“We Don’t Have That Stuff in America Here”: How Can The U.K. Tackle Systemic Racism When Those In Power Refuse To Accept It Exists?

The U.K. government has this week published a review investigating why people in BAME communities in Britain are far more likely to die from Coronavirus than the country’s white citizens. Despite the health secretary Matt Hancock’s promises that the government would “get to the bottom” of why these communities are at higher risk from COVID-19, no recommendations for change accompanied the report. This lack of suggested action is connected to a wider failing of those who lead us: their refusal to accept the historical and contemporary insidiousness of systemic racism in Britain.

BAME group leaders and racial equality thinktanks such as Runnymede Trust have reacted with dismay to the government’s lack of recommendations. “There is no plan of action,” said Dr. Zubaida Haque, director of Runnymede, “so what are people supposed to feel?” The UN High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, has also intervened. She said in a statement that “endemic inequalities” in the Anglosphere were being exposed during the Coronavirus pandemic, reflected in the current worldwide protests against structural racism, and that action must be taken. Kemi Badenoch, the U.K.’s Minister for Equalities, has hit back at the government’s critics, arguing that institutional racism in Britain does not exist.

Institutional racism can be defined as a form racism expressed in a country’s social and political institutions. It is reflected in inequalities between ethnic groups concerning wealth, criminal justice, employment, health and other factors. When looking at Britain’s systemic racial inequalities, we may take issue with Badenoch’s claims. In 2017, the Lammy Review found that black people constitute 12% of the U.K.’s prison population. 48% of under-18 inmates in British police custody are black. We may then point out that black people constitute just 3% of the British population. This is not to mention the huge number of black people who have died in British police custody: Eric Garner, Rashan Charles, Edoson Da Costa or Sarah Reed; the list goes on, and on.

And now, in the current Coronavirus crisis, we know that people from BAME communities are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white British citizens. Even before Coronavirus, the average life expectancy of a black person in the U.K. is four years shorter than that of a white person. Yet the British government is comprised of senior figures who overwhelmingly reject the existence of systemic racism in Britain – and deny the U.K.’s historic culpability in exporting institutionalized racism across English-speaking countries.

Kemi Badenoch, the U.K.’s Equalities Minister, is a case in point. As Guardian journalist Afua Hirsch reports, Badenoch has repeatedly denied the existence of institutional racism in Britain and has rejected the notion that a ‘black community’ exists here. In 2017, she stated that the ‘horrible stuff’ that happens in America does not happen in the U.K.. By this, of course, Ms Badenoch was referring to the systemic racism that plagues the American justice and law enforcement system which Britain itself exported there. Our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is another example. Not only has he made racist remarks – saying, for example, that Africans have “watermelon smiles” – but he also argued that Africa’s “best fate” would be for it to be taken over by the old colonial powers.

The last statement should shock all those who claim to care about the structural racism that exists in all English-speaking countries – because the British Empire is what created it. In colonizing much of the Americas between 1607 and 1783, for example, Britain’s colonizing forces established systems of black slavery that stretched from the Caribbean to Anglo-North America and which left scars of structural racism on the region – scars that America’s current justice system and the George Floyd protests prove still exist.

In Australia, British Imperial forces massacred aboriginal communities (killing 96% of indigenous people in Tasmania) and established a justice system that saw nearly 50% of Australia’s prison population being comprised of black aboriginal people in the early 20th Century. Australia today has still not shaken the racial discrimination inherent in these systems. Aboriginal people there were 16 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts as of December 2019.

Despite Britain’s historic responsibility for exporting and perpetuating systemic racism against black (and many other) peoples across the world, there remains a strong tendency of British people to negate these charges. A YouGov poll found that 60% of people in Britain believe the British Empire remains something to be proud of. This should not be surprising when the present U.K. government is filled with senior ministers who do not recognize Britain’s historic responsibility for sowing racism into the societies of other countries, and who deny the existence of systemic racism in Britain today.

It is up to people across the U.K. to realize that exporting blame and denying the accepted fact is a symptom of an incompetent and dangerous government. As long as this government remains in power, systemic racism will continue to exist in Britain. Petitions to change our educational system are important, as are mass peaceful protests. Yet we must ask ourselves how effective these strategies will be against a government that can look its critics in the eye and lie. It is most likely to be our power to vote, and vote wisely, that will create real change – but that change remains over four years away.

Louis Platts-Dunn