Black Lives Matter, and when black lives matter then all lives will matter. The shocking murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in police custody in Minneapolis, USA, following so many others, sparked protests here because racism still remains a problem in the UK.
Racism is defined as ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’ or ‘the belief that people's qualities are influenced by their race and that the members of other races are not as good as the members of your own.’
Ignorance, fear, hate, selfishness, greed, tribalism and power all seem to be factors. Over 20 years ago the inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence concluded the police response was ‘institutionally racist’ as it showed a ‘collective failure to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’. But this year’s review into the Windrush scandal also found the failings by ministers and officials in the Home Office demonstrated ‘an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation, which are consistent with elements of the definition of institutional racism’.
It took Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman’s persistence and an international diplomatic incident to force the Government to take notice in 2018. The BBC’s ‘Sitting in Limbo’ dramatised the case of Anthony Bryan from Edmonton, north London, who spent three years in and out of detention trying to prove he was here legally, losing his job and home. This showed the callous indifference of Government, until it became too big a story to ignore, and the prejudice built into the process, with the assumption that these people must be lying and that their lives did not matter.
Going to secondary school in Edmonton in the 1980s, with dedicated lessons about racism (I still remember one involving a video drama of how a racist teacher constantly picked on a black pupil), and with a cousin marrying a girl from Trinidad, it was easy to learn from an early age that racism of any sort is wrong. But I also I know as a white British man it is my privilege to never have to worry about experiencing racist abuse, discrimination or attack, and to know that I will not be more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested or imprisoned or suffer police brutality, as a result of the colour of my skin.
Racism is intensely personal and affects how people feel about themselves. It is also purely visual. A friend with a South Asian father and white mother will also never experience racism because he has white skin. Somerset, with around 95% of people white British, is one of the least ethnically diverse parts of the UK. This does not mean there is less racism, as it may be there are less BAME people who suffer from it, but they may experience it more intensely. One family in Frome recently talked to BBC Points West about the racist abuse they have suffered from for 20 years since moving from Kenya. This included abuse sprayed on their vehicle, verbal abuse in the street, and at one point the abuse the girls in the family were getting “got so bad we had to taxis” to school to avoid it. So what can we do?
To eradicate racism, people’s racist beliefs and ideas needs to be challenged and changed through education and information. It is also vital to challenge racism directly, as former MP Sam Gyimah wrote in the Financial Times, “So what can be done? First, words matter, silence matters and people have to take a stand. While it can be fraught to talk about race, it is not enough to not be racist. We have to be actively ‘anti-racist’ and that requires action not just intention”.
Racist acts can be punished under the law, and organisations and individuals have legal duties to avoid racial discrimination under the Equality Act. The Liberal Democrat 2019 General Election manifesto also promised to improve diversity in public appointments with ambitious targets, tackle BAME inequalities, and pursue comprehensive unconscious bias training in workplaces. My day job employer has good diversity training and policies, and I am looking into what we can do on this at Mendip District Council.
Government can do more. The Prime Minister has announced a new review into race and ethnic disparities, in response to BLM protests. This is welcome, but it’s not enough. As Christine Jardine, Lib Dem Equalities spokesperson has said, there are reports, reviews and recommendations weighing down the shelves of Whitehall - the Angiolini review into deaths and serious incidents in police custody, David Lammy MP’s review into the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system, Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review into racial discrimination in the workplace (all 2017), and most recently Wendy Williams’ review into the Home Office’s Windrush scandal (March 2020). – and so far there has been little real action. The Lib Dems are calling for a Race Equality Strategy to be a priority. The Covid-19 crisis is having a disproportionate impact on BAME communities. What we need now is action. If the Government is serious about tackling racial injustice, a Race Equality Strategy for the whole of the United Kingdom is crucial.
Until the recent protests, the statue of a prolific slave trader Edward Colston stood in Bristol. Seeing it as a prominent symbol of glorifying racism, protestors took it down. Colston was a very wealthy merchant and slave trader whose ships transported 84,000 men, women and children from West Africa to the Americas, 19,000 of whom died during the crossings. He died in 1721 but because he gave away some of the profits from trading in slaves to some local institutions, some of which were then named after him, his memory was honoured in 1895 with a statue as ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’.
When I saw it fall, my instinctive reaction was ‘Yes!’ and a close family member simply said “Cool!”, as teenagers do. Whether you agree with its removal or think it should have been discussed further through the proper channels, I agree with Ed Davey MP, our Lib Dem Interim Leader, who said “the real question is why was a statue glorifying a slave trader still on our streets in 2020? We need to expose the dark sides of British history and consign such monuments to museums that reveal the true horror of slavery.” As statues are erected to celebrate those we admire, I hope that Bristol can replace it with a memorial to the people who suffered as a result of the slave trade and the abolitionists who ended it.
The same questions are being asked again about the many Confederate statues and memorials in the USA. I remember visiting the largest of them all, the Stone Mountain carving in Georgia, on a visit to our lovely cousins in 1990 (just as well, we could not see a thing due to low cloud). I thought it was odd at the time that the USA has memorials and monuments (there are still around 1500) to the leaders of a rebellion whose fundamental purpose was to protect the institution of slavery. It has a shocking history linked to the KKK, and the opening ceremony was only in 1972, with a speech by Vice President Spiro Agnew (of Watergate infamy). Now it is a huge tourist attraction, with a recently added statue of Martin Luther King, despite protests from Confederacy supporters, and the debates about whether the carving should be removed continue. Dr King referred to the place in his 1963 speech at the March on Washington, “let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia!”, and his words inspired the world, including the passage,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…”
This is a worthy dream indeed.