By Adam Peggs
Some two months ago George Floyd was killed by a racist police officer in Minneapolis, triggering a wave of protests which have shaken the world and which have been the largest protests against racism in American since 1968. While the Black Lives Matter movement has certainly had an impact here in Britain, with waves of protests, affirmations of solidarity and many necessary conversations taking place, it is clear that the systemic racism which has motivated it is still poorly understood. Often it is not even taken seriously. As Joseph Harker has argued ‘Black Lives Matter risks becoming an empty slogan’, with action and substance too often left out, arguing that it has become a way to ‘endlessly repeat “I hate racism” while doing nothing’.
Systemic racism is pervasive in the United Kingdom, yet it is not clear whether much progress has been made in the last few months in acknowledging what that actually means – let alone acting to dismantle it. The pillars that uphold systemic racism, among them mass incarceration, the nexus of anti-immigration policies, and an aggressive foreign policy, are things that have historically had fairly broad political support. Personally, I have not seen enough evidence of this changing.
First, it should be clear to everyone that systemic racism is not simply a problem across the Atlantic or something in Britain’s past. But a living, breathing problem today, that is woven into institutions and practices in this country. White household incomes are significantly above Black household incomes. The wealth gap between Black households and White households is even larger. And the Social Metrics Commission has found that nearly half of Black households live in poverty, compared to 39% for Asian households and 19% for white households.
But this is not just a set of economic issues. There’s Stop and Search. which does not only disproportionately effect ethnic minority groups, but the trend suggests is becoming more rather than less disproportionate. There’s the fact that, as the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) have pointed out, over 500 Black, Asian and other ethnic minority people have died in custody since 1991 – either in prisons, police cells or in detention centres. And there’s the police’s ‘Gangs Matrix’ of ‘suspected gang members’, in London 9 in 10 of those on the list are from the city’s BAME population.
The country’s prisons system is also the site of gigantic disparities – with Black people disproportionately locked up a greater extent here than in the United States. And this disproportionality is even more severe in young offenders institutes.
Despite the gravity of these systemic injustices, the engagement with Black Lives Matter by many UK politicians has been comparatively shallow, with much sloganeering and often not much else beyond that. Too often people have taken the chance to flaunt their supposed progressive credentials, rather than engage with the issues seriously. Hence we have politicians saying ‘I hear you’ despite advocating greater stop and search powers and increased taser use, or writing articles lauding Black Lives Matter and advocating tougher drug laws a month later.
Even in his announcement of an inquiry, the Prime Minister made comments suggesting that systemic racism is not a real issue in modern Britain. A month ago, the Foreign Secretary made comments mocking the movement and implying Black Lives Matter was a ‘symbol of subjugation’, echoing narratives from the American Alt-Right. After Black Lives Matter campaigners faced hostile and ‘intimidating’ policing tactics, the Chancellor chose only to criticise one side – the protesters. Though he was careful to note that he believes racism is still a problem in this country. Priti Patel simply published plans to fast-track prosecution of protesters, drawing on plans from 2011 to quickly incarcerate largely Black youths in the wake of the riots.
The Liberal Democrats’ acting leader Ed Davey, on the other hand, criticised Stop and Search and the Foreign Secretaries’ insulting approach to Black Lives Matter. Davey’s record, as a former minister in David Cameron’s government, may not exactly endear him to many anti-racists. Leadership candidate Layla Moran, Davey’s possible successor, has called for Black educators to be given the leading role in reshaping the curriculum, a move that would be welcome. Though elsewhere she appears to have focussed more on diversity in the boardroom than structural change, when more diversity at the top really won’t cut it.
Meanwhile, some Labour MPs are calling for tougher drug laws and calling for Conservative legislation to go further, while others on the frontbench have been flirting with tougher sentencing for lawbreaking protesters. One of the party’s peers, Lord Mandelson, has employed longstanding tropes to criticise the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, alarmingly calling it the ‘law of the jungle’. And the party leader himself has faced criticism from the organisation Black Lives Matter UK after publicly criticising them.
There have been a number of far more positive moments too. Marsha de Cordova has spoken poignantly about Black Lives Matter and chosen to emphasise structural injustices. Dawn Butler has been especially vocal. Numerous MPs have taken part in protests and directly linked injustices to policing, the carceral system and Britain’s colonial past. But at the same time the wider political class has largely ignored or downplayed a spate of widely documented cases of police brutality, discrimination and intimidation.
The Mirza Commission
While the government has finally acted by establishing an inequality commission, they have left a hell of a lot to be desired. Not least given the Chair of the Commission will be Munira Mirza, who believes institutional racism does not exist in Britain and has argued that minorities have adopted a ‘culture of grievance’. Has come under fire from a former Tory Chair, who predicts the inequality commission will be a ‘whitewash’. The chances of the commission leading to any progress are clearly very slim – to say the least. The IRR have said ‘It is difficult to have any confidence in policy recommendations from someone who denies the existence of the very structures that produce the social inequalities experienced by black communities’. And Diane Abbott has gone a step further, announcing that the inquiry is ‘dead on arrival’.
The Runnymede Trust’s Zubaida Haque has highlighted how Mirza was an opponent of the race disparity audit produced during Theresa May’s tenure. It seems reasonable to speculate that the inquiry is being used as an opportunity by the government to downplay inequalities in Britain and to effectively brush racism under the carpet, rather than to document and deal with systemic injustice. After all, even the Daily Mail have highlighted concerns about Mirza as a choice for the inquiry.
Beating Systemic Racism
Some of this is not surprising. Labour still has not really come to terms with its history. After all, previous Labour governments have enacted laws specifically to prevent people of colour coming to live here. New Labour’s welfare reforms appear to have disproportionately not benefitted Black households, who were often ‘left behind’. Governments of all parties have ramped up imprisonment of Black people and other minorities. Thirteen years ago, a Labour Prime Minister argued that knife crime was rooted in Black culture. His successor had, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, advocated celebration of the British Empire.
The Conservatives have long had little sympathy with the idea of systemic racism and recent events do not appear to change that. They have been the party of Windrush, the hostile environment, detention centres, prison expansion and of imperial nostalgia. There is little evidence that that will be changing anytime soon.
It is likely too early to tell what impact Black Lives Matter will have had in the United Kingdom, and the degree of support for the movement among the wider public is encouraging, but it is clearer than ever how far we still have to go