Whilst the British public wake up to the realities of racism, the government are reluctant to pursue real change.
Over a year has passed since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on the 25th of May 2020, sparking a summer of protests and a global conversation about anti-Black racism. Floyd’s death became a watershed moment for both publics and politicians, encouraging recognition of systemic racism and discussions over what can be done to turn the tide. But a year on, what progress has actually been made in the UK?
One positive development has been an increase in public awareness and racial consciousness. Constructive discussions about race and racism have dominated British public discourse, with glaring racial discrepancies in education, healthcare, housing, and the criminal justice system becoming the subject of discussion and debate. Slogans like #UKIsNotInnocent have been used to challenge the idea that the UK is less racist than the US (or not racist at all) and draw attention to our own problems with police brutality and anti-Black violence.
The country’s own unique, UK-specific problems have also been dragged under the spotlight, especially those regarding British history. The toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston became the catalyst for what has been called an “unprecedented public reckoning with the British empire”, prompting efforts towards changing street names and removing statues — including the forming of London’s new Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm — as well as campaigns to ‘decolonise’ the British curriculum by challenging the whitewashing of British history and academia.
Perhaps most important is how these debates are being closely and enthusiastically engaged with by White people, eager not only to confront their own privilege and unconscious biases, but to acknowledge and challenge the system that they both contribute to and stand to benefit from. In other words, there has been a definite swinging of the pendulum towards more authentic White allyship.
However, the political response has left much to be desired. The UK government’s response has been lukewarm at best, and regressive at worst. Campaigners and politicians alike have criticised the government’s promises to tackle racism in the UK as little more than lip service, undermined by their continuing failure to act on the disproportionate rates of Covid-19 deaths, the 40% rise in the use of racist stop-and-search powers during lockdown, and the ongoing Windrush scandal.
In fact, a former government adviser has warned that the government have no real plans to challenge racism in the UK, and nothing has demonstrated this better than the catastrophic failure that is the Sewell Report — commissioned to investigate the impacts of race in the UK. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, the report reaches the incredible conclusion that the UK is not institutionally racist after all, and in fact is a beacon of diversity and positive race relations. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have repeatedly argued that we need to “change the race narrative”, implying that they care more about putting a positive spin on things than actually making any changes.
This lack of true commitment has been demonstrated most of all by the introduction of measures that indicate a massive step back in the UK’s approach to racism, rather than progress, suggesting that very few (if any) of the public’s concerns have actually been taken on board. In particular, the controversial Policing, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been treated as a slap in the face to months of protest over police brutality and demands that funding be rechannelled into community approaches to criminal justice. By increasing police powers such as stop-and-search — which has been proven to disproportionately target Black men — the Bill is placing more power into the hands of an institution that, as campaigners have been tirelessly pointing out, is steeped in racism.
Nobody believed that racism could be ‘solved’ in a year. Dismantling the structures that uphold racial hierarchy and white supremacy is a continuous process and a long-term goal, that was never going to be achieved by a single 12-month period of protests and dialogue. But, whilst positive progress has been made in terms of public awareness, the government has shown a depressing reluctance to take any steps that would actually pursue structural change. The public may be increasingly on board with the anti-racist mission, but can we ever expect genuine allyship from a government who don’t believe that systemic racism even exists?
At JAN Trust, we speak out against racism and in solidarity with BAME communities. We have supported marginalised communities for over 30 years and continue to push for political action on BAME issues alongside our community work.