The Sewell Report on race and ethnic disparities is courageous, thoughtful and measured. Its relative optimism has triggered a torrent of bile from those personally or professionally wedded to the idea that Britain is a systemically racist society. They accuse the report of disregarding what is fashionably called ‘lived experience’ — in other words, anecdotal evidence and subjective impression. Its use of carefully considered objective data, the critics allege, devalues the lived experience of ethnic minorities.
Lived experience has validity, but — by definition — only for those who have lived it. It proves nothing beyond itself, and certainly nothing systemic. If we wish to be rational creatures, we check our own lived experience against the experiences of others. Otherwise, we regress to a solipsistic universe where only our own impressions exist: the condition of babyhood.
If the ‘lived experience’ of many people can be assembled and analysed, it ceases to be merely anecdotal and becomes evidence. Not necessarily evidence of fact, but evidence that certain perceptions may be widely shared — and if widely shared enough, that they are probably a reflection of real phenomena. The European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Human Rights did precisely this in a huge survey in 2014, and in its subsequent report, Being Black in the EU, published in 2018. As Britain had been an EU member, it was part of the study, which covered people of first and second generation African, Caribbean, and Asian origin. The report has one obvious major advantage over the Sewell Report: it provides ample basis for comparison.
The study draws on the lived experience of over 25,000 people across the EU, with most of its data based on their reported ‘perceptions’.