✏️ Sophie Reaville

Firstly, I’d like to express my deep sadness and anger at the blatant murder of George Floyd last week, and many, many other innocent ethnic minorities who have had to suffer police brutality. Words cannot describe how disgusted I am that in 2020, racism is still highly prevalent across the United States and all over the world. It is incomprehensible to me that any human could look at another and decide they were inferior to them. It’s just absolutely unacceptable.

More chilling is that unfortunately those who do see themselves as superior have the power to exercise that belief, especially in the US, led by a highly corrupt government with a fascist at the very top of it.

Racism has gone on for centuries, and if these terrible events in America have taught me something, it’s that I, as a white person, must educate myself and I must actively join the cause. As Angela Davis famously said, “it’s not enough to not be racist, we must be actively anti-racist”. I’m hoping this will be an article focussed on education and directing white people to some helpful sites, and places where you can actively get involved too. 

Firstly, the concept of race and a brief history of racism in the UK.

I’d like to start by talking about the concept of race itself and the history of UK racism. Race is a social concept, that began in the 16th Century, when trade lines first started opening for the importation and exportation of black slaves. Race is NOT a scientifically valid concept of analysis or description. 

Racism against black people is thought to have begun in the 16th Century, with the slave trade, where it’s estimated about 12.5 million largely black Africans were enslaved and exploited in America between 1525 and 1866. In the UK, Henry VII and Henry VIII are believed to have hired black musicians, in particular a trumpeter named JOhn Blanke (pictured). Historical documents reveal these musicians were paid for their services, but there is little known as to whether they were paid differently to their white British counterparts or not.  

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, there was an increase in the number of black slaves in Britain, which the Queen disliked and so deported many to Lisbon. From here onwards however, is where the pace of the slave trade began to quicken and by 1795, Liverpool held 62.5% of the European slave trade. Horrifyingly, the UK government decided to repay depts incurred by the abolition of the slave trade, these debts were still being payed up until 2015. Black slaves were wiped of their identities and given the names of their owners, resulting in many Britons today unable to trace back their heritage.

Interestingly, black enslavement was never legal in England. However, it wasn’t illegal either; and as most slaves were considered private property, and not people, it continued to increase. Furthermore, even at this point in history there is evidence to suggest that black men and women were discriminated against when dealing with issues of the law due to their skin colour. That’s right, an issue that was around in the 17th Century is still around in the year 2020. 

Slavery was officially abolished in the British Empire in 1834, but racism continues. In 1863, “scientists” at the time claimed that black people were intellectually inferior and had smaller brains. This was proven to be quite obviously wrong not long after. WWI brought black migrants from the British Empire into the UK which resulted in more division and race riots. In 1919, the British refused to accept the Equality proposal put forward by Japan at the Paris Peace Conference.

During and after the Second World War saw the largest influx of black immigrants into the UK. 250,000 West Indians, mostly Jamaicans, settled in the UK and are now known as the Windrush generation (pictured). The years that followed were years of racial intolerance and popular far right movements. 

In 1958, around 300-400 white youths attacked a black community of people in the area of Notting Hill, which left several people severely injured and hurt. The UK passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962 in order to deliberately restrict black immigration. During the 1970s, racial intolerance continued, but born out of that were the first Black Pride movements and the Black is Beautiful movement.

During the 70s, the UK experienced huge clashes between the police and black communities, notably at Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. Since the 1980s, the UK has seen a rise in black African immigrants who managed to integrate more smoothly into society, due to progressively changing attitudes towards race. 

1993 produced the infamous Stephen Lawrence case. The young black 18-year-old (pictured) was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths while waiting at a bus stop in South East London. It is argued that the Police did not do enough to prosecute his killers and there were huge failings in their investigation. The case went on until 2018, and the police were accused of corruption after evidence of serious failings and an element of neglect, arguably due to the fact Lawrence was black.

In 2012, two of Lawrence’s murderers were prosecuted with life imprisonment, but there still remained the issue of institutional racism present in the British Police Force. In 2014, Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May, launched a public enquiry into the claim that a police officer spied on Lawrence’s family and deliberately tried to smear them. The case was dropped in 2018, but Lawrence’s family hope that this will open some eyes to the institutional racism ever present in the UK.

Racism now, where are we at?

There were over 100,000 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2018/19, an increase of ten per cent compared with 2017/18. While increases in hate crime over the last five years have been mainly driven by improvements in crime recording by the police, there have been spikes in hate crime following certain events such as the EU Referendum and the several terrorist attacks in 2017.  The majority of hate crimes were race hate crimes, accounting for around 76% of offences. These increased by 11 per cent between 2017/18 and 2018/19.

More recently, we are seeing highly concerning economic, social, health and income inequalities, particularly during the Coronavirus Pandemic, with 72% of NHS staff Covid-19 deaths being among black and ethnic minorities. These wealth and health disparities are not new. In a 2018 report, it was found that unemployment rates were significantly higher for ethnic minorities, standing at about 12% while it was at about 6% for white people. Furthermore black people with degrees earn an average of 23% less than their white colleagues. Every day low level racism has also been an issue for black people. Here is data collected by the guardian in 2018.

Police brutality, although more extreme and frequent in the States, definitely lives on in Britain and in other parts of Europe and the Western World much to my anger and sadness. Figures released in The Independent newspaper in 2018 revealed that 12% of incidents where force was used by police, occurred with black people, who only make up 3.3% of the UK population. 26% of police incidents featuring guns also featured black people, same for 20% of taser incidents. The Guardian recently published figures showing police were twice as likely to fine Black Britons for breaking lockdown rules than white Britons.

Interestingly, the intellectual and activist, Angela Davis made some links between slavery and modern-day imprisonment particularly through the corporate and state involvement in punishment. She wrote an article entitled Mask-Racism – Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex (what many also call the new form of slavery), stating that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings”. In other words racism is present at the very heart of our institutions. This is institutional racism.

It’s important to understand that racism is not just attitudinal or explicit. It is embedded in social, economic and political structures all over the world. Davis calls this the “sedimented history of slavery, we are living out today” stating that in many ways slavery has not yet been completely abolished and that we should learn to question the things we don’t usually question in order for things to begin to change.

I hope from reading that brief summary that you have a little more understanding of black history in the UK and the history of racism in our country as well. I encourage you to do some further reading and research of your own. I think we can all agree that we as white people must educate ourselves so much more on this issue in order to comprehend the suffering of BAME groups as much as we can and to actively join their cause knowing the facts. Here are some ideas of what you can do, with some helpful pointers. I’m by no means an expert, but these are things I have been doing and I have learnt an incredible amount just from writing and sharing this article with you, so I hope this is helpful.

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Last Update: April 29, 2024