandal.

Time for change

As the current wave of Black Lives Matters protests subsides, now comes the hard bit – change. And change will not come from symbolic government reviews that skim the surface and fail to tackle or acknowledge systemic racism.  Although the main demand for change that has gained traction is for more diversity and inclusion of black British history in education, this does not go far enough.

Demands for change have already been called for in previous reviews, such as the Lammy review on racial disparities in the criminal justice system or Ruby McGregor-Smith’s review into discrimination in the workplace. Bold decisions will need to be taken that change policy and institutional structures.  As Gary Younge says, “that costs money and takes guts; it means challenging power and redistributing resources; it requires reckoning with the past and taking on vested interests.”

The time for bold action is now.