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‘This is not about statues’: Why Britain is yet again failing to engage meaningfully on race

A Bristol protestor places her dedication on the empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol once stood after it was taken down during a Black Lives Matter protest. - Credit: PA

Debates about statues and social distancing suggest Britain is once again going to miss the opportunity to actually engage meaningfully on the issue of race, says BELLA FRIMPONG.

Britain’s history and its informal policy of chronically denying its role in years of racism, colonialism and imperialism and their impacts, are finally catching up with it.

For decades (if not centuries), it has been difficult to have proper conversations about race in this country, because of the categorical insistence by the state, and subsequently much of the population, that it’s not really an issue here.

When the very real discrimination faced by British minorities is sometimes acknowledged, it is often done so with the apparent boast that the UK is ‘less racist’ in comparison with the US, or its European neighbours – as if ‘less racist’ was a badge of honour.

The Black Lives Matter protests that have sprung up in the UK in recent days have made it hard to ignore the fundamental issues of racism in this country. Yet, still, the press and many others are trying their best to do just that.

Much of the focus of debate about the largely peaceful demonstrations has not been about the urgent issues the BLM movement is attempting to highlight, but about social distancing, the violent action of a minority, the police response or the illegality of removing commemorative statues of historically harmful individuals.

These are all interesting, valid subjects for discussion, but an overemphasis on them risks obfuscating the various reasons why the protests took place, and do a disservice to the cause.

They distract from the root cause, and purpose, of liberation movements such as this, thus diverging the focus of the movement unto what, in the grand scheme of things, are trivialities.

It is rather bewildering that Boris Johnson ended a statement on Twitter regarding the defacing and drowning of statues by demonstrators as a ‘betrayal of the cause they purport to serve’. Evidently the prime minister, like many others, is not actually aware of what cause these protests are serving.

By now, it should be apparent that removing public displays hailing individuals responsible and complicit in genocide and slavery both in the UK and abroad, is merely a facet and logical component of the liberation movement and its ideology.

The knee-jerk reaction to paint protestors as senseless ‘thugs’ absolves the media, the state and public figures from the very necessary task of investigating why exactly these acts are performed in the first place.

It is critical that we interrogate why black Britons, who are already affected by Covid-19 at a disproportionate rate, have seen it fit to jeopardise their safety for this particular cause.

The affirmation ‘Black Lives Matter’ alone provides insight to the problem – the racial injustices experienced by black people, evidence that our very lives are not deemed as valuable as those of other races.

The need for this assertion should be the subject of discussion, not all the distractions. Britain, given its history and present, cannot present itself as immune to systems that allow abuses of power and racial injustices to take place.

A 2018 report published by the Home Office found that black people were disproportionately affected by use of force from police officers. Black people were at the receiving end of 12% of such incidents, despite making up only 3.3% of the population.

Even worse, black people accounted for a quarter of incidents involving police use of firearms, and a fifth of incidents involving use of Tasers. Black people are equally overrepresented in the criminal justice system, accounting for 12% of the prison population, according to the Lammy Review in 2017.

The story is similar elsewhere. The 2020 Pupil Exclusion report published by the Department for Education found black pupils were three times more likely to face permanent exclusion from school. The Public Health Outcomes Framework: Health Equity Report published by Public Health England in 2017, suggests that black children ‘generally have poorer health outcomes than the average for England’; the report also found that black adults ‘have a significantly worse level of employment’.

These figures and probabilities, among several other inequalities, reflect the realities for many black people in the UK, and add to the feeling that black lives are indeed disposable.

These figures are not simple biases; the unnecessary loss of human life cannot be boiled down to this. Rather, we must accept these numbers are a result of structures and systems that actively work against the interests of black people.

It is this that creates the need for a movement demanding radical change, to ensure that black people are liberated from punitive systems, through reformation or abolition of institutions (such as medical institutions and prisons) which uphold them.

The framing of George Floyd’s death and the issue of police brutality as a specific American problem seeks to absolve Britain from dealing with its very own issues with racial inequality.

The movement then, unlike what is being reported, is bigger than George Floyd and transcends national borders. The media is unhelpful in presenting the UK marches as solidarity protests for an issue foreign to us.

Of course, solidarity is indeed an important part of the cause – but the very core of the movement is concerned with the institutions and practices which jeopardize black people and their livelihoods.

These institutions are active and functioning in the UK and it is time not only to acknowledge this but actively work to dismantle systems of oppression, rather than just theorize and debate racism. I fear we will still be having these very same conversations in years to come should we continue this practice of deflection and distraction.

The fact that despite the concerning statistics about black Britons, many are still preoccupied with tangential subjects like statues and police tactics speaks to the very issue at hand.

It exposes the UK as far too concerned with holding on to relics of empire (which destroyed millions of black and brown lives across the globe) and respectability than it is concerned about the loss of black lives.

How can one call for civility in good faith when it is denied to some members of the population? Black liberation necessitates that our histories and cultures also be prioritised; the celebration of colonial figures is antithesis to this, just as the depiction of the British imperialism in the educational curriculum is.

These are demands activists, organisers and historians such as Reni Eddo Lodge, Akala and David Olusoga have been vocal about for years – in ways that do not disrupt the status quo; however, given the lack of urgency by policy makers to actively address these issues, these protests should not come as a surprise.

It is critical that we do not lose sight of the core aims of this movement and protests, if we actually wish to stop having these very same conversations. We’ve had enough of diverting and distracting from the cause by creating alternative narratives that never quite address the situation at hand.

It is time to repose the question ‘does the UK have a problem with racism?’ in all its formulations. The question has affirmatively been answered by statistics and, if that were not enough, by the outpouring in the streets. It is time to put a stop to farcical discussions like this; there is a desperate need to dismantle the systems that produce racism, and Britain cannot exempt itself from doing so.

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