Unlike the United States, the non white population of Britain is a fairly recent phenomenon. The dynamics of racism are different in the two countries and the progress to end it is also at a different pace. While the Lawrence verdict provides some justice for the family, it is also a watershed moment from which Britain could emerge as one country, one nation. If the opportunity is not taken we could slide back into the status quo with the Lawrence verdict will just be another showcase that the establishment can use to defend itself against accusations of racism, although the reality on the ground remains different.
Racism in the United Kingdom is somewhat different than in the United States. In the US, the blacks arrived or were brought as slaves almost soon after the whites started settling there.
Blacks were suppressed, marginalised and denied even simple rights such as access to education, let alone a vote and land ownership. Once the constitution was interpreted more justly with all men meaning all men regardless of race or colour, the progress from an oppressed community to having a black President, black Secretary of State and chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff took only a few decades.
Not so in the United Kingdom. The possibility of a black prime minister is a few decades away if at all. The Chief of Armed Forces, probably even more remote. Not that the British are more racists than their white counterparts in the United States. The US still has white dominated gated communities and large sprawls of deprived areas full of neglected and maligned populations of African Americans.
The difference is that white Americans are conscious that they are as much a migrant population into the Americas as the blacks. The white supremacy issue, where it exists, is one of pure racism based on prejudice or competitive racism staking claims to the best resources for themselves.
In the UK racism is more complex. There are many white British who are still finding it difficult to come to terms that this once almost purely white country now has a significant permanent non white population. Nationalism is no longer a white British prerogative. Before their own eyes and within their own life spans, many white British people have seen the character of the country change. Once being 'British' was a white person who could trace ancestry to Britain. Now British can be white, black, Asian etc.
If the blacks and ethnic communities have had an uphill struggle to be accepted as equals, there has also been a struggle within the minds of many white people around adjusting to this change. No one has made it easy for them. The anti-racist movements and campaigns have been a one track putsch. In this dynamic, white British are the perpetrators of racism while black and ethnics are the victims. While true, it does not take into context other factors.
Settled communities around the world react adversely when new population migrate into their land. In India the armed struggle in Assam became significant when large numbers of Bengali refugees moved in. The MQM party in Karachi is still fighting for equality for migrant Muslims from India who have been there since mass migrations in 1947. Zimbabwean refugees into South Africa continue to face discrimination. There are examples throughout the world. There was also discomfort in Britain when large numbers of Polish arrived here only a few years ago.
White British, despite claims of 'superiority' during colonialism, are just like people everywhere else in the world. They have had to accommodate to the 'significant other' who were never meant to settle here originally. Blacks and ethnic communities were brought in to fill a growing labour market with the hope that they would go back to their countries of origin. Black and ethnic migrants too came with this intention initially. Until they bought houses, brought wives and had children. Life does not follow Government policies. The struggle of migrant populations has been to stay and stay with dignity.
Initially white British coped with non whites by leaving areas where large number of blacks and ethnic communities started to live. This was called white flight. There was still the sense of them and us. Them being aliens and 'us' being the true British. At the core of extreme British nationalism is still the idea that Britain is a 'white nation. White flight still takes place.
For the 'white' British, the adjustment had another dimension. The British had ruled an Empire based on self assumption of racial superiority. The British Empire was not like the Roman Empire where non whites became governors of provinces and even Emperors of Rome. In the British Empire, the governing class was white and exported from Britain. Consequently, accepting the ruled as equal has also been a journey for many 'white' British.
But much has changed in the last two decades. There are many individuals from black and ethnic communities who have achieved significant positions in the public sphere. But there is still an uncomfortable feeling among many that the blacks and ethnic communities are outsiders. Not quite British.
That is why the Lawrence case is so important. It had left a worrying impression that had Stephen Lawrence been a white man, the murder would have been solved and the murderers convicted soon after the incident. Whereas a white persons could expect the entire resources of the State behind them, blacks and ethnic communities felt they had to shout racism to get that attention.
The Metropolitan police force has redeemed itself somewhat with these convictions. The bigger picture however is whether the ex British nation, as the nation of the white people, has also made that transformation. As time has gone on, most white British have also followed this case and have wanted those responsible for the murder to be convicted. The distinction between 'them' and 'us' has broken down significantly if not completely. There needed to be some moment of truth to acknowledge that all British people, regardless of colour, are British as a nation and should expect the State for them regardless of their race.
That is also why Diane Abbot has been criticised so vociferously for twittering that whites divide and rule. Ten years ago, she would have got away with it because white British still had some guilt. But that era has passed. Criticism of her should not be seen as an attempt to gag blacks stating the 'truth' as they see it. It could equally be the white population saying, 'that is history, we have all come a long way, let us now work together to remove the remnants of racism.'
However it is yet to be seen how the establishment will translate the emotions and issues around the Lawrence case into practical steps. Will there be black and ethnic minority British Ambassadors around the world? Will there be Chiefs of police who might be black or from ethnic minorities? More importantly, will a black or ethnic minority British step into some of the most senior posts in the Army, the institution that symbolises patriotism.
When these institutions of the state give way to merit, then we will have realised the one country, one nation. The Lawrence case is the end of a period when the blacks and ethnics struggled to be British and the whites struggled to come to terms with a new multi racial Britain. The Lawrence verdict crosses that threshold and now we all need to move on as one nation.
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