A week after we saw Derek Chauvin kill George Floyd in front of a camera he knew was recording, Emily Maitlis asked George the Poet on Newsnight: “But you’re not putting America and Britain on the same footing […] our police aren’t armed, they don’t have guns, the legacy of slavery is not the same, we have had a report many years ago looking at institutional racism and, you would hope, reversing or aiming to open that up, it’s not the same is it?” Here is why ignoring the UK’s denial of its own racism is as disingenuous as ignoring the US’ police brutality and racism.
“It’s not the same, is it?”—this is the language of denial that infiltrates almost all mainstream discussions about race in the UK. George the Poet had, at the beginning of this interview, outlined that although black people only make up 4 per cent of the UK population, they represent 40 per cent of the poorest households.
George the Poet also highlighted that black and brown people account for 50 per cent of young offenders in prison—this exponential rise taking place at a time when youth imprisonment in general had fallen by a third. In the face of clear examples of the structural and systemic racism black people face, it is therefore dishonest to say “but our police don’t have guns” as a means of separating the experiences of black people in the UK and the US.
The UK police, even without guns, kill black men at a disproportionate rate. The lack of guns did not save Sean Rigg, Rashan Charles, Ibrahima Sey or Sheku Bayoh.
It is interesting to watch the UK’s reaction to race rebellions. While it is true that the UK is definitely not as armed a country as the US, the lived experiences of black people in Britain bears significant parallels to those in America.
A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in April 2020 stated that a black person in Minnesota, the state in which George Floyd was killed, was 5.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2018. And this was despite black and white people having comparable usage of the drug in the state.
In the UK, The Colour of Justice Report from 2018 highlighted that black people were 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs despite using drugs at a lower rate than white people. My point is: the statistics are out in the open, and yet, Maitlis referenced the 1999 Macpherson report in her interview, ignoring the fact that things largely remain the same in 2020. It seems that rather than investigate institutions, Britain instead interrogates black people about the credibility of their assertions.
The criminal justice system is one area where we see black people being treated differently, beginning with the initial engagement with the police and all throughout their court proceedings, at which they receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts. However, we also know that black children are excluded from mainstream education at a higher rate than white children.
We know there is a dearth of black people in leadership roles in media, law, finance and even sports. As a black person who arrived in this country as an asylum seeker and went on to become a barrister, I and many others can tell you countless stories of exclusion and outright racism.
You do not have to have a knee on your neck for over 8 minutes to have experienced violence. There is violence being perpetrated by school exclusions, by underemployment, unemployment, immigration detention and a lack of PPE in the midst of a global pandemic.
There is also violence in the way one minimises racism. Just try to remember the way black women were shouted down by mainstream media for saying the vitriol directed at Meghan Markle was because she was black. In the UK, as well as in the US, there is no desire to look beyond the surface. Why are commentators so interested in white working-class students having low grades at school while never mentioning that these white graduates who underachieve academically somehow manage to have higher employment rates than black students with equivalent grades?
These things matter. They matter because the death of George Floyd is not only about police brutality. It is about the life opportunities of black people in the towns and cities that they live in. On 31 May the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Waltz, outlined how Minnesota actually stands at the top or close to the top on a number of rankings in the US due to the quality of its public schools, personal income of its residents, homeownership rates, life expectancy and happiness.
But all these rankings were only true if you were white. If those rankings only focused on Minnesota’s black residents, the state would be at the bottom. This gives some insight into how different races can live completely different lives in the same space. This is what is happening in the UK and pretending that we don’t have a problem just because the police aren’t armed is not going to cut it.
To experience institutional racism and repeated micro-aggressions and then have to constantly debate our reality is violent. There aren’t two sides to this argument: white supremacy and racism exist. Diversity and inclusion literature and meetings are not the revolution, the real work is to be done by white people.
Dismantle your privilege, hire black people, magnify black people’s work and respect our humanity without qualification. Only when these things are done, without the prompting of black people, will real change materialise. It’s up to you now.
The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota and the ensuing wave of protests serve as a painful reminder of how deadly and prevalent racial injustice remains, not only in the US, but across the world. They highlight in a most gut-wrenching way the scope and implications of white supremacy and the degree to which our social, political, and economic systems are saturated with it.
As the streets fill up with clamours for justice and change and social media feeds display black squares for Blackout Tuesday, many white and white-passing individuals struggle to figure out ways in which to support the movement. But in order to truly uproot the plague of white supremacy—white and white-passing individuals must completely transform our approach and understanding of racial injustice and acknowledge our responsibility to not only condemn but actively fight against institutional discrimination and racism. Here’s where we can start.
While there’s a tendency to associate white supremacy with overt acts of aggression and violence against racial minorities and membership in hate groups such as the KKK, racism is exhibited in far more nuanced and covert ways.
In an essay for the New York Times, Ibram X. Kendi, a professor, award-winning author and director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, shares that, “We learn early the racist notion that white people have more because they are more; that people of colour have less because they are less. I had internalised this worldview by my high school graduation, seeing myself and my race as less than other people and blaming other blacks for racial inequities.”
Such deeply-embedded conceptions about race affect white people, too, and are manifested in myriad ways, such as discrimination in employment, silence in the face of aggression against minorities, white parents self-segregating schools, victim-blaming—just to list a few.
It is important to recognise these forms of covert racism and engage in honest and ongoing self-reflection to see in what ways each of us is affected by these centuries-old racial biases.
Most history lessons taught in high school and higher education institutions give the false impression that the end of slavery and the Jim Crow laws marked the termination of systemic, state-sanctioned racism in the US. This is far from being the case. It is important that white people educate themselves about the ways in which white supremacy has permeated and shaped our systems of government and social institutions.
This includes, among others, biases in criminal justice legislation and enforcement (manifested in mass incarceration and criminalisation of minor offences), gerrymandering and other voter-suppression tactics, discrimination in education funding and provision of healthcare services and proper infrastructure in predominantly black and Hispanic communities.
It is also important to understand that violence—physical, verbal, institutional—against people of colour takes place on a daily basis in the form of racial profiling, arrests, humiliation, deportation, etc. The outburst of rage we witness following a murder case like that of George Floyd is a collective expression of pent-up, corrosive and generational hardship and pain.
As opposed to turning to people of colour for answers, white and white-passing people should immerse themselves in the extensive volumes of black literature in which African Americans describe and analyse their experiences in their own words, through their own lenses.
Such literature dates back to the days of slavery (with books such as the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave written by former slave Frederick Douglass), and extends throughout the decades, with novels such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and more contemporary research about manifestations of systemic racism—such as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Corow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
This post, for instance, includes lists of books, podcasts, movies and shows that deal with racial injustice and centre black voices:
Amplifying the voices of black people, as opposed to continuing to centre white voices in the battle against racism, is another crucial step toward racial justice and equality, seeing as one of the major hurdles to the eradication of white supremacy is the perpetual highjacking of the narrative around racism and oppression of black people by white individuals.
In the age of social media, uplifting black voices can involve sharing information created by black people or centring around black narratives on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as clearing the virtual stage for black individuals (i.e—cutting back on art and lifestyle posts during times of heightened tensions).
Furthermore, as white and white-passing individuals, we should be mindful of what types of black voices we highlight; is it exclusively those of educated, powerful black leaders? Is it only posts of cis folks we share? If so, do they truly speak to the overall experience of black people in America?
Engaging with your local community is key in dismantling white supremacy since this is where a significant portion of systemic racism is manifested. Among the actions you may take is contacting your local police department and inquiring about their body-camera policies and de-escalation training. You should also contact your local government representatives and demand they take concrete action for racial justice. You may also research local groups and organisations operating in your area to uplift, support and protect black people.
Taking action online is another form of engagement that can help erode systemic racial biases and aggression. Consider donating to or supporting the fundraising efforts of organisations that fight for racial equality, tackle police brutality, and work to promote the safety and prosperity of black communities. Such groups include the Minnesota Freedom Fund, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim The Block. You may also sign online petitions such as Justice for George Floyd on Change.org and #JusticeforFloyd on act.colorofchange.org.
Acknowledging white privilege and calling out injustice aren’t worth much unless they are backed by consistent action to obliterate systemic racism. The state of our national psyche and systems of organisations call not only for white allyship but white leadership in the movement to terminate racial injustice.
White and white-passing people must take on the complex and highly-nuanced role of utilising our status and access to resources in order to shatter the walls surrounding our fortress of privilege while taking our cues from and uplifting black individuals and groups. This cannot be achieved by occasional outbursts of compassion following a tragedy that gains national attention, but only through long-term, persistent engagement, ongoing research and rigorous self-reflection.