Are criticisms of the race inequality commission’s Munira Mirza valid?

A storm of anger at racial inequality and injustice might have gripped America, but no-one from the British government could say that they haven’t felt some of it too.

One might have expected there to be some frostiness given Boris Johnson’s history of racist remarks, but a combination of the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum and anger at the high number of ‘BAME’ deaths in the COVID-19 pandemic has put the government under intense scrutiny. As such, the appointment of No. 10’s special adviser Munira Mirza to set up the race inequality commission, has only further stoked the anger.

The appointment of Ms Mirza has unchained further frustration towards the government’s approach to racial inequality within Britain. This comes on the back of criticism of their refusal to publish the report on ‘BAME’ deaths resulting from Coronavirus for fear of further aggravating racial tensions. Ms Mirza’s appointment is rather unsurprising and disappointing, but unfortunately, the same could also be said of the responses to the appointment.

To understand why there has been much objection to her appointment, it’s worth unravelling some of the poorly-presented arguments in favour of her. The first is claim that criticisms of her are favouring critical racial theory, over data and evidence which she supposedly elevates. This was made on Twitter by the academic and writer, Matthew Goodwin.

The problem with this argument is that data is there to be interpreted in different ways by how much you focus on particular variables over the other. For example, the Casey Report a few years ago highlighted the integration struggles confronting British South-Asian Muslim women, noting the high levels of unemployment. Depending on what wing of the debate you fly in on, this was either due to employment discrimination or cultural reasons.

But how does Mirza debunk the data that shows there are racial pay inequalities within workplaces, or the tendency for ethnic minority applicants to be less likely to be called to a job interview than their white peers?

How does she disprove the claims of racism behind racial profiling in stop-and-search and the disproportionate tasering of black men? She would be correct if she were to suggest the involvement of other factors, such as class, but it is clear that Mirza’s whole premise is that arguments of institutional racism are nothing more than a culture of grievances and victimhood.

One only needs to check her articles for Spiked (how serious are you about evidence if you’re writing for a magazine whose founders denied the Bosnian genocide?) to gather a sense that she is probably setting up this commission with more intentions to prove institutional racism is a myth, rather than acknowledge its existence. In her articles, she dismissed the Lammy Review, believed Muslims were being pandered to and described diversity as divisive.

The second defence of her is that leftist criticism of her is grounded in a refusal to accept that a woman of colour is not automatically left-wing. There are two sides to this. The first is that much of the criticism of her appointment derived from people’s assessment of her articles and viewpoints on issues such as institutional racism. She cannot be shielded from criticism simply because she is a brown woman.

The writer Musa Okwonga described this phenomenon as ‘racial gatekeeping’ where “the political figure in question cannot be criticised for their policies against a particularly racially marginalised group, because they themselves are member of that group.” Though the term does take agency away from the individual in question, it’s presented more as a criticism of the status quo for protecting itself by embracing more diversity.

However, some of the responses to Ms Mirza having the viewpoints she does as a brown woman have been troubling. Twitter brimmed with jokes of Ms Mirza being a coconut or a race traitor. This implies one’s identity isn’t determined by their ethnicity and language but by their political views, effectively shuttering groups down to a monolith and depriving us of the right to have intellectual pluralism.

If white people can have liberals and conservatives, then so can brown people. The logical implication from all of this is that the truest Asians or Muslims are the extreme conservatives who don’t stray even slightly from their identity. That isn’t to say that the line-up of South Asians in British politics isn’t deeply disappointing.

We asked for representation and got some of the worst figures. We had Sadiq Khan becoming Mayor of London in 2016 but everything after that, progress has been nothing short of disappointing. It’s like wanting something great after having Goodness Gracious Me and getting Citizen Khan instead.

It may very well be that Ms Mirza’s commission into racial inequality highlights some of the disturbing trends affecting ethnic minorities, but we should be braced for the likelihood that the commission will instead explain racial inequalities by focusing on internal cultural problems, and thus playing down the significance of institutional racism. 

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