Five years ago this week, a fire in the Grenfell Tower, a 24-story block in London, killed 72 people, devastated a community, shocked a nation, and started a domino effect that exposed the link between racial inequality and poverty in the UK's capital city and the wider country.
Five years on, the cladding that caused the deadly blaze to engulf the building has been banned, but the new rules only apply to properties built in the future, not existing ones. What’s more, according to Justice4Grenfell group organiser, Yvette Williams, even after five years “no one has been held accountable and firms involved were even granted immunity from prosecution.”
It might seem like after the Black Lives Matter protests, the Stephen Lawrence investigation, the Windrush scandal, and the lack of justice for Grenfell residents, that not a whole lot has changed to shift the needle on eradicating systemic racism from the UK.
But the data doesn’t lie. 46% of Black households in the UK live in poverty, compared with just under one in five white households. Black people are more than three times as likely to experience homelessness than all other ethnicities combined. Unemployment rates are consistently higher among Black communities. In work, Black people get paid less than their white counterparts and they are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people.
The disparity doesn’t end there. When it comes to the judicial system, Black children are over four times more likely than white children to be arrested. Black people are also far more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than white defendants, and almost a quarter of all Black 15- to 24-year-old males in London were stopped and searched by police during the COVID-19 lockdown — making them nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped than young white males. The list goes on.
One new organisation, launched at the end of May in the week of the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting anti-racism protests, is hoping to change that.
The Black Equity Organisation (BEO) is a new, independent, national Black civil rights organisation created to dismantle systemic racism in Britain, drive generational change, and deliver better lived experiences for Black people across the country. Their mission? “Build on protest and make lasting progress.”
We spoke to one of its founding trustees, Karen Blackett, to ask why now and what we can all do to help.
Why did you start BEO?
After the murder of George Floyd, the outpouring of anger and frustration as well as the global protests, we saw that there were a lot of efforts in this country to tackle systemic racism, from companies and policy-makers to grassroots activists and organisations. But there was no national voice that was joining them up to effect real and lasting change. That’s where we want to help — connecting brands, corporations, policy-makers, and grassroots organisations to dismantle systemic racism in our society.
We launched BEO to make sure that the pace and scale of change that is required can be delivered. We advocate for Black people in the UK and amplify Black voices, Black talent, Black enterprise, and Black greatness.
Dismantling systemic racism in the UK sounds like a tall intersectional order — how do you plan on getting there?
A very real example [of systemic racism] is what has happened to the 11-year-old Raheem Bailey in Wales. Having experienced racist bullying, he was then threatened with detention by the school — despite being the victim. To escape more bullying, he lost his finger after trying to escape the school premises because of more bullying. This horrendous experience, then made so much worse by initially not taking the injury seriously and sadly, delays in health care.
In situations like this, we will want to provide practical help where appropriate but also connect those affected on the ground with activists and groups, as well as work with policy advisers who can help in the school so this doesn’t happen again.
Education is just one of our six core strategic pillars where evidence shows a gap between Black and other ethnicities in the UK. The others are economic empowerment; cultural awareness and respect; criminal justice system and reform; the built environment; and health care and wellness.
We spent the last year understanding and knowing where we are with those pillars in this country so we looked at the data and talked to Black people in the UK. It’s very important that we always crowdsource solutions from the community we represent.
The next step will be publishing new research and creating programmes and partnerships that address the issues identified through this research, ultimately creating the change we want and need to see.
Shortly, we will announce our first partnership around how to create the next set of Black entrepreneurs ingrained in our British society.
How did you model the Black Equity Organisation?
We started by reaching out and talking to other organisations like the NAACP [the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a civil rights organisation in the US, formed in 1909 as an interracial endeavour to advance justice for African Americans]. In the UK, we spoke to Stonewall and Liberty.
In 2021, the UK's Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report stated that 'geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture, and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.' What would BEO have done if you’d been around?
If BEO had been in existence when the report came out, we would have used our voice to show the evidence that systemic racism does exist. We can showcase this with the data we have. There are things in the action plan we welcome but the evidence shows that the conclusion of that Commission that systemic racism doesn’t exist is wrong.
We come from the position of trying to work with organisations to create a change so we’d be working with policy-makers to create the right framework for tangible change to happen.
Has anything changed since the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests?
There has been change and we’ve seen a number of organisations pledge support and sign up to the UN’s Global Goals and play their part.
The frustration is that it’s happening at a glacial pace. The pledges aren’t happening fast enough and not at a national level.
We need to ensure it stays front of mind. Our role at BEO is making sure we’re representing the Black community and that moving towards a position of equity isn’t forgotten.
How do we stop the next Grenfell tragedy from happening?
One of our strategic pillars is on housing and the built environment. The statistics speak for themselves. 68% of white households own their own homes but it’s 20% for Black African households. We have the data. 15% of Black people live in the top 10% of deprived neighbourhoods. Tragedies like the Grenfell Tower happen because frankly, it’s still not safe.
We will partner with organisations — and that can be local authorities too — so that policies are put in place to make sure this never happens again. If people are in rented housing it needs to be of the right quality. Everybody has the right to feel safe in their own home.
Why is this a 'defining moment'?
It’s a defining moment because it’s the creation of the first independent civil rights organisation in the UK. The NAACP was created 100 years ago in the US. They are so much further ahead.
That defining moment is all of us coming together to work together to create the change that is needed. It’s about creating a generational shift.
We did a launch event at a school in South London, and when I looked out into the audience, I saw the people who we are trying to make the change for.
We did a 9-minute vigil to mark the nine minutes that it took for George Floyd to die. It was incredibly powerful and it felt really long. Nine minutes is a really long time for no one to step forward. That was a defining and pivotal moment. From that moment on, we started working on this and now we’ve launched the UK’s first national Black British civil rights organisation.
How can we all help?
There are many ways to help continue the fight to rebalance the vast racial inequity in this country. Whether you're an individual, a brand, or an organisation, there are ways to get involved with us.
Sign the BEO’s manifesto and formally join our fight against systemic racism in Britain.
Sign up to the BEO’s newsletter and watch out for opportunities to be part of the research when we’re trying to figure out what action to take.
Set up a one-time or monthly donation to the BEO if you’d like to support our work and contribute to this growing civil rights movement.
For Global Citizens looking to commemorate the 72 people who died during the Grenfell Tower fire and demand justice, as well as further ways to help, here's a starter for 10:
Raise awareness of the issues that Black people face in the UK from education to health care by sharing this article.
Justice4Grenfell has launched a t-shirt, designed by the streetwear brand B-Side, to raise funds for their continued legal fight for justice. Nab one.
Make racial equity a top priority year-round. Take a look at the list we put together with activists and experts on how to help the fight for racial justice every day.
This June, take our Equity Month Hero Challenge to learn how we can all be champions for equity and justice every day, and earn your Equity Month Hero badge to wear proudly on your Global Citizen profile. Take the Challenge now.