Boris Johnson’s words “I hear you” and “Black Lives Matter” are void of meaning and sincerity
by Yasmin Al-Najar
The murder of George Floyd in America this year has sparked protests around the world against institutional racism and injustice. After a wave of protests and campaigns across the country, Boris Johnson announced a commission to be conducted on the racial inequalities Black people face in the UK. This commission was a response to the rising Black Lives Matter movement and yet Munira Mirza, a woman who could not be a representative for Black voices - not only because she is not Black, but because she believes institutional racism is a myth and is actually “a perception more than a reality” - was chosen to lead it.
She also claims that an anti-racism campaign is divisive politics and is not about human rights. Later in July it was announced that Tony Sewell, a man who once described evidence of the existence of institutional racism as "flimsy", would head the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities instead. Just because Sewell is a Black man does not mean that this is a win for Black representation. Like Mirza, instead of addressing the problems of institutional racism, Sewell skirts around the issue and actually scapegoats the Black community for most of its problems. Using a Black man who parrots the same narrative as his non-Black peers is a method to convince the British population that the severity of institutional racism is being over-exaggerated. This is a classic example of the exact systemic oppression and racism the Black Lives Matter movement have been protesting about. Black people can’t even have an inquiry without it being rigged.
It would come as no surprise if Sewell deemed the rejection of the recommendations on racial inequalities as appropriate, just as Mirza rejected the Lammy review and opposed Theresa May’s racial disparities audit. His belief that concerns of institutional racism are “completely irrational” and that “statistics are misused in a way which casts minorities as victims of racism and white privilege” undermines the inquiry from the offset. This leads one to question what kind of checks and balances are in place to ensure that the inquiry is free from bias and that any further recommendations are properly implemented. People like Mirza and Sewell block the road to progress but they represent the wider issue of the British Government’s abysmal record of dismissing Black people’s grievances with institutional racism as a matter of the Black community’s “victimisation” mentality.
Even Boris Johnson’s prime motivation for initiating this inquiry was to put the Black community’s “victim mentality” to bed. Evidently, the government is actively shifting the blame onto the Black community so that they can absolve themselves from any wrongdoing and therefore would not need to implement any changes. Ironically, the government’s own review on ‘disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19’ exposed the fact that the coronavirus disproportionately impacts African, Asian and minority ethnic communities. However, it was only after being pressured that the government decided to release their findings. Withholding such vital information conveys that they are actively trying to avoid acknowledging the realities of racial disparities, let alone implementing measures to tackle systemic racism.
The document does not even contain any preventative measure suggestions. To add insult to injury immigrants, Muslims and ethnic minorities were blamed for a new spike in coronavirus cases with no substantial evidence to back this claim.
When Home Secretary Priti Patel was asked whether she understood just how deeply rooted racism and racial inequality is in Britain, she retorted “when it comes to racism, sexism, tolerance or social justice, I will not take lectures from the other side of the house”. Patel recounted her own experiences in which she has been the target of racist jeers. Although other ethnic groups do experience racism, they do not face the same kind of racism as Black people. The Stop and Search research conducted in England and Wales from April 2018 to March 2019 revealed that there were 4 stops and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with 38 for every 1,000 Black people. In addition, the 3 Black ethnic groups consistently have the highest rates of stop and search out of all 16 individual ethnic groups.
Patel’s response mirrors that of those who are offended upon hearing “Black Lives Matter” and shout back “All Lives Matter”. This is a classic example of how even people of colour use their own experiences of racism to undermine racism experienced by Black people.
Instead of listening to Black people and implementing meaningful change, the government is attempting to silence them, delegitimise their movement, and depict them as irrational people who have fabricated the whole thing and wish to divide the nation. It is striking that the English Defence League’s “this is our country” rhetoric and violent response to Black Lives Matter protesters is not considered as divisive politics and yet Black people protesting over (or merely speaking of) their differential treatment is viewed as divisive politics.
The same Prime Minister who claims that the U.K. is a much less racist place than it was years ago has criminalised Muslim women by labelling them “bank robbers”, stripped Black people of their humanity by calling them “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles", hired an advisor who believes that intelligence is linked to race, implemented racist and discriminatory immigration, housing and educational policies, and significantly increased stop and search powers, while having hardly any significant checks and balances in place to prevent an already huge problem of racial profiling in policing.
Accusing protesters of divisive politics and fostering division is a cheap way to silence political dissidents when they challenge the government for perpetuating, tolerating and exacerbating the deep rooted issue of racism in institutions, including in the Tory government itself, and by extension, this has emboldened racists in the country to commit hate crimes and spew out hate speech. The cruel irony is that those wanting to challenge and fix the divide are accused of fostering division.
The Tory Party did not embrace people of colour to show that they are actively working to tackle inequality and to ensure that they represent all UK citizens. Instead, the faces of Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak and Munira Mirza serve to distract the British population from the country’s problem with racism. In fact they support policies which have a direct negative impact on their communities. Notably, there is also not one Black representative in the current cabinet, and when journalist Sophie Ridge asked Matt Hancock to comment on this issue, he (embarrassingly) tried to loop the conversation back to non-Black people of colour in the cabinet.
Lumping people from non-white backgrounds together not only conveys ignorance towards the fact that each ethnic ‘minority’ suffers from specific racial struggles, but also acts as an attempt to mask the fact that there are no Black people in the current cabinet. Yet again Black voices are being silenced. They have no political representation but according to Hancock there is no need for concern because “diversity of thought” is what matters. Given the fact that Black Lives Matter is a movement which fights for Black representation and for their voices to be heard, and that demands socio-economic, political and human rights, this statement that diversity of thought is sufficient is absurd. There is no “diversity of thought” when there is no diversity in the cabinet.
The government have released a document entitled “Black people, racism and human rights” which shares statistical evidence on institutional racism and discusses how Black people’s human rights are at risk in four key areas: the criminal justice system, immigration, health, and democracy. The document does not offer any detailed or substantial solutions nor does it suggest a meaningful plan as to how the government is going to tackle racism in the four areas mentioned. Most of the document suggests that the best way forward is to collect more data.
For example, it is suggested that the police should regularly conduct polls to ensure that the Black community feels safe and protected by police officers. But collecting data won’t stop racism, it only identifies it. There is no mention of how subconscious or overt biases will be checked and dealt with accordingly, or how authoritative bodies will ensure that police training is not built upon a racist idea of what a suspect looks like (whether done consciously or unconsciously). There is a constant déjà vu of a long-drawn out inquiry into racial disparities in the UK, and running around in circles to find facts that are already public knowledge. For example, reports of Black women being 5 times more likely to die from childbirth than white women were widely shared last year. What is the government going to do about it?
In the last ten years, the Tories have repeatedly promised to tackle racism in Britain. There have already been 200 recommendations made in previous independent inquiries to tackle racial inequality, and yet very few have been implemented. The British Government seems to be avoiding the implementation of any meaningful and positive change. The government’s attitude towards racism, its appointment of people like Sewell and its failure to take heed of past recommendations confirms that such reports are simply lip-service to keep protestors at bay.
Instead of addressing the concerns of racial injustice Black people have raised, the government is trying everything to silence and delegitimise them, and hiring people who support their agenda is just one of the many tools they use. The law is another. Anti-capitalist views from many political and anti-racist groups will now be silenced in the classroom. The government is ironically using the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, a Black woman, and the guise of the necessity of a neutral school curriculum to legitimise their witch-hunt for political dissidents. Badenoch has declared that teaching white privilege as a fact in schools is illegal.
She also claims that teachers have the “statutory duty to be politically impartial” and yet the whole school curriculum is not “politically impartial”. Badenoch, like many others, are ignoring the concerns about schools glossing over the impact colonialism has on the world we live in today (concerns that groups like The Black Curriculum have repeatedly risen to no response). The Department of Education’s (DFE) definition of anti-capitalist views as an “extreme political stance” makes it easy to brand those who hold such views as “extremists''. This is yet another way to silence political dissidents and delegitimise their credibility.
The implications of this restriction on freedom of speech extend well beyond the classroom. The DFE’s definition could easily categorise Black Lives Matter as an extremist group, or any other group that holds anti-capitalist views for that matter. The police would then have a legal basis to attack, arrest, detain and imprison political dissidents to maintain “law and order”, to “keep the peace” and defend “national security”. This would only fuel the issue of racial profiling in the policing, and perpetuate the racist colonialist narrative that Black people are criminals, hooligans and threats.
The government’s inaction and attitude towards the existence of institutional racism convey that we have a long way to go. There are a number of things the Prime Minister could do to show the British people that he is taking the matter seriously: get rid of the “hostile environment” policies that Priti Patel insists on keeping until at least 2022, deliver justice to and compensate the victims of Grenfell Tower and the Windrush scandal, investigate racial profiling in policing and ensure that meaningful steps are taken to prevent it in the future, and thoroughly investigate Black people dying in police custody (and ensure that the perpetrators face punishment).
Implementing the recommendations from the previous independent inquiries, including Black people in government who actually amplify the voices of the Black community (and do not shut them down), and holding accountable those actively blocking change would be a good start.