The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent

Race to the bottom

Although highly qualified, the views of UN race academics must be resisted

Artillery Row

Last Monday a group of UN experts, in an opinion immediately picked up and rediffused by the Guardian and other left-leading media, tore into the Government’s Sewell report on race. It damned the document as “reprehensible”, liable to “fuel racism” and amounting to an “attempt to normalise white supremacy.” 

We should have seen it coming. It is, after all, not the first time experts attached to the UN have impertinently intervened in UK affairs. In 2019 Philip Alston, a so-called UN special rapporteur, essentially called for radically redistributive economic policies to be adopted in the UK forthwith. In 2016 another UN specialised group called for extensive changes to our law on children, including a total ban on corporal punishment, and in 2019 yet another have insisted on matters to promote women’s equality, including increased access to abortion and gender quotas for elected politicians.

To understand the Sewell controversy, we have to go back not three weeks but twenty-two years. In 1999, following the botched Scotland Yard investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, judicial retiree Sir William Macpherson was appointed to investigate what had gone wrong. He found little evidence of deliberate personal racism in the police, but concluded – perhaps naively in retrospect – that there must have been present a more abstract, intangible entity called “institutional racism”. This was immediately seized on; the presence of institutional racism, not only in the police but in society generally, became an article of faith among progressives. It was later joined by the concept of systemic or structural racism from critical race theory in the US, according to which one had to start from an assumed premise that western thought was itself infected with notions of white privilege, so much that, in race activist Robin Di Angelo’s words, the analysis of any human event had to involve asking, not “did racism take place?”, but “how did racism manifest?”

To understand the Sewell controversy, we have to go back not three weeks but twenty-two years

The effect on social policy was marked. If indeed a miasma of impersonal, often unconscious racism permeated society, then it was easy to call for ever more governmental intervention to root out the invisible enemy, including not only increasing equality of opportunity, but often as well measures to promote “equity” or equality of outcome.

The Sewell Report for the first time looked sceptically at this thesis. It found individual racism, and too much of it; it also found problems relating to culture and lifestyle that impacted disproportionately on some black people. But it failed to make much sense of, or to find convincing evidence of, the phenomenon of institutional or systemic racism. This alarmed activists in Britain; seeing the existing consensus undermined, they fought back by alleging that everyone knew institutional racism existed and that the authors could not have been looking for it hard enough. They were joined by a few academics who complained that the authors had been guilty of wilful blindness in failing to build on the intellectual edifice of systemic racism derived from critical race theory.

This was also essentially the line taken by the UN experts. Regarding institutional racism and the vital relevance of “lived experience” as a given, they excoriated the report for its scepticism on the matter, and called on the Government to “categorically reject” it. The Government for its part categorically rejected the experts’ view. Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said it derived from a blind following of “divisive narratives being perpetrated by certain media outlets” that sought mischievously to “sow division” in ethnic communities; she stood by the Sewell report, and praised its authors for their willingness to challenge perceived orthodoxy.

The government is right here. But this is not necessarily for the reasons you might think. There is little evidence that the UN experts were manipulated by the media or anyone else. Moreover, despite suggestions from conservative social media, we cannot dismiss them as a collection of charlatans or committed activists happy to say whatever they were asked to by the UN bureaucracy which appointed them. The members of the group, set up in 2002 by the UN Commission on Human Rights and officially called the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, are impeccably qualified, independent-minded and entirely respectable. Of its five panellists, three are tenured university professors and the other two highly educated and established international human rights lawyers. Two of the five are impeccable and successful Ivy League alumni. Experts they clearly are: charlatans or hired spokespeople they are not.

Why then should we be prepared to dismiss the Working Group’s pretensions? The reason is straightforward: there is little doubt that, for all their expertise, its members were simply not impartial. This may seem perverse, but it is not. Although in the empirical sciences – say climatology, or economics – “expert” normally implies political disinterestedness, this is much less true of lawyers and human rights scholars, whose academic disciplines are actually much closer academically to matters such as politics or philosophy or even theology. True, we expect them to get right any facts they do use: it would not be much help if a lawyer misstated the result of past decided cases or a human rights expert the current interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights. But look at most journals on law and human rights, and you will see that the majority of the work, as in philosophy or politics, is essentially speculative: an exercise in logic, argument, rationalisation and schematisation. As a result expert opinions may vary a great deal more than in the empirical sciences. A proponent of extensive positive discrimination may be just as much a race law expert as a supporter of colour-blind treatment: their disagreement goes not to facts but to the convincingness of their arguments.

There is little doubt that, for all their expertise, its members were simply not impartial

What reason have we to think that the members of this group were not impartial? Consider the UN and who in practice is likely to become one of its public international experts. Although in fact proponents of radical racial equity and supporters of colour-blindness in racial matters may well be equally expert, the UN establishment — naturally woke, anti-capitalist and often intolerant of individual scepticism — is overwhelmingly likely to attract, and be attracted by, the former. Furthermore, this effect also extends further down into the recruiting grounds used by the UN: universities, national human rights quangos and law firms specialising in equality cases cases. Put bluntly, applicants for places in such organisations tend to be drawn more from youthful idealists bitten by the equality bug; also conversely, if you want a job teaching human rights or race equality it helps to say that you are passionate to extend them, rather than admit to doubts about the whole exercise.

We need not therefore be put off by reports that experts have taken violent exception to the Sewell report. Here, as often elsewhere, we should have no compunction in saying boo to the UN goose and standing by the scepticism and good sense of the authors of that report.

But there is a sting in the tail. Views based on the assumed existence of institutional racism and white privilege, however consistent with expertise, still amount to attacks on political liberalism and the liberal empiricist approach to social science and social policy which it embodies. If the latter are to be preserved, it is not enough to reject the views of the Working Group. We must in addition continue to argue forcefully and repeatedly against them, and in favour of the more open, sceptical values that we support.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover