Brits can't afford to look the other way on racial injustice
Catalysed by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, the United States are witnessing the most severe racial unrest in over half a century, with protests against police brutality and systemic racism taking place in some form or another in major cities across the country, with the National Guard already called into 23 states. In a country where BAME people have faced institutional racism for centuries, whether in the days of the slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and today, police brutality, disproportionate incarceration and voting discrimination, there appears to be a significant awakening to these systemic injustices. Protests mirroring those in the US have also been organised in several major UK cities, and some political figures from the opposition have also sent messages of solidarity on social media. Disappointingly, however, there has been a lack of support from the UK government for those demanding justice, echoing the flawed sentiment that the issues of racism and race relations do not affect the UK, or at least nowhere near to the same extent as they do America. However, I do not think that we deserve to be let off the hook, as a nation with its own disturbing colonial legacy; with our own problems of racial discrimination. Instead, we should be inspired by the protests across the Atlantic to reflect on our own prejudicial tendencies and to actively support those fighting for equality. In this article, I aim to shine a light on some of the institutional discrimination experienced by ethnic minorities in the UK, to emphasise that while we may have made massive progress in recent years, the struggle for racial equality still goes on.
One of the most significant realms in which many people belonging to ethnic minority groups experience prejudice and discrimination is that of justice. In the UK, one’s race still appears to play a determining factor in the application of the law. Government analyses from 2016 reveal that black men and young men were both approximately 3 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. The same statistics also show that BAME men were more likely to be committed to trial at a Crown Court than white men, with Asian men facing the worst disparity (62% more likely). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have also been raised that police officers in the UK have treated black people more punitively than white people for flouting lockdown restrictions. Furthermore, racially biased police brutality, a subject with which American BAME citizens are sadly all too familiar, is not absent from the UK, either. The Independent Office for Police Conduct has recently launched a probe into police conduct in the West Midlands, following a slew of controversies concerning the over-use of force by officers on black men, and particularly the unnecessary use of TASERs. In one of these cases, a 30-year-old man by the name of Trevalie Wyse, who witnessed a car crash, was ordered to the ground by police and then tasered when he failed to comply.
The multicultural British society of today is one that is generally seen to be harmonious, where people of all backgrounds and cultures can live together peacefully. As a wholehearted believer in diversity, I consider this an important social achievement. But getting to the point we are at today was no easy feat, nor is the situation today anything close to perfect. The Windrush scandal, exposed in 2018, and which led to the resignation of then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd, revealed that hundreds of people who migrated to the UK from Commonwealth countries were deported in error, after being told that they were not legal immigrants. Many of these migrants were also subject to racist discrimination by their compatriots for decades after World War II, which came to a head in the ugly 1964 general election. The UK also has its own history of race riots and violence, even as recently as the early noughties, notably in the Northern cities of Bradford
and Oldham, where white antagonists exploited ethnic tensions to provoke their own mini race wars. Nick Griffin, then a candidate for the British National Party (BNP), gained from his destabilising efforts in outer Manchester, by winning an astonishing 15% of the vote in the solid red constituency of Oldham West and Royton in the 2001 election, showing just how fervent anti-immigrant feeling became. In fact, it is too easily forgotten how prevalent extreme-right nationalism and chauvinism was during the Blair years. The Brexit vote in 2016, of course, fanned the flames of xenophobic hatred, as evidenced by the surge in hate crimes.
The awful disaster at Grenfell Tower in June 2017 also brought concerns of systemic racism against ethnic minorities back to the surface. Those who so tragically lost their lives, many of them BAME, were subject to institutional neglect who failed to foresee the fire coming, in spite of the building being labelled after the fact as a “death trap”. The tragic message this sent was that the health and safety of less wealthy communities, many of whom comprise BAME people, are secondary to those of wealthy whites, and is further evidence of ethnic segregation in British cities. Sticking with the theme of health, it has also now been revealed that BAME people have higher coronavirus death rates than white people, with an inquiry being continuously delayed, despite mounting public pressure.
Both socially and institutionally, it is evident that the UK is not a racially equal nation, yet the examples raised in this article barely scratch the surface of the difficulties BAME citizens face in this country. This is not to suggest that our country treats BAME people as badly as Uncle Sam does, but to draw attention to the prejudices and discrimination omnipresent in our own house. Although some have ignorantly dismissed the relevance of this racial awakening to the UK, the Black Lives Matter movement is an historic opportunity for generational positive change for black communities, and it is paramount that people of all backgrounds in this country stand together in solidarity.