For many, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the COVID pandemic. For others it will be the year of Black Lives Matter. For many of us in the race equality sector it will be remembered for how both of those worldwide news stories put race firmly at the top of the news agenda.
The death of George Floyd
The Black Lives Matter movement did not start in 2020. It was born seven years earlier, in response to the acquittal of the murderer of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. But it was this year that put that slogan at the top of news agendas around the world. It was only after seeing the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd that the world finally woke up to the fact, that for many in America and around the world, the lives of Black men and women are seen as dispensable.
Though that video footage was a shocking revelation to many, for most of us in the race equality sector it was greeted with weary resignation – just another horrific example of police brutality and another name to add to the long list of Black people who died after contact with the police.
But we were mistaken. George Floyd’s murder was different.
Perhaps because the whole incident was captured by mobile phone and quickly spread around the world via social media. Perhaps it was the callousness on the face of his murderer, his casual posture suggesting that this cold-blooded murder was for him, just another day at work. Perhaps it was because the story broke at a time when people were locked down and so had time to sit with their feelings and plan a response.
Whatever the reason, George Floyd’s murder sparked a fire of protest around the world not seen before in recent history. As a young student I took part in marches in the 1990s, but not close to the scale of those we saw this year.
But it is important to state that the BLM protests were not just about police brutality. Though the murder of George Floyd may have been the initial inspiration, Black Lives Matter has morphed into something much larger. The fire and passion of those BLM protests shone a light on racial inequality and institutional racism in all walks of life.
In 2020 athletes used their profile to show solidarity to the cause, in a way not seen since US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. When in 2017, American football player Colin Kaepernick ‘took a knee’ during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality, he was ostracized and quickly found himself unemployed. Three years later, athletes around the world were following his lead.
2020 was the year when the tired and ailing Kick Racism Out of Football campaign was reinvigorated by footballers of all races wearing the BLM slogan on their shirts and ‘taking the knee’ before kickoff. It was also the year when teams did not hesitate to walk off the pitch if one of their teammates was racially abused. (Something that Black players had to suffer in silence in previous decades). And when premiership footballers take the knee, they are not just remembering George Floyd – they are also stating that they will no longer tolerate racist abuse from the terraces or on the pitch. They are also highlighting the dearth of Black managers at senior levels.
When formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton or tennis player Naomi Osaka make gestures of solidarity before matches or after races, they are not just highlighting police brutality – they are also drawing attention to the institutional racism within their own sports – something that their own fans and senior officials often don’t want to acknowledge or address. So Hamilton has gone as far as to create his own commission to tackle the issue. The Hamilton Commission is a research partnership dedicated to exploring how motorsport can be used as a vehicle to engage more young people from black backgrounds with STEM subjects and, ultimately, employ them on F1 teams or in other engineering sectors.
Right wing apologists will say that racism is a problem that exists in other countries, and that this country is one of the most inclusive, fair and equal countries in the world. True, in the UK Black men don’t often get murdered by police in broad daylight, but the Windrush scandal exposed how the more subtle but insidious institutional racism that the English have crafted into a fine art, can destroy lives just as efficiently.
The Windrush scandal
It is structural racism supported by this country’s government that fueled the Hostile Environment policy that led to the wrongful deportation of British citizens of Caribbean decent.
The Home Office and British government were accused of having known about the negative impacts that the 'hostile environment policy' was having on immigrants from the Windrush generation as early as 2013 and of having done nothing to remedy them.
The press coverage accused Home Office agencies of operating a "guilty until proven innocent" and "deport first, appeal later" regime; of targeting the weakest groups, particularly those from the Caribbean; of inhumanely applying regulations by cutting off access to jobs, services and bank accounts while cases were still being investigated; of losing large numbers of original documents which proved right to remain; and of making unreasonable demands for documentary proof and denial of medical treatment.
In February 2020, government ministers were told that the number of people wrongly classified as illegal immigrants could be much greater than previously thought and that as many as 15,000 people could be eligible for compensation.
By April 2020, the Windrush taskforce, which was set up to deal with applications from people who were wrongly categorised still had 3,720 outstanding cases.
In November, Britain's human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said that the Home Office had broken the law by failing to obey public-sector equality duties by not considering how its policies affected black members of the Windrush generation.
Despite this, only 36 people's compensation claims had thus far been settled and only £62,198 has been paid out from a Home Office compensation pot which was expected to distribute between £200m and £570m.
Twenty-four people who had been wrongly deported died before the UK government was able to contact them, fourteen people who had been wrongly deported to the Caribbean had thus far not been traced.
Though done politely and without the hint of aggression, this government policy slowly squeezed the life out of those of the Windrush generation, as certainly as those police officers did to George Floyd. They just used letter headed paper and brown envelopes rather than their knees and handcuffs.
is not about Theresa May or Amber Rudd or Pritti Patel. Home Secretaries change, Prime Ministers change, but the UK governments’ attitude to its Caribbean citizens and their descendants has remained consistent since the 1970s – viewing us an inconvenience, as guests who have out-stayed their welcome and will be removed at the earliest opportunity.
But institutionalized and government sanctioned racism goes much further back than post-war immigration policy.
In June 2020 Black Lives Matters protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston. Colston was a large figure in the history of the city, but the bronze statue erected in his honour in 1895, has long been a focal point for anger at the city’s role in the slave trade and the continued commemoration of those who were involved in it.
Colston’s company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689.
Rhodes Must Fall
This summer similar protests took place at Oxford University around the statue of Cecil Rhodes. A 19th century imperialist, Cecile Rhodes is regarded as one of the figures who paved the way for apartheid in southern Africa, annexing large amounts of land and altering laws on voting rights. Rhodes also believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was the "first race in the world", and therefore, "the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race".
At the University of Oxford, students called for a statue of Rhodes to be removed from Oriel College, and started a movement at the university to better represent non-white culture in the curriculum as well as to combat racial discrimination and insensitivity.
From university to primary school, the long-held demands for a more inclusive curriculum also gathered momentum this year.
Decolonise the Curriculum
There have been calls for the school curriculum to better represent the diversity of the population, for many years now. The Macpherson Report produced 20 years ago, showed that cultural diversity within the curriculum is one of the ways to prevent racism. Similarly, The Windrush Review recommended that colonial and migration history should be taught.
This year, the Black Curriculum report, by Dr Jason Arday of Durham University, was part of a growing campaign in education to get black British history embedded in the national curriculum and taught in schools in England year round, rather than just during Black History Month.
It accuses the current history curriculum of dissociating Britain from a legacy that has oppressed black people in favour of a “romanticised, filtered legacy that positions Britannia as all-conquering and eternally embracive of ethnic and cultural difference”.
It calls for a curriculum that redefines conceptions of Britishness and includes black history “as a body of legitimate knowledge”. It also calls for greater diversity in the history teaching workforce and concludes: “Teaching Black history not only benefits Black students but is beneficial to British society as a whole.”
The report also suggests a number of “quick fixes” to make classroom studies more inclusive. It says students in English classes should be provided with more poetry, fiction, and nonfiction texts written by black authors.
The works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare should be read alongside Langston Hughes, Malorie Blackman, Candice Carty-Williams, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. In mathematics and science, teachers should include black scientists and mathematicians in their lessons, as well as the study of maths in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Black Curriculum requested a meeting with the Education Secretary to discuss their demands, but he was apparently too busy. Instead, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “The knowledge-rich curriculum in our schools already offers pupils the opportunity to study significant figures from black and ethnic minority backgrounds and the contributions they have made to the nation, as well as helping them understand our shared history with countries from across the world.”
Strange then that across the three major exam boards in England, fewer than one in seven novels and plays studied for GCSE English literature in 2020 were by an author of colour. As Teach First pointed out, that means you can leave school without reading a single book by an author of colour or featuring characters that represent your life.
The struggle for a more inclusive curriculum continues.
Returning to the other top story of 2020, the COVID 19 pandemic showed us how institutional racism has even infected our health and life chances.
The cases of NHS health workers who were dying from the virus this year were overwhelmingly Black, and minority ethnic. According to the Office for National Statistics Black people are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people.
These COVID death rates expose long standing health inequalities. Black and Asian people have higher rates of diabetes than the population as a whole, and older Pakistani men have particularly high levels of cardiovascular disease - conditions that also increase the risk of dying from COVID-19.
But genetics cannot explain why every minority ethnic population, given huge genetic diversity within and between these groups, has a higher risk of death from Covid-19 than the white ethnic population.
Instead, this inequality is likely to be driven by structural inequality that results in differences in social conditions (such as occupation and housing). Add to this the fact that employment for so many is concentrated in frontline jobs that mean working from home is not an option and contact with the public is unavoidable.
2020 was the year that people started to realise that racism is not something that ended when slavery was abolished, or when Barack Obama was elected President. That it’s not just nasty people hurling racial epithets, or Hitler salutes from neo-Nazis. It is present in boardrooms and parliaments right now, and all around the world.
Those on the right try and dismiss BLM in anyway they can think of. They say that police brutality like that doesn’t happen in this country, so such protests are not needed. They say that BLM has now morphed into a left-wing political party that wants to defund the police and so should support should be withheld. But thanks to BLM, the demands for fairness and equality that campaigners have been making for years, are finally being given some recognition.
In December of this year the Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss made it clear that addressing the various racial inequalities detailed above, was not a priority for this government. As we enter 2021, we mustn’t let race equality fall off the agenda. We must keep up the pressure and maintain momentum. As this government and its obedient hand maiden appointees try and claim that institutional racism is a myth, we must demand that those that paid lip service to racial equality and cried crocodile tears for George Floyd be held to account and be asked to back up their fine gestures of 2020 with concrete action in 2021.
Lee Pinkerton, ROTA Communications Officer