Two days can tell you a lot about the state of racism in the UK. Two weeks, even more so. And two years?
It was less than a fortnight ago, on Tuesday March 15, when the ‘Child Q’ safeguarding report was published, which ruled racism to have been a likely factor in a 15-year-old Black school girl from Hackney being taken out of her exams and intimately strip-searched by police at school, while she was on her period and without parental consent or any suitable supervision.
Naturally, Black people all over the country were horrified and upset at the disturbing details that emerged about the incident, which occurred in December 2020 after a teacher wrongly accused the child of possessing cannabis, and which left the girl “traumatised”, according to her mother.
The next day, Wednesday March 16, saw the publication of the government’s long-awaited response to the Sewell report into racial disparities. Entitled Inclusive Britain, the 100-page action plan recommended a suite of more than 70 measures, including changes to policing, health and education.
The irony of the timing was not lost on many.
Only last weekend, thousands of people turned out in Parliament Square for a rally against racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism and fascism for the United Nations Anti-Racism Day, and thousands more marched in Hackney and beyond in protest and support of Child Q.
“The police abused her and no teacher thought to contact her parents, to ask the girl afterwards how she was: certainly they don’t seem to have grasped the gravity of this awful situation,” Abbott wrote. A stark conclusion could be drawn, she added, “that black schoolgirls are not safe from police abuse, even at school, supposedly a place of safety. What kind of society tolerates this?”
Launching the Inclusive Britain report that same day, MP Kemi Badenoch, Cabinet Minister for Equalities and Levelling Up Communities, wrote in its ministerial foreward: “If there is one thing at the heart of this government’s agenda, it’s that anyone in this country should be able to achieve anything, no matter where they live or come from.
“As a black woman, a first-generation immigrant and the Minister for Equalities, I passionately believe in this idea too. It is my lived experience. I also know, however, that not everyone in this country has had this experience.”
Measures recommended in the Inclusive Britain action plan include:
- A new, national framework for police powers, such as stop and search, with greater scrutiny at a local level
- An automatic “opt-in” pilot to help ethnic minorities and others receive legal advice when in police custody
- A new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to improve health for everyone
- A diverse panel of historians to develop a new knowledge-rich Model History Curriculum by 2024, exploring Britain’s historical past
- Guidance to employers on how to measure and address the ethnicity pay gap.
These key recommendations – and the report’s many others – were drawn up based on the findings of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was established in the wake of global Black Lives Matters protests in June 2020, although it did not release those findings until March 2021.
Led by educationalist Tony Sewell, the commission gave suggestions under three key themes: building trust, promoting fairness, and creating agency.
However, the Sewell report was discredited by many directly after publication for the commission’s central conclusion that Britain is “no longer” a place where the system is “deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.
It’s almost two years since the death of George Floyd and a year since the Sewell report, and the global fight against racism isn’t over.
Though Floyd’s killing took place in the US, outrage over the case of child Q demonstrates how much more work is needed to address racism at home. So, will these new ‘Inclusive Britain’ measures help tackle racism in the UK?
Not if the government can’t acknowledge racism exists, say Black women.
Bukola Adisa is CEO of Career Masterclass, a career development platform for Black, Asian and ethnically diverse professionals, and has read the full report.
“Too many people from ethnic minority backgrounds feel that the ‘system’ is not on their side, as the Inclusive Britain action plan rightly says,” says the 38-year-old from St Albans.
The key themes from Sewell’s report are well articulated in the new plan, but one of the three is crucial, she tells HuffPost UK, and only time will tell if the government and other institutions like the police can follow through on it.
“Building trust is the foundation, in my opinion, as there is much work to be done around restoring faith in the government, its agencies and institutions,” says Adisa, who points to the recent uproar around Child Q as just “one of many incidences where trust in the system has been broken”.
The first thing the government needs to do to mend that trust is acknowledge that racism exists, Adisa says.
Adisa continues: “A statement like this one: ‘Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism...’ by Dr Sewell, minimises the daily lived experiences of millions of black and ethnically diverse individuals in the UK.”
Blessing Mukosha, a 26-year old entrepreneur and podcaster from London, thinks the new measures will go some way to addressing racism at a structural level, but won’t guarantee change in the everyday experiences of minorities.
“However, if these structural changes are accompanied by investment in arts, culture, education and media to create more opportunities for diverse voices and faces in the most influential spaces in our society, they may then be said to be capable of solving racism,” Mukosha says.
Adisa agrees on this. “Much more can be done in using mainstream media to shape public behaviour. We are beginning to see how influential this approach can be with football and anti-racism messaging in advertisements, such as the Premier League’s recent campaign, No Room for Racism,” she says.
“The government can come up with a similar campaign or partner with organisations to push messaging that promotes inclusion and celebrates diversity.”
Demanding accountability and transparency in the workplace is also a tool for change, she adds – and this needs to go beyond simply ‘pay gap’ work.
“If the government mandates businesses and institutions to share data around ethnicity in their hiring and promotion practices, it may become easier to track which companies are being deliberate about diversity and inclusion, and eliminating racial bias,” Adisa says.
The case of Child Q
Sandre Igwe, an author and Black Maternal advocate from south-east London, says she was “horrified, and disgusted but not as shocked as I thought I should be” by the details that emerged from the Child Q report.
“Unfortunately, the system is wired to not protect Black young girls, but harmful stereotypes are still being perpetuated: such as black girls being perceived as more mature, less innocent, and requiring less protection and support than their white counterparts,” says the 32-year-old founder of The Motherhood Group and author of My Black Motherhood. “Not only is this not true, but it’s rooted in racism, both unconscious and conscious bias.”
As a mother of two Black girls, Igwe fears for the protection of her children.
“I have the responsibility to teach my daughters right from wrong, to positively offer guidance, support them to be accountable for their behaviour as well as show respect to other members of society – especially those in positions of authority, like their teachers,” she says.
“But unfortunately, what are the repercussions of pouring so much into my daughters if they won’t be treated like their counterparts – with care, respect, dignity, and with autonomy? These are basic human rights that everyone should be entitled to”
Asked what she thinks can be done, she says: “The onus shouldn’t be on Black people to solve racism in the UK, and most certainly there shouldn’t be more pressure for little Black girls to assimilate to ‘whiteness’ to be treated with care.”
She continues: “I think structural racism needs to be addressed at a structural level, such as reframing policies and practices that disadvantage Black people, implementing training that will allow harmful stereotypes and biases to be dismantled, and the recruitment of more Black employees at the senior level to ensure both diversity and an anti-racism work culture.”
Mukosha wasn’t shocked at the treatment of child Q either.
“In my experience as an advocate for children excluded from school, I saw first hand how adults in positions of responsibility can fail to treat Black children like children by criminalising and adultifying them,” she tells HuffPost.
She adds: “I believe that this case has shown Black women and girls that we are universally expected to withstand violations of our boundaries and safety, because society does not recognise us as human beings and therefore fails to treat us humanely.”
Mukosha believes that Britain will change only when the nation’s cultural identity changes, that measures such as those outlined in the Inclusive Britain plan are only effective if the nation as a whole understands and accepts itself as diverse.
“A national identity that is white, ‘Anglo-Saxon’, Christian, and heterosexual but where the society is multi-ethnic and culturally diverse, is bound to lead to everyday racism and alienation of minority groups,” she says.
“If through arts, culture, education and media, Britain is able to truly recognise and value a diverse national identity, then it may change as these new measures are applied.”
Adisa thinks “systemic challenges of racism, prejudice and bias have been entrenched in our culture over many decades, and it will be wishful thinking to imagine that they will vanish overnight.
“However, if the government shows true commitment to these actions and strategies, we will definitely be on the path to true and lasting change.”