By Amy Houghton
Continue to be angry for George Floyd. Be angry for Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Demand justice. Demand that America fiercely dismantles its white supremacy. But remember that institutional racism knows no borders. The UK is not innocent. In fact it is categorically guilty, and people should not be shocked that protests have spilled into Britain’s cities. Help in demanding justice for Belly Mujinga. Be angry for Mark Duggan, Sarah Reed, Sheku Bayou, to name but a few.
Explicitly graphic incidents of racism in the UK may not visibly match the frequency of the US, but violence takes many forms. The UK’s white population benefits so enormously from the institutions that run the country, that we have frequently neglected to face up to the harm that has been done and is being done by us as individuals and by the systems we help to uphold. American author and poet Scott Woods eloquently explains that racism is not simply about hatred but “a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it… it’s the price you pay for owning everything”. It should not take multiple acts of brutality on another continent for us to eventually start listening to the discussions that our black friends, colleagues, peers and teachers deemed necessary a very long time ago.
Racism in America is rooted in the violent colonialism orchestrated by Britain and other European countries centuries ago. The slave trade contributed exponentially to the UK’s wealth. Even following its abolishment, it was the British slave owning families who enjoyed compensation for their ‘financial loss’ whilst slaves themselves, and their ancestors, received nothing. The elite continued to benefit from the buried institution of oppression, and it was not until 2015 that these loans were fully paid off to the slave owning families’ ancestors, using taxpayer money. Moreover, the country is littered with celebratory reminders of these white slave owners in the form of countless street names, statues, and academic buildings.
In 2017, the Grenfell Tower disaster exposed how white gentrification is inseparable from an immense disregard of black lives. In 2018, The Windrush Scandal served as a shameful reminder of the ongoing prevalence of the UK’s racial discrimination. At least 83 black British citizens, the majority of whom were born in the UK, were wrongfully deported, and even more faced wrongful detainment, lost their homes, or were denied the welfare or medical care that they should have been entitled to. The government has been consistently condemned for its upholding of a hostile environment and though an enquiry led to an apology from Home Secretary Priti Patel in March this year, the call for an in depth analysis into the culture of the Home Office that allowed such violation and dehumanisation in the first place, is yet to be answered.
Right now, the UK is exporting arms and riot gear to the United States. Opposition parties are already calling for an embargo, with Labour MP Emily Thornberry writing “at a time when Donald Trump is gearing up to use the US military to crush the legitimate protests taking place across America over the murder of Black civilians, it would be a disgrace for the UK to supply him with the arms and equipment he will use to do so.” Boris Johnson is yet to publicly address the issue – to demand action from your local MP, this is a useful draft to follow.
According to the most recent national census, black people make up only 3.3% of the total UK population. Yet 40% of the country’s poorest households are black. Black people are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to die in police custody, and currently twice as likely to lose their life to COVID-19 than their white counterparts. It was also revealed on Wednesday that the Met police are twice as likely to fine black people over lockdown breaches. Former Met superintendent commented “I can’t discount that these figures exhibit a racial bias, because practically everything the Met does has a racial bias. The Met is still institutionally racist and the use of Covid powers is a part of this.”
Despite the exhaustive evidence, white British public, politicians, and media still feel validated in pointing the finger of condemnation across the Atlantic. Such avoidance of responsibility is largely rooted in a wide gap in our education system. In so many cases, the British Empire is glorified and celebrated, and multiculturalism is advertised as singular proof of tolerance. The Black Curriculum was recently established by young people in the UK in an effort to address this gap by which there is a “rejection of Black History in favour of a narrow conception of Britishness”. The organisation offers an email template to easily enable others to contact Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, demanding active efforts to adequately incorporate black history, experience, and voices in the compulsory curriculum for children aged 8 to 16. Beyond GCSE, colleges and universities are also in dire need of challenging. The University of Edinburgh specifically has been a complicit host to racist incidents across lecture halls and student halls. In response, a petition has now been created in order to demand action. The organisers of the petition highlight how the university assumes itself to be “colour blind” and “beyond race”, yet white thinkers remain at the centre of the curriculum and the workforce continues to lack diversity.
The willfully blind who run this country likely will not see the statistics, the videos, or the nuanced discussions that you have been reposting and trying to become familiar with. Social media activism, though valuable if approached with real intention, is not enough. If you are white, we have to prioritise listening to and being led by black people, and expressing solidarity through tangible action. Keep checking your privilege. Keep actively seeking out organisations to donate to, petitions to sign, and institutions to bring to account long after the outrage has faded. Racism in the UK is very much alive and well.
For a far more extensive list of UK based racism: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J7_WqCpsB083mq0H6eClxKKq_9PcYZKrxpiF6_Mi–Y/mobilebasic (by Oxford University students)
To support black British work: https://tinukebernard.com/black-influencers-uk/
Some UK-specific charities: https://www.theredcard.org/ , https://www.stephenlawrence.org.uk/support-us/donate/ , https://www.runnymedetrust.org/about.html