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Systemic Racism in Britain: 3 Lessons From the Past for Black History Month

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN's Global Goal 10 for reduced inequalities insists that equality and prosperity must be accessible for all, regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs or economic status. But racial inequality goes much broader than that, impacting every one of the Global Goals, including access to health care, education, and more. As Black History Month kicks off in the UK from Oct. 1, we have an opportunity to look back at how the racism of the past informs the racial inequality of the present — and take action to stop it. Join our movement for equality by taking action here

When George Floyd was killed in the US city of Minneapolis over a $20 counterfeit note, the video footage that chronicled his last moments — as a police office knelt on his neck for seven minutes and 46 seconds — sparked a tidal wave of grief, fury, and protest.

It was a moment when centuries of injustice boiled over. Black Lives Matter, a movement founded in 2013 after the murder of Trayvon Martin, suddenly became a global rallying cry. While half a million people marched in the US on a single day, statues of colonial oppressors were being torn down in England, Belgium, South Africa, and more.

Through the death of George Floyd, the world again remembered the deaths of so many others who had suffered a similar fate at the hands of a global socio-economic system that was bent towards racial discrimination: Stephen Lawrence, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Iqbal, Trayvon Martin, and so many countless more. 

But in the UK, a strange misconception persists: that we have somehow escaped or outgrown the systematic racism that plagues the US with such overt brutality.

It’s a perspective that, cyclically, perhaps comes back around to social media: people often make snap decisions on the state of the world on shock factor alone. 

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Whether it’s George Floyd murmuring “I can’t breathe”, or the video of a white woman threatening to call the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, New York City, some people might not help but feel misplaced relief that such outrageous racial bias couldn’t possibly happen in Britain. That somehow systematic racism doesn’t apply to us.

Of course, our past — as well as our present — shows us how far that really is from the truth. 

To mark the beginning of Black History Month in the UK, on Oct. 1, Global Citizen spoke to several experts about what systematic racism looks like in the UK — by examining some of the burning injustices from recent decades that continue to be strikingly relevant in 2020.

1. Grenfell Tower

The Grenfell Tower catastrophe — in which 72 people lost their lives in a devastating blaze on June 14, 2017 — disproportionately affected Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) people living in Kensington, one of the most unequal boroughs in London.

As the inquiry into the tragedy restarted in July, the lawyer representing the survivors of the fire said it was "inextricably linked with race", comparing its “parallel themes” with the death of George Floyd. But when the safety recommendations from the inquiry were put to parliament in September, the government voted it down.

Grenfell happened because generations of poverty and racial inequality were left ignored — so much so that in 2014, contractors working on Grenfell took no notice of an email that raised concerns that the cladding might be flammable. The people who lived in the tower weren’t listened to precisely because they never had been.

“The disaster at Grenfell Tower… is a powerful example of how systemic racism continues to affect BAME communities in the UK,” Yvette Williams MBE, a lead campaigner on the Justice 4 Grenfell campaign, told Global Citizen. “We must look at the structural inequalities that allowed this disaster to occur.”

“We can't ignore the high percentage of BAME survivors and the 72 men, women, and children who lost their lives,” she continued. “There is an over concentration of BAME families in social housing and in the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods. The history of the Notting Hill and North Kensington area — where the husk of the tower still stands — is fraught with social unrest and class war going back decades.” 

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According to Williams, the cheap cladding in Grenfell Tower was installed because richer residents elsewhere in the borough thought the building was ugly, meaning more money was spent on the exterior so their view of the skyline was not compromised. For just a few thousand pounds more on non-flammable cladding, when the council had £274 million in cash reserves, the tragedy could have been avoided.

The activist believes that the struggle against institutional and interpersonal racism in her community is the same fight as that against economic inequality — and the flammable cladding built into Grenfell Tower is a fitting symbol.

“It is clear who had the power and privilege here, and it was not the tenants,” Williams said. “We can only grieve for those we've lost and demand that we never lose anyone again because the local government and parliament cares more about rich white people than poor Black and brown people. 

She added: “The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is one of both race and class, and it is time we acknowledge a few hard truths about systemic inequality in Britain — before another senseless and unbearable disaster occurs.”

2. The Windrush Scandal

Sarah O’Connor, classed as an illegal immigrant despite living in Britain for 52 years. Paulette Wilson, a 63-year-old former House of Commons cook who moved to the UK when she was 10 — and decades later was arrested twice, prevented from working, and sent to a detention centre. Or Sylvester Marshall, a mechanic for 44 years who was denied cancer treatment, billed £54,000, and made homeless by his council because he could not prove he was here legally.

There are vast numbers of stories just like these that catalogue what campaigners describe as the “cruelty” inflicted by the “hostile environment” — an aggressive policy against illegal immigration first set out by Theresa May, the previous prime minister, when she was home secretary in 2012 — against the Windrush generation, the name given to those who migrated to Britain from Carribean countries to help fill labour shortages after the Second World War.

Despite the Windrush generation being given indefinite leave to remain in 1971, the Home Office has admitted that at least 164 Black Britons from that generation were wrongfully deported or detained, while thousands more have alleged the system has failed them. Black lives destroyed because of “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race… consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism”, according to the official review into the scandal.

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“The Windrush scandal saw the government misclassify thousands of Black Britons as illegal immigrants, despite the fact that they had been living here entirely legally for decades,” Amelia Gentleman, the journalist who first broke the story of the Windrush Scandal for the Guardian, told Global Citizen. “Despite warnings that exactly this group of people would be badly affected by hostile environment legislation, the Home Office pushed ahead with implementing policies designed to cut net migration.” 

“People were losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes, denied health care and access to benefits, and prevented from traveling for years,” she continued. “Some people were wrongly detained and deported as a result the Home Office’s mistake.” 

And while the effort to ensure official compensation for those affected slowly continues, at least five claimants have died without ever seeing justice. Indeed, some activists say the spirit of the hostile environment lives on — as the UK and Europe face calls to better step up to ensure the rights and safety of migrants and refugees. 

“The difficulties that those affected were enduring attracted very little attention,” Gentleman added. “It’s hard to avoid concluding that there was institutional racism within the government.”

3. Stephen Lawrence 

When 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in London after an unprovoked racist attack in April 1993, it took just a few days for police to identify four suspects.

While it took less than a month for Lawrence’s family to meet with then South African president and human rights champion Nelson Mandela, it took another 18 years before two men were finally found guilty of murder. 

In August 2020, police shelved the investigation, despite the remaining suspects never facing justice. "Whilst the Metropolitan Police have given up, I never will,” Lawrence’s mother said in a statement.

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For many years, the failure of the police to jail Lawrence’s killers was front page news. But that sluggishness was found out to be far more insidious: the Macpherson report, a historic 350-page inquest into the investigation, revealed a culture of institutional racism within the police force. Almost 30 years on, that prejudice still persists.

“There isn’t any evidence that would suggest that the police are no longer institutionally racist,” Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper, an expert on racism in policing and research associate in sociology at the University of Greenwich, told Global Citizen. “The same evidence that existed in 1999 when the [Macpherson] report was published, whether it be in relation to stop and search or arrest rates… the normal functioning of policing continues to produce racist outcomes, and that is the fundamental definition of institutional racism.”

Elliott-Cooper cites a number of other examples of how systematic racism is endemic in British police forces: for example, through Prevent, the “highly dubious” anti-terrorism scheme; collaborations with the UK Border Force; the disproportionate use of tasers; or through the Gangs Matrix — a database created by London’s Metropolitan Police in 2012 to track suspected gang members that Amnesty International has branded "discriminatory" and "ineffective."

An official review into the Gangs Matrix found that 78% of the people on the 4,000-strong list were Black, despite being “disproportionate to their likelihood of criminality and victimisation.” Sometimes, according to reports, a name might be added to the list simply because a young man shared a music video from a grime artist on social media.

Since Stephen Lawrence died, more have followed: such as Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old who was shot by police in August 2011, sparking the London riots that spread furiously all over the country. A police watchdog later admitted it had misled journalists into believing that Duggan had fired first. 

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There’s many more examples. Take Jimmy Mubenga, a deportee who cried “I can’t breathe” as he died at Heathrow Airport after being restrained on a flight out of London. It’s true that statistics in the US may very well be higher, but the last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted for a death in custody in Britain was in 1969.

“The police in the US are more heavily armed, and are more likely to carry guns as routine,” Elliott-Cooper added. “So you can be unsurprised that levels of violence and death at the hands of the police are more frequent in the United States.” 

“But we should also remember that Black people in the US are incarcerated at the same rate that Black people are incarcerated here in the UK,” he said. “We see similar patterns of policing that produce racist outcomes both in the US and the UK.”

Maya Angelou once said that when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. The same can be said of the systems we struggle against every day: if it acts racist, sounds racist, and official independent reports keep insisting it’s racist in a myriad of different ways — then let’s call it exactly what it is.