We have come a long way as a society from ‘Negro History Week’, established by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 at the height of the Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation in the US, and renamed ‘Black History Month’ during the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s. In the 1980s it was taken on as ‘African American History Month’, again highlighting the changing politics of identity and race for African Americans.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, following George Floyd’s murder and the conviction of the police officer Derek Chauvin a powerful reminder of an ongoing universal human rights campaign, with more and more white people fully embracing the notion that structural racism is not a figment of black people’s imagination. Last summer the marches, demos and vigils, the debates around white privilege, and the statements of solidarity to the cause are all welcomed. The question which all black people are asking is whether this is the start of a serious discourse on race relations in Britain, when for many years, despite the scandals of Grenfell Tower and Windrush, race was off the agenda. However, I believe the removal of the Edward Coulson statue in Bristol was as iconic a moment as the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989. It has kick-started a national conversation about Britain’s colonial past and its crimes against humanity which black people have had to endure for the last 400 years.
That is why the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities led by Tony Sewell that concluded there is no evidence that UK is institutionally racist is so out of stepped with our live experiences and our long history of campaigning a civil right.
The report reminds me of the ones done in the 1960s and 1970s. Those reports suggested that immigrant children could survive the colour bar of their parents if they worked hard and were grateful to be British.
Instead of being forward thinking and adding a new debate on race, the report is almost stuck in a time warp or even ‘lost in space’. It does not face the true realities of 2021.
We are in the middle of the global COVID -19 pandemic, which has exposed current inequalities and structural racism in society (though we have known about these problems for decades and they have been highlighted by previous independent commissioned reports.)
It is disappointing that the report fails to look at school exclusion, racism in schools, increasing demand for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and behavioural support. All these issues form part of a toxic environment, and the new way that racism is transmitted.
I must admit it is different from my experience of going to school, when a lot of us were classed as educationally ‘subnormal’ and told that going to university was not an option!
Without proper policies, accountability and transformational change in public, private and voluntary sector institutions, young people who are of school age will be like lambs to the slaughter – in the same way their parents and grandparents were.
The pervasive nature of the legacies of enslavement and colonisation, and the ways they play out in higher education or the world of work, mixed with the cocktails of everyday racism and micro-aggressions will impact aspirations. As a result of this, it will also affect the wellbeing of young black people.
The report is both a denial of the past and future in a post pandemic Brexit Britain.
Downplaying the past
What I found especially disturbing was the report’s efforts to play down the transatlantic slave trade and colonisation which caused injustice to millions of our people over 400 years. We are told that the Maafa or the Maangamizi was ‘character building’ and we ‘need to move’ on from this crime against humanity.
Maafa is also known as the African holocaust, the Holocaust of Enslavement, or the Black Holocaust, according to Wikipedia.
The word Maangamizi is a Kiswahili term which roughly translates to annihilation, according to Google dictionary.
Half the people on the commission do not understand the history of Britain, the impact and implications of enslavement, or modern-day racism. One of the commissioners still represents the West India Committee which was the lobbying group of plantation owners that tried their best to extend the period of enslavement in the Caribbean. This Committee successfully negotiated £30 million (around a trillion in modern day money) compensation in 1833.
Our ancestors had to work an extra five year as indentured labourers on the plantations as part of the settlement. Taxpayers were still paying off the debt until 2015. The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romeo explores this disturbing history.
This is the equivalent of a Holocaust denier being asked to develop a strategy on antisemitism. We need to seriously consider whether it’s right that this organisation chairs the National Lottery Fund.
We hope the prime minster seriously rejects the commissioned race report and makes a commitment to support existing race equality legislation and best practice by promoting the Public Sector Equality duty.
It is important that he acknowledges the lived experiences of minoritised communities and especially those experiencing the hostile environment and the ongoing impact of the Windrush Scandal. Institutionalised racism is still alive and kicking in Britain today.
We need to campaign for anti-racist progressive equalities legislation and a culture shift to dismantle structural racism and call out people and institutions which fail us and deliberately use cultural wars as a pretext to maintain the status quo.
We have a long proud history of resistance and rebellion to draw on.
Patrick Vernon is a social commentator, campaigner and cultural historian and Honorary Professor for cultural heritage and community leadership at Wolverhampton University. He co-authored 100 Great Black Britons with Dr Angelina Osborne. The collection highlights the history of black achievement. It contains the biographies of individuals dealing with the adversities such as structural racism and the British empire.