It’s a matter of global shame that it has taken the killing of yet another black man by the American police to shine the spotlight on the institutional racism plaguing modern western democracies. The world owes it to George Floyd to keep up the momentum and help create a culture change.
Countries like the UK should be taking the lead, and yet even during the Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been more than a whiff of racism in the air. Instead of focusing on empathy, some would have you believe that the removal of statues that depict slave traders, reverential by their very nature, is an attempt to rewrite history. It’s time to get enlightened. Such statues that look down on our streets risk giving the wrong impression or, worse still is perceived as an affront. They belong in a museum as a matter of record.
Demonstrations in London have been marred by the violence of far-right counter-protesters looking for trouble. ‘Go home,’ barked Priti Patel, the Home Secretary at all the demonstrators. She didn’t have to look far for that command. Her department has been using it against so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants for years. This time it was said in part to reduce the potential spread of coronavirus when large groups are gathered. Some might have been more willing to pay heed to the instruction if they thought it would also apply to Dominic Cummings and other government officials.
And now a new, draft report by Public Health England says that factors such as racism and social inequality may themselves be increasing the risks to black, Asian and minority communities (BAME) of catching and dying from Covid-19.
Many work in healthcare services. Historic racism might mean some are less likely to seek care or ask for better personal protective equipment, the report says.
PHE also found that people with a Bangladeshi background were dying at double the rate of white Britons. Other Asian, black and minority ethnic groups had up to a 50 per cent greater risk of death. And, it’s reported that the government has failed to publish advice made available to it about how to protect BAME communities from coronavirus.
The British Prime Minister condemned instances of racist thuggery by those counter-demonstrating at the Black Lives Matter protests in London. He said they have no place on our streets. Yet just a few days earlier he declared that he does not believe that the UK is a racist country. This from the man who once referred to black people as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles.’ Sadly the evidence is against him. His simultaneous acknowledgement that there is much room for improvement in tackling racism flies in the face of his own sweeping and complacent statement. He would do well to look to himself to start the ball rolling.
A report in 2016 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission makes for grim and alarming reading. It found that racial inequality has its roots in education, employment, housing, living standards, health and criminal justice.
Asian and Black minority households were twice as likely to be in constant poverty as white households. The unemployment rate for Black people in England, Scotland and Wales were more than twice as high as the national average. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis experienced a 10 per cent unemployment rate, whereas the figure for Whites was just under 4 per cent. The list of inequalities along racial lines goes on and on.
It is the government that is as guilty as anyone else for allowing this to continue. Let’s take the 2017 memorandum of understanding between the Home Office, NHS Digital and the Department of Health. It encouraged the exchange of information between these institutions on the immigration status of patients. It was hardly a recipe for tolerance and inclusion.
The hostile environment created by the Home Office has, for example, led to immigrant women, including refugees, being too afraid to give birth in hospitals for fear of being targeted by immigration enforcement agencies. They feel they have no other choice but to give birth at home even though they may be entitled to free healthcare.
A study into the Home Office’s, ‘Go home or face arrest’ campaign found that the public has difficulty understanding the distinctions between undocumented and legally settled immigrants. The very fact that the Home Office feels the need to single out and pick on some of society’s most vulnerable people simply encourages yet more inequality and bullying along racial lines.
Boris Johnson’s assertion that the UK is not a racist country is also not born out by a report commissioned by the UK government into the Windrush scandal. It is scathing in its assessment of how the Home Office handled those affected. Many black people of Caribbean origin have been treated disgracefully by a Home Office that should have been there to protect them.
Published in March, the report talks of ‘an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness’ towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department. It says this is consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism. When a whole government department can be so ‘laissez-faire’ about the lives of such a distinguished group of people of colour, then an appalling message is being sent out to the wider public.
The report concludes that the Home Office must acknowledge the wrong that has been done; it must open itself up to greater external scrutiny; and it must change its culture to recognise that migration and wider Home Office policy is about people and, whatever its objective, should be rooted in human dignity.
And yet, right now, just a handful of victims have received any Windrush compensation payments, with a tiny fraction distributed from funds officials expected might be required to pay out up to £500m.
Many of those still waiting for compensation are stuck in tough financial circumstances. That is because of the way the Home Office treated them when they were classified as being in the UK illegally by mistake. One might well ask where the sense of urgency is. Those affected could be forgiven for asking themselves whether the government’s delay in making things right is further evidence of institutional racism.
It’s little wonder then that the death of George Floyd has touched so many raw nerves both in the US and overseas, particularly in the UK. Racism exists in all sections of British society. Now is the time for the UK government to show real leadership. It needs to stop promoting policies that fan the flames of racism. It needs to stop appeasing an American leader by remaining silent when he uses inflammatory language. It needs to do right by those it has wronged and harmed. It needs to engage in an honest conversation with all elements of society and tackle all the root causes of racism head-on. Actions really do speak louder than words.
Peter Markham is a political commentator for the Immigration Advice Service and Ethical Printed Tape Co.