Let there be no doubt, Britain’s got racism

The racist reaction to reminders that black lives matter shows the UK still has much to do to address racism besides the toppling of statues of slave owners and colonialists.

After a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests, counter-protests and the removal of statues, Britain entered August with a powerful dance performance on the country’s main Saturday night entertainment show, Britain’s Got Talent. It was inspired by the protests and the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

Performed by a dance troupe called Diversity, who were crowned the winner of Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, it has since become apparent that the British public’s appreciation for street dance goes out the window when it’s used to support Black Lives Matter: the broadcasting regulator quickly received more than 24 000 official complaints for showing it on primetime television.

Ashley Banjo, Diversity’s leader, choreographer and the stand-in judge for Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent, shared some of the racist abuse he received following the performance, saying that it as well as the complaints justified the performance.

The reaction made for a jarring difference from what had previously been happening in the United Kingdom, but perhaps it is a truer reflection of where Britain is currently when it comes to race.

Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College in Oxford will come down, following in the footsteps of Edward Colston, whose statue in Bristol was taken down by protesters during Black Lives Matter protests. This was quickly followed by the removal of the statue of fellow slave trader Robert Milligan in London’s business district of Canary Wharf, which was officially taken down by the council. Up and down Britain, councils began announcing that they will be reassessing monuments to colonialists and slave owners with the aim to remove them. 

9 June 2020: The Cecil John Rhodes statue on the facade of Oriel College, Oxford, will be removed after protesters objected to publicly honouring a colonialist. (Photograph by Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images)

In the capital, mayor Sadiq Khan has set up a commission to review statues and street names in the city. Even the British Museum, the long-standing home of pieces from around the former empire, has removed a bust of its slave-owning founder, Hans Sloane. 

While that was happening, footballers resumed last season’s Covid-19-interrupted games by taking the knee before the start of Premier League matches, with Black Lives Matter written on the back of their kit instead of their names. Noble as that act might have been, some quarters reacted by flying a “White Lives Matter” banner during the Burnley game against Manchester City. That, and a dance group doing a raised fist and saying black lives matter on primetime television being met with such hatred, demonstrate that Britain is far from resolving its issues with race.

Being black in the UK

Yet, even the actions of taking down statues can easily appear to be merely cosmetic and do little to help black people in Britain, who by any metric – from unemployment, housing, education levels and earnings to police stop-and-searches as well as arrests – fare significantly worse than their white counterparts in the UK system. 

Robyn Travis is an author and speaker who grew up with violence on housing estates in the early 2000s. His latest book, Freedom From the Streets, completes a trilogy of sorts that draws from his experiences of being involved in youth violence, prison and the street mentality. It also explores ways out of this “trap” for those who are in it. For Travis, systematic oppression cannot be overcome by appealing to the system. “The solution for the streets is we fix the streets. The police don’t help that,” he said. 

20 February 2020: Robyn Travis, author of Freedom from the Streets, in Newham Books, London. He says he’s been stopped by the police during the Covid-19 pandemic for “driving while black”. (Photograph by Newham Books/ Twitter)

As horrific videos continue to emerge from the US of the police shooting unarmed black men, British policing in comparison, particularly in regard to race relations, can look positively benign. Yet although the gun violence of US policing may be absent, many of the underlying racial assumptions appear to be every bit as present and, Travis says, the foundational racism of the institution.

“Police stopping us is racism,” said Travis. “I’m on bail at the moment. I’ve been stopped by the police during Covid-19 for DWB [driving while black].” He adds that he has been stopped by the police about 28 times, many of which were for the offence of driving while black. He would be far from alone in that category – statistics suggest you can be up to 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police in the UK if you’re black. 

Recently, Olympic athlete Bianca Williams and Labour Party member of Parliament Dawn Butler were added to those statistics of black people pulled over by the police, who have since apologised for the incidents. Despite this, prominent former metropolitan police officer and law-and-order campaigner Norman Brennan accused Butler of making “a mountain out of absolutely nothing” by suggesting there was racial profiling. A petition on the website change.org calling for Butler to be removed as a member of Parliament for spreading racist lies about the police received more than 11 000 signatures in a week.

As anyone who has been aware of Meghan Markle’s brief stint as a British royal will know, a moderately outspoken, non-white – particularly black – woman will be vilified and attacked by the UK tabloid press. Her latest “crime” of speaking out against US President Donald Trump ensured she received more negative press attention for disgracing the royal family than Prince Andrew, who stayed at the house of his friend, convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has formally asked to speak to him about historic sexual abuse involving Epstein.

2 February 2020: Dawn Butler at the Labour Leadership Hustings at Cardiff City Hall in Cardiff, Wales. She has also reported race-based police interference. (Photograph by Matthew Horwood/ Getty Images)

Another inquiry into racism 

The Conservative government’s response to Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and these high-profile instances involving race has been to set up a commission on racial inequalities. However, the adviser chosen to set up this commission, Munira Mirza, has proved a controversial choice and already received calls to be removed for previous statements dismissing structural racism as “more of a perception than reality”.

Henry Stone, a content creator and recording artist, is unimpressed with yet more reports on and inquiries into a well-established problem. “I’m not surprised that the black community is quite dismissive towards that because how many reviews are needed?” he asked. “How much more police brutality is needed before change comes, because there’s no need for another review. We’ve already had them. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry 20 years ago showed there was institutional racism in the police force. There’s no need for another report. It’s just very performative.”

Meanwhile, racism against prominent black politicians, particularly women, on social media platforms is so commonplace as to be almost part of the fabric. Butler has received much violent abuse and threats, including bricks through the windows of her constituency office that forced it to close. 

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And previously, a study into online abuse conducted in the run-up to the 2017 general election found that nearly half of all abusive tweets sent to women members of Parliament were received by Dianne Abbot, Britain’s first and still the most prominent black female member. A leaked report has even shown that senior staff of her own party described her as “truly repulsive”. Her colleague David Lammy has called for Twitter to act faster after he received consistent racist abuse on the platform, like it did with grime artist Wiley for anti-Semitic abuse.

“I’m not surprised there’s been a white-lash,” said Stone about far-right demonstrations on British streets as well as the online abuse of prominent black Brits. “In British culture, there is an absolute refusal to accept how far and deep white supremacy is.”

Travis says that racial discrimination runs far deeper in British society than just its police forces. It can be found throughout the establishment and is reflected at the public through a media that is eager to simplify black British life and put it as the face of crime.

“The media and police are one big fraternity at the end of the day,” he said. “They don’t need to always get along, but they always need to agree and they need to always have each other’s back. That’s a fraternity, that’s a gang.”

10 September 2020: A statue of Winston Churchill with a spray-painted accusation of racism. (Photograph by Hasan Esen/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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