As the United States enters its fourth week of protests against the heartless killing of George Floyd, the UK has responded in solidarity of Black Americans, performing their own rallies and protests all over the country calling for an end to systemic racism. Certain commentators question the comparison and relation between the two nations, arguing that the police brutality and history of slavery is far more severe in the US than it is in the UK. Emily Maitlis, for instance, questioned George the Poet on BBC Newsnight with the phrase ‘it’s not the same is it?’. These last few weeks have pried open a Pandora’s Box of British racial injustice stemming from the country’s imperialist past. The difficulty remains in how to solve the disheartening and abhorrent reality of a society destined to neglect the lives of Black citizens.
The last time the UK was this vocal about police brutality was nine years ago in reaction to the death of Mark Duggan, an unarmed young Black man shot and killed by officers in Tottenham. But this sudden level of engagement, particularly towards an event that did not occur on British soil, should come as no surprise. For many, the nine minute video of Floyd’s death conjured up memories of similar past encounters of police discrimination and brutality. As of 2018 in the UK, Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police; three times more likely to be arrested; four times more likely to be handled by the police with force and twice as likely to die after restraint is used. Mark Duggan is one name of many Black victims who have died at the hands of white police officers. As Labour MP David Lammy wrote in his 2017 review on the treatment of minority groups in the criminal justice system, the system is fundamentally ‘stacked against them’. British law enforcement is just as guilty of systemic racism as it is in the US.
More generally, however, institutionalised racism extends way beyond the criminal justice system. Whether it be manifested within healthcare, education, the housing system or employment, these protests have also successfully brought to the forefront the range and volume of various racial disparities that continue to simmer within the UK today. They have highlighted that the UK is a nation refusing to acknowledge the oppression behind the prosperity of its colonial and imperialist past, which, in essence, dictates the racism of today. One might question how it has gained such great popularity in the course of only two or three days, considering the fact that the UK has in the past encountered other severe scandals surrounding racial abuse, such as Windrush in 2018.
The catalyst behind the increasing momentum and recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement is the current economic and political climate. As the world powers through the coronavirus pandemic with over 40,000 deaths in the UK alone, it has become clear that some sections of society have fared significantly better than others. Namely, the wealthy and the white. According to a recent analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the death rate of British BAME citizens as a result of COVID-19 is more than twice that of whites. Rishi Sunak’s warning of a ‘significant recession’ suggests a period of economic suffering for those in the most deprived areas. Considering the fact that the UK poverty rate for BAME groups is significantly higher than for white groups, once again the racial inequalities are enhanced. All in all, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, these racial disparities are felt even more so than before.
It is also clearly evident that having the Conservative Party in government has added fuel to the fire. Common knowledge is the party’s appalling track record in supporting minority groups – increasing inequality through austerity; Theresa May’s inadequate response to the Grenfell Tower fire; the Windrush scandal - and thus, in knowing that there is a government in power set to ignore the protests’ cries in the future, the anti-racism voice nowadays is significantly louder. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s past racial slurs have also given those protesting far more reason to make their voices heard (and, for example, to chant Stormzy’s famous Vossi Bop lyric opposite 10 Downing Street).
Although not specifically highlighted in current news commentary, I also believe that the present outrage towards British systemic racism derives, in part, from Brexit. Vote Leave’s alienating, disuniting and xenophobic rhetoric highlighting the dangers of immigrant intrusion has severely divided the whole of the UK. The nation has been left culturally polarised, and we can see this somewhat reflected in the anti-racism protests. On the 13th of June, this was most accurately illustrated by the clashes between far-right white and Black Lives Matter protesters.
In light of the death of Floyd, a lively debate has sparked with regard to reform. Many have called for a revaluation of British education, emphasising the need to implement lessons on micro-aggressions, racial discrimination and British colonialism. Also there are conversations around defunding of police services, following discussions on the potential relocation of these subsidies towards other social services, as well as calls for tighter policies on affirmative action. This rising dialogue and the increasing pressure for institutional reforms to battle systemic racism in an attempt to create a more equal and integrative British society certainly appears promising, especially considering the current worldwide support that has never been witnessed before.
However, in the UK, for as long as the current Conservative government is in power, the future does not shine very brightly. It is likely that Johnson and his cabinet will seek to prioritise firstly, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic consequences to come, and secondly, Brexit, where no major progress is currently being made. Certain responses of cabinet ministers to the protests have also proven that they would be the wrong figures to lead these reforms. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated that ‘we want to see de-escalation of all those tensions’, when evidently, as Afua Hirsch has noted, change is the solution, not ‘de-escalation’. Also, Priti Patel labelled the anti-racism protesters as ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’. Hope predominantly lies in the Labour Party’s opposition in the coming years. With the party starting afresh with new confident leader Keir Starmer, who has shown to be significantly more vocal in his support to the cause in comparison to his counterpart, one can hope to be optimistic.
With the Conservatives in power, the future appears to be very bleak. But it is important for supporters of the movement to recognise that a louder and more far-reaching dialogue on racism has finally taken centre-stage. Anti-racism and Black Lives Matter protesters must not lose the grip they currently have on the attention of the entire world. The same relates to British protesters. I write this on the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, an example of incomplete justice. It reminds us all that the UK is certainly not innocent, and to assume so would be the perfect illustration of privilege.