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“Sheffield has long punched above its weight when it comes to race”

Activists digest race report - and it doesn’t look positive

City centre panorama 6
Rachel Rae Photography

The Sheffield Race Equality Commission’s report on racial inequality in Sheffield is being digested by people who are actually anti-racists. A couple of weeks ago, Now Then covered an initial reaction to the report. The biggest recommendation to come from the two years of work was that Sheffield needs to become anti-racist.

For anyone who’s vaguely familiar with anti-racism, you’ll know exactly why this is a laughable and ridiculous standard. Anti-racism is a thing you do, it’s not a thing that you are. The report gave a two-year time limit for this to happen which is, again, a fantastical projection considering the rigorous and ambitious threshold that constitutes anti-racism. But, don’t just take my word for it.

I spoke to a number of people who are experts in racial justice. By “expert” I don’t mean status gained through jobs. Rather, I mean people who work passionately and actively in communities to effect social change. There is consensus on at least one thing: the recommendation of anti-racism is an example of over-reach from the report’s authors.

Lack of specifics

Community organiser Ishah Jawaid told me:

The report does not go far enough to outline what racism is, what is meant by anti-racism and how racism and racist structures are to be dismantled. When reading the report I felt that there was a lack of honesty and rage about how bad racism and racial disparities across the city are, and it has led me to question who the report has been written for.

Honesty and rage have important roles to play here. Any people of colour in Sheffield are well aware of how Sheffield is a racist and segregated city. It would make sense, then, for any report on race in Sheffield to reflect the emotion that comes with lived experience. Ishah also brings forward an important question - if the report has not been written for racialised communities in Sheffield, who is it for? Presumably, it’s for leaders of organisations in Sheffield who wish to appear anti-racist, without actually doing the work of anti-racism.

Ishah also told me:

True anti-racist work means to disrupt and dismantle structures and systems of oppression that harm Black and brown communities and marginalise us further. If Sheffield is truly committed to becoming an anti-racist city then it cannot continue to uphold oppressive systems that harm Black and brown communities.

In order for the recommendations of the report to be met, that surely means some people must lose their positions, their power, in order to make room for genuine anti-racists?

As Ishah told me:

Ultimately, the leaders of Sheffield need to step down. They have shown us time and time again that they are not truly committed to becoming an anti-racist city, and their performative words are merely for optics.

Désirée Reynolds, member of Dig Where You Stand, pointed out the same thing:

How will the training for ‘leadership’ roles work when there are no jobs? When it comes to equity, who will pay for it and how?

And, the report is thin on the ground in terms of specifics, as Désirée argues:

I was hoping for a set of transformational demands. What would an ‘anti- racist’ city look like? It appeared to be a set of guidelines that organisations could choose to opt out of rather than holding those organisations’ feet to the fire by demanding change by such and such a percent by such and such a time or there would be consequences if that organisation fails to do so. Organisations must commit to real accountability.

There’s a mention of the council but again, who in the council names the people, the departments, the projects and the cross-party support to deliver the outcomes? And what specifically does that support look like? The whole thing feels too broad and far too easy for organisations to choose not to do.

Ishah and Désirée offer a valuable analysis here – not only is the report’s definition of anti-racism inadequate, but the report as a whole doesn’t offer specific details on how the recommendations are supposed to be achieved. By not doing that, it’s a vague set of thoughts about race, rather than the comprehensive report we all wanted.

Value of research

Muna Abdi, who runs an anti-racist consultancy company called MA Consultancy, shared her thoughts on Twitter:

Muna’s tweet questions the data collection methods used in the report. She also notes the lack of structural analysis in the report. Again, given the flagship recommendation of anti-racism, this is a bizarre research decision from the report’s authors. Proposals of anti-racism without structural analyses of power are a blunt set of tools. As Now Then noted a couple of weeks ago, the fact that the report uncritically included input from South Yorkshire Police makes it clear that an analysis informed by power structures was not taken.

I also spoke to Dr Alex Rajinder Mason, Project Manager for the Centre of Equity & Inclusion, University of Sheffield for his views on the report. Alex found that there was some value to the report:

The Commission’s finding that systemic racism is a significant problem in Sheffield and pervades all its major sectors will not be news to anyone who works in this area or belongs to a racially-marginalised community. However, there is power in this being explicitly named on such a visible platform, especially with the backdrop of the recent Sewell Report which denies the existence of any issue at all, nationwide.

He continued, however, that:

The report’s recommended route forward rests heavily on the framework of anti-racism. It is a problem then that this term is ill-defined and presented as a fixed state that can be achieved rather than a process that is to be continuously worked through… Indeed, following the criteria outlined by the report it is plausible that the two universities could consider and call themselves anti-racist institutions, which is decidedly not the case in reality.

There’s little point in having a neat list about how the two universities in Sheffield have upheld and perpetuated racism. As Alex says, the terms and conditions of the report are themselves flawed.

Looking to the future

What next, then? Alex explains how the report is naturally limited in some ways, but there are more concerns here:

A report can only do so much on its own and the impact of this one will largely depend on how many organisations seriously take up its recommendations. How much organisational buy-in there is at this point remains unclear. The idea of a legacy group monitoring and reviewing progress to ensure sustainability is an interesting one. However, a major concern will be how power dynamics are managed within this group, as there is potential for it to become another site of racialised exploitation and extraction; particularly if it is the major organisations providing the funding for it to function.

The collective evaluation of the report can only go so far until we can have more details about the specifics. What happens if organisations don’t become anti-racist in two years? What is the threshold for them doing so? How will this be funded? Who will be doing the work? How do we know genuine anti-racist organisations will get continuous funding, rather than white-led organisations who know how to use the language of anti-racism?

After all, as Désirée told me:

Sheffield has long punched above its weight when it comes to race, relying far too heavily on its radical past.

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