Judging by the tone of some politicians and media pundits, you’d be excused for thinking the UK is an oasis of racial harmony, and that racism is an all-American export. The sad fact is that Britain is often just as racist as America. We just don’t like talking about it.
Police killings of Black people and other minorities are clearly lower on this side of the Atlantic (it’s unclear how high they would be if our police were armed).
And we don’t have the same legacy of slavery as America – although Britain was extensively involved in the slave trade.
Perpetuated through the generations by an Anglo-centric history syllabus, this creates a blind spot in parts of the British establishment, including the media – which is not the most diverse of places at the best of times.
Put simply, it’s a fantasy to say that Britain is not affected by the issues causing protests across the world.
The David Lammy Review in 2017 found that Black people in the UK are actually proportionally more likely to be in prison than their American counterparts. In London, police officers are four times more likely to use force against black people than against white people.
The evidence that Britain is at least as racist as the US is so overwhelming that this opinion piece should not need to be written. But unfortunately it does.
During the Windrush scandal, hundreds of Black Britons were wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights by a discriminatory immigration system.
British police killings of Black people is evidenced in the deaths of Sheku Bayoh, Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, and many others.
This week, both Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock announced that “Black Lives Matter”. It’s great to hear them say it, but now we need to mean it, whether those lives are American or British.
This is not to say that Britain hasn’t made progress in recent years. Central government is an increasingly diverse place – whatever you think of their politics, Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid are proof that some BAME people are able to make it to the top.
Local government, however, is still decades behind Downing Street, and it is there that many of the day to day decisions that affect our lives are taken (often with little oversight thanks to the decline in local press).
Bradford Council was recently forced to apologise after its “inclusion campaign” featured pictures of exclusively white people, despite my native Bradford being one of the most diverse places in the UK.
As well as “trickle down” diversity to all the institutions that matter, we must avoid diversity for its own sake.
The most important diversity is diversity of opinion. Tokenistic appointments of people with different appearances but familiar thinking will achieve nothing.
We must also avoid the “selective activism” that would make Black Lives Matter the benign socially acceptable version of the movement for greater racial equality globally.
Matt Hancock may be happy to adopt the Black Lives Matter slogan from the despatch box, but would he be willing to say the same about the Middle East, the Uighurs, or the Rohingya?
This logic also applies to “intra BAME” bigotry. Sometimes communities champion their own causes but neglect others. For example, we must challenge the anti-Blackness which is sometimes prevalent in the South Asian community to which I belong.
Covid has exposed the realities of inequality in British society. However the pandemic also highlighted how – in Bradford and across the country – people of all ethnicities, faiths and backgrounds came together to support the most vulnerable.
This civic unity that brought together inner city South Asian and working class white communities is echoed in the peaceful protests we are now seeing, showing that the problem is with the institutions that govern, rather than with the people who are governed.
Building on this will take a generational change, starting with the children who will form the next generation.
BAME children are hardest hit by the racism that can alter the course of their entire lives. As a member of the government’s steering group on adoption, I’m all too aware of the institutional racism that affects even the most vulnerable: children in the care system.
BAME kids suffer the most at the hands of this system: they are overrepresented and take the longest to place in care, most likely due to the shortage of BAME carers. If we are to root out the causes of long-term racial inequality, we must start by reforming the institutions which determine our children’s future.
It’s easy to look at the protests in America and see it as someone else’s problem, and perhaps even a reaction to Donald Trump’s Presidency.
But as well as supporting the peaceful protestors there and around the world, we must take a look at the prejudice on our own doorstep. If we are to solve this problem for our children and future generations, we will need action and policy about our own issues, as well as hashtags and slogans about those abroad.
Shadim Hussain is a member of the government’s steering group on adoption, and CEO of My Foster Family.