Thursday the 25th of June marked one month since George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of the police, on May 25th of this year. It also marked what should have been Tamir Rice’s eighteenth birthday. He was shot by the police when he was twelve years old, for playing with a toy gun. Catalysed by George Floyd’s death, America and the world has seen the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement grow exponentially, and this is an exploration of why this global butterfly effect matters in the UK.
Racism is not limited to the issue of ‘a few bad cops’ in the United States. Firstly, police brutality in America is lethal in the way that it isn’t within the UK. Whilst the UK police force is by no means ideal, the extrajudicial killings in cities such as Chicago are incomparable to our social landscape. Many Brits also feel disconnected from the official Black Lives Matter organisation for political reasons. Admittedly, the fight ‘to end racism’ is largely abstract in the face of legal equality, but is anything but nebulous when people live in a legacy of prejudice based on race. The intentions of BLM should not be undercut by political animosity.
A flashpoint of the UK Black Lives Matter protests this past month was the removal of a statue dedicated to slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. This spurred an online fury about the so-called ‘airbrushing’ of history, exacerbated by the vandalism of Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, which, being symbolic of government, has been targeted during many different protest movements, though none have faced the same counter-violence as this one . A statue, unlike a plaque, a building, or even a street name, is a superficial form of idolatry that presents whomever it depicts as a subject for adulation. Statues, by their very nature, are decontextualised – there is not the possibility for context. The bid to remove memorials to slavery and colonialism has been conflated with the removal of certain television shows that perpetuate racial stereotypes.
Yet this, along with the structural impossibility of redefining Churchill, the ultimate war hero, as a racist, allows the ‘triggered snowflake’ agenda to gloss over mortal problems with race in society. These voices have been marginalised by the myth of our post-racial society, where BAME citizens seek to ‘play the race card’ in a twisted sense of victimhood. If “riot is the language of the unheard” as Martin Luther King put it, then in an ironic utopian dilemma, both the BLM protesters, and those who protest statues being removed feel unheard. Yet the latter fail to realise that the history that is pushed now is the edited version. In Iraq, the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s statue was touted as a symbol of liberation, and in India, former statues of King George V now lie in a ‘colonial graveyard’ – a history in context. In Britain, most people aren’t even familiar with the timeline of The British Empire. Imperatively, we look at ignorance surrounding BAME history, and question its existence without looking at why we think this way.
Essentially, racism does seem to be one of the only problems that we diagnose without looking at the cause. Ignorance is the enemy to acceptance, and the propagandist attitude to depicting British values has a lot to answer for in terms of historical distortion. Many people saw red when the Conservative Party used a black family as the face of their Father’s Day greeting, and the majority of British people conceptualise ‘Briton’ as white. Most people tend to think of immigration in the context of the Windrush and South Asian migrants, who were part of the fabric to rebuild the economy after World War II. Whilst immigration in the 20th century was instrumental in forming post-war Britain, BAME history existed long before, in realms not limited to what we learn about at school – the Transatlantic slave trade and Martin Luther King. We do not tend to learn about the one million Indian soldiers who fought for Great Britain in the Second World War, the Bristol Bus Boycott, the Indian inventor who revolutionised London print culture in the 19th century (Shankar Abaji Bhisey, just for the record). Our clothes are made overseas and our algebraic system came from Baghdad, which was the epicentre of mathematical knowledge for many years. From tea to lemons to democracy, our history is coated in multiculturalism, but we see multiculturalism as a dirty buzzword for immigration, and we see Empire as a mission civilisatrice.
The bait-and-switch technique of trotting out immigrant success stories to prove not all are bad, and the insidious perpetuity of a fear of a black planet to gain votes, effectively presents millions of people as anything but human. This social fear was not invented by poor, working-class towns. Racism infects society from the top-down, not the bottom-up; the former fuel the image of the racial other to pit people at the bottom of society against one another. There isn’t an encroachment on the ‘fear of a black planet’, for if you were to divorce Britain from every non-white import, tradition or event that has shaped what people take for granted as innately British, she would be unrecognisable. This lack of fundamental knowledge is why so many people undervalue the black underclass of Britain.
When the UK coughs, black people get pneumonia, and when the UK falls ill, BAME citizens fall down. Black people are 1.9 times as likely to die from Covid-19 as white people, with those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin 1.8 times as likely. In the US, 100,000 black people die prematurely per annum, which is not the result of a racially equal healthcare system. The disproportionate levels of diabetes and obesity for BAME people in the U.K all fall, at least partially, under the umbrella of decades of economic disadvantage, in everything from poor education to lack of opportunity. It is a trajectory of pain too mammoth to categorise under the term ‘racism’; it’s a historic phenomenon of oppression based in and on racial discrimination.
This is systemic. For example, this year the Social Metrics Commission found that nearly half of Black Caribbean households were in poverty, while BAME families were between two to three times as likely to be in persistent poverty than white families, of whom under one in five were likely to be in poverty. Corporate Britain does not bring its jobs to inner-city areas, and there is a severe lack of mentorship, which is a serious issue, as the Harvard Business Review recently found the value between mentorship and education invaluable.
Systemic racism is growing up in a minority-majority area that suffers from poor schooling, due to the fact that funding for said schooling comes from the taxes of said demographic, who tend to be employed in low-paid work. The game is rigged by the double-edged sword of disadvantage and the promotion of equality in education defamed as ‘positive discrimination’, or part of a ‘Leftist agenda’. What’s more, when a BAME person is successful, their achievements are mollified into a form of tokenism. When Sarah Howe won the prestigious T.S Eliot poetry prize, Private Eye ascribed her win to what it deemed “extra-poetic reasons”, i.e. her half-Chinese heritage. Studies have shown that ethnic minority women are twice as likely to be asked about marriage and children than their white counterparts, stemming from an undeniable influence of cultural stereotypes that fuel an unsupportive work culture: a culture that starts the moment children begin school. ‘Black-on-black violence’ (the ultimate pretend counter-argument), the multi-billion pound drugs industry and the multi-billion pound incarceration system are all products of what society feeds youth at the bottom of its hierarchy. Crucially, there is an inherent white superiority in this hierarchy.
However, white structural superiority is not accountable for everyday racism. Rapping the n-word repeatedly, commenting, ‘I don’t find black or brown people attractive’, and wearing bindis and cornrows to festivals, is common amongst young people. Being asked, ‘Where are you from?’ has mutated into a sort of normalised insanity: it’s an expectation for people of colour. Yet in asking this, there’s the sinister implication of being less British than somebody white. These frequent acts are not structural white supremacy, because young people have the ability to engage with BAME cultures as to cherry-pick. The issue is not with a hairstyle; it’s with the black girls who are told their cornrows are ‘unprofessional’, and the non-black people who gentrify this into trends that are praised. In art, BAME British actors are excluded from period dramas on the pretence of historical accuracy, whilst we have seen first-hand how American projects such as Hamilton supersede this notion to uphold both history and the present. Even in politics, white people are the default, and our racism persists quietly. The biases of ‘angry black woman’, or the ‘ghetto black man with dreadlocks’ are still pervasive, but in the face of legal equality, the result is simply exclusion.
These sometimes invisible biases matter because they easily mutate into something more sinister: for instance, according to the prosecutors’ criminal complaint against Derek Chauvin, drugs were involved in George Floyd’s death. To tie this into the ‘drug-crazed black man’ myth amplifies the bloodied history that, as Carl Hart puts it, “has been trotted out too many times when a police officer kills a black man”. It is these racial biases that make ‘All Lives Matter’ the result of a clerical misunderstanding. We have already won the fight for white lives to matter: the issue is black lives seem to matter less simply because they are black. As black people are also at the bottom of the minority totem pole, debunking ‘All minorities matter’ is a catch-22, for they do, and they often experience racism. Yet the ‘model minority myth’ is potent, exemplified by the multi-billion pound skin bleaching industry, where 40% of Indian women, and 77% of Nigerian women regularly bleach their skin with products called ‘Fair and Lovely’. More worryingly, this myth is shown in a world where the police officer accompanying Derek Chauvin was Hmong American. As Akala, author of Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire, puts it, “Whilst we must not conflate every act of prejudice with structural white supremacy, we must recognise the relationship between ‘top-down’ propaganda and the bias that we carry.” Racism is invasive in a way that other social movements are not. The Black Lives Matter movement was not a celebration. It was around 8 minutes and 46 seconds of non-black people listening to the hate one biased system can give, hate that ends in murder.
George Floyd’s murder cannot be another Tamir, Eric, or Trayvon – a flash in the pan of one month’s media coverage. Nationalism is constantly a consideration of BAME people, it is a projection of other people and the only way to create lasting change is through telling our true island story. Racism is quite literally a matter of life from birth until death. Imperatively, in addressing our unedited history, a paradigm shift in our conception of Britishness in the truest sense of British tradition, would occur.
Image: Leonhard Lenz via Wikimedia Commons