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Why racism is a British business problem

Justice reform campaigner Ashish Prashar (Pic: Ashish Prashar) - Credit: Ashish Prashar

British businesses cannot just congratulate themselves for being part of a society marginally less racist than the US, says Ashish Prashar

When the Empire Windrush pulled into Tilbury Docks on June 22, 1948, almost exactly 72 years ago, it was accompanied by the sound of Calypso, as passenger Aldwyn Robers, stage name Lord Kitchner, performed his song ‘London is the Place for Me’.

Its hopeful lyrics, referring to Britain as his ‘mother country’ – as it legally was – and claims that the ‘English people are very much sociable’, painted a bright picture of the future the ship’s passengers could expect in their new home. However, the England that he was arriving in was one with racism embedded deep into its structure. Arrivals on the Empire Windrush, many of whom had served in the British Army during WWII, were welcomed by signs declaring ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ when they were looking for accommodation. This outright racism was completely legal until the introduction of the Race Relations Act 20 years later in 1968.

Since that point, racism in the UK has by no means gone away. Facilitated by businesses and enabled by government, racism is part of society here – it’s a key British export. In fact, just this week, the role of British businesses in slavery has finally begun to be acknowledged by its perpetrators as insurance market Lloyd’s of London and pub chain Greene King agree to make financial reparations. Let us not forget that British businesses invented the slave trade, and its legacy of free labour continues today in forced US prison labour. I join David Lammy in calling for action from the government against the systemic racism that is ingrained in this country. But systemic racism is not only a government problem, it’s a society-wide problem, and businesses have a huge role to play in changing society for the better. This discussion isn’t going away – and businesses must act, or they will end up on the wrong side of history.

Historically, we have tended to rely on seeing ourselves as ‘less racist’ than the US as a way of escaping our moral obligations to root out racism at its core in our society – while ignoring our own complicity. In WWII, Brits were rightly horrified by the racism shown in the segregated US Army, with some publicans reacting to the demands from white officers to enforce a colour bar by banning white soldiers. The same solidarity was not seen with Britain’s own Empire troops, who were paid according to their ethnicity, with black soldiers paid a third of what white soldiers were. This is not just a relic of a bygone era. Racist policies are in place today. Around 25,000 Gurkhas who retired before 1997 still get only about a third of the amount of pension received by their British and Commonwealth former comrades, whilst Commonwealth veterans are classed as overseas patients and have been left with hospital bills in the tens of thousands. The Windrush Scandal is another glaring example of systemic racism in Britain, with people who were legally entitled to live in the UK bullied and harassed out of their homes, jobs and country by the Home Office. The scandal is by no means over, with the backlog of cases reaching 3,720 in April, whilst compensation has only been paid to 36 people.

So why must this be top of the agenda for British business, not just government?

A business is made up of its employees and its customers. It is in defence of those people that businesses must take responsibility for their role in enabling white supremacy. So far British businesses are failing to do so. The proportion of directors and executive committee members from BAME backgrounds in the FTSE 100 actually fell from 8.8% in 2018 to 7.4% in 2019. Whilst in an internal survey, John Lewis staff who identified as black gave significantly lower scores when asked about what working for the partnership was like compared to their white counterparts. This isn’t to cast aspersions on John Lewis specifically, instead it is indicative of all UK businesses.

UK companies need to make an effort to hire black employees; promote and pay their black employees fairly, change the culture within their businesses and take their employees, clients and partners on a journey of education. However, more than that, they need to take a stand. Because when businesses act, change happens.

Look at Coca-Cola and South African Apartheid: by withdrawing from the country in 1986 in protest against apartheid, the brand accelerated trends of Western businesses refusing to engage with a racist regime. It is hard to overestimate the significance of a global brand deciding to economically disengage from a system its customers and employees oppose. They didn’t just make a statement, they took action.

For many years businesses have been afraid of the potential for negative fallout if they waded into tense political issues. However, today there is no other option – silence is complicity. Posting a black square on Instagram, while well-meaning, does not prove to black customers and employees – traumatised by story upon story of black murder in the US – that a brand has their back. Internal steps must be taken and crucially businesses must back up their voices with their huge leverage.

For example, tech businesses need to ensure that they aren’t enabling systemic racism. Use of technology such as facial recognition to identify crime suspects and machine-learning tools to map crime hotspots are often implicitly racist, with research showing that they appear to repeat systematic discrimination against black and ethnic minority offenders. By relying on past data to create the software, programs have ‘learned’ racism and bias, and would continue reinforcing it even if police forces and wider society progresses. There is therefore a responsibility for technology firms to ensure that they aren’t building technology that perpetuates racism.

Meanwhile, historical British businesses whose success was built on the backs of enslaved black people must follow the example of Greene King and Lloyd’s of London and not just apologise, but put their wallets where their mouths are.

Businesses cannot self-congratulate around being part of a society marginally less racist than the US. It is time to take action to weed out and prevent systemic racism. It’s time for businesses to take responsibility for the societies they help to shape.

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner who sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice

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