by Tim Cresswell, University of Edinburgh
The recent report of the Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has been roundly condemned and critiqued for any number of reasons since its publication. These include the choice of a person who had already declared the non-existence of institutional racism to lead the Commission, its historically illiterate and starkly offensive suggestion that we might find some happier stories to tell about the slavery era, its naming of consultants who had no wish to be associated with the report, and its extreme cherry picking of data to make its case. As a geographer, I have fixed on one particular aspect of the report that is misleading and confusing. I refer to the repeated use of the word “geography” to explain existing inequalities, inequities and injustices in contemporary Britain. The word geography appears 19 times in the report. The function it repeatedly serves is to suggest that there are reasons other than racism or ethnicity for inequalities in the United Kingdom. This overall ‘finding’ is stated early on:
“The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.” (8)
Later, on page 10, the Report states that “the roots of advantage and disadvantage for different groups are complex, and often as much to do with social class, ‘family’ culture and geography as ethnicity.” Repeatedly, the Report downplays the role of both “ethnicity” and racism by pointing towards “geography” alongside “socio-economic background”, “culture” and “degree of integration”. In the Report’s sections on health inequalities, for instance, it states:
“For many health outcomes, including life expectancy, overall mortality and many of the leading causes of mortality in the UK, ethnic minority groups have better outcomes than the White population. This evidence clearly suggests that ethnicity is not the major driver of health inequalities in the UK but deprivation, geography and differential exposure to key risk factors.” (199)
To help “solve” these problems the Report suggests in recommendation 11B the need to:
“Provide expertise in how the health of different ethnic minority groups are affected by underlying conditions, cultural and linguistic practices, geography, and occupation. This expertise would be disaggregated to avoid unhelpful grouping of different ethnicity and to ensure proper tailoring of health services.” (19)
Similar logics are mobilized in the Report’s consideration of social mobility and education. One recommendation, already accepted by the government, is to move the Social Mobility Commission out of the Department of Education and into the Cabinet Office:
“The rationale for doing so being that many disparities are driven by differences in age, sex, class and geography. As such, a more holistic approach to equalities policy and research in government – which united entities established to look at geography, class, race, disability, gender and so on – would ensure better outcomes in the long-term.” (26)
As with health inequalities, the Report judges the causes of disparities in educational outcomes to be “complex” and that “different social, economic and cultural factors contribute to this: parental income levels, parental career and educational achievement, geography, family structure, and attitudes towards education within the family and wider community” (55). Disparities in early years education is blamed on three causes “family, geography and poverty” (60). The section on education concludes:
“It is very difficult to judge on a national level the extent to which racism could be a determining factor in educational outcomes amongst ethnic minority groups. However, the fact that ethnic groups within the same system can have quite divergent educational outcomes, and that even within the major ethnic groups there are quite distinct trends, suggests that other factors may be more influential. Indeed, if there is racial bias within schools or the teaching profession, it has limited effect and other factors such as family structure, cultural aspirations and geography may offset this disadvantage.” (69)
Here racism is “offset” by loaded terms such as “family structure” and “cultural aspirations” as well as “geography”. This sounds an awful lot like blaming the victim to me. In other words, the pernicious effects of racism (and even this Report does not deny that completely) can be overcome by having the correct kind of family or “cultural aspirations”. Both of these “factors” are extremely loaded and based on stereotypes of often racialized groups within society.
While “geography” is often used as if it is obvious as a cause, source or factor in the explanation of disparities, there are sections of the report that briefly expand on its logic. It is a logic that tangles place with race, gender and class in misleading ways:
“The life chances of the child of a Harrow-raised British Indian accountant and the child of a Bradford-raised British Pakistani taxi-driver are as wide apart as they are, partly because of the UK’s economic geography. Meanwhile, the numerically largest disadvantaged group is low income White boys, especially those from former industrial and coastal towns, who are failing at secondary school and are the people least likely to go to university. Unlike many other reports on race and ethnicity we have included the White group in our deliberations. For a range of outcomes, White working- class children trail behind their peers in almost all ethnic minority groups, although the extent of these disparities vary by area.” (29)
A significant part of the problem here is the use of the term “White” as though it is an explanatory factor. This is a common problem with references to the “white working class” or, sometimes even more perniciously, “indigenous working class”. While it is relatively easy to see how being working class might lead to the disparities the report mentions, there is no suggestion that the adjective “White” has any causal explanatory power here. The working class has members of many groups, “White” and otherwise, and the difficulties associated with being working class are generally shared by this group. There are also clear complications related to being black or brown and the existence of racism. No-one has suggested a mechanism whereby people are disadvantaged by their whiteness. The frequent inclusion of whiteness in the report appears to be designed as a provocation rather than as a useful analytical tool.
In a number of instances, the Report mentions evidence of Black and Asian school children matching or exceeding their White peers. Almost always, they refer to parts of London. London is exactly the place you might look to see how education that has been race-aware, and frequently explicitly anti-racist, since the days of the Inner London Education Authority has been operationalized. In other words, places where Black and Brown students are doing well are places where exactly the kind of education the Right has so railed against as “woke” is happening. And it is not because it is in London (or, broadly speaking, “geography”) that this happens but because of the kinds of things that happen in this place – relatively progressive education and significant investment in primary and secondary education. The same is true of other uses of the term “geography”.
As an aside, it is remarkable that a Report sponsored by a party that has been in power for 45 of the last 70 years tells us that “half the population in the UK live in areas where prosperity is no better than the poorest parts of the old East Germany or the poorest states in the USA, like Mississippi or West Virginia” (37) – perhaps they think this has nothing to do with them – or is just – your know – “geography”.
Geography can be described as what philosophers would call a “proximate cause” – that is, the cause closest to the effect. Philosophers know, however, that proximate causes do not have the explanatory power that a “distal” or “ultimate” cause has. “Geography” is often a proximate cause but rarely a distal one. The reason Black kids do better in London is not because it is London but because of the education policies and investments that have been made in London. Mistaking geography for an important kind of cause would have been called “spatial fetishism” by critical geographers of the 1980s and this is exactly what the Report is guilty of. I am not arguing here that geography is only ever an outcome – just that its role in causality is complicated and entangled with other processes in society – including the processes of racial capitalism. Actually, the power of geography is revealed by its use in this report. Geography often appears as common-sense – as the air that we breath – and thus has a very particular power when used in the way it is used in here.
Differences in “geography” are often themselves a result of the workings of racism alongside and in consort with the processes of uneven development which are a key tool in the successful workings of neoliberal capitalism. So, when the Report lists a typology of racial disparities and includes “explained racial disparities” as a term to describe “persistent ethnic differential outcomes that can demonstrably be shown to be as a result of other factors such as geography, class or sex” (36) it is doing a number of things. First it is playing around with the temporal dimensions of cause and effect by listing geography as a cause rather than an outcome, and second, it is arguing that ethnic and racial disparities are connected to class and sex (gender) as well as “geography”. If you squint a little you could see this as affirming the complexities of intersectionality. Given the authors and sponsors of the Report it is unlikely that they are making this argument – which is simply another instances of what they would describe as the “woke” agenda. The Report does not use “geography” to say that racism is complicated and that space and play a role in it (which would be accurate) but rather to diminish the influence of racism entirely by telling us to look away from it and to look instead at “geography”.
About the author: Tim Cresswell is Ogilvie Professor of Geography at the University of Edinburgh. He is a cultural geographer by training, and the author or editor of a dozen books and over a 100 articles on the role of space, place and mobility in social and cultural life. He has PhDs in Geography (Wisconsin) and Creative Writing (Royal Holloway, University of London). Cresswell is also a widely published poet with three collections – most recently Plastiglomerate (Penned in the Margins, 2020). His most recent academic book, Maxwell Street: Writing and Thinking Place was published earlier in 2019 by the University of Chicago Press.
Suggested further reading
Dorling, D. (2010), All connected? Geographies of race, death, wealth, votes and births. The Geographical Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2010.00373.x
Tolia‐Kelly, D.P. (2017), A day in the life of a Geographer: ‘lone’, black, female. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12373
Nayak, A. (2017), Purging the nation: race, conviviality and embodied encounters in the lives of British Bangladeshi Muslim young women. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12168