Black Lives Matter: Where are we now?

Tomos Owen

It is now almost 10 months since the tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing global anti-racism protests. With the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer that caused the death of George Floyd, set to begin in the coming weeks, it is a good time to assess where we are in terms of the eradication of racism in the UK. I would, however, be remiss to omit some of the developments that have happened in the USA. This is particularly true given that the USA is two months into a new administration that appears to be far more sympathetic to the cause of anti-racism. 

In the USA, the focus of civil rights groups and anti-racism campaigners has been police reform. This was their focus far before the death of George Floyd, as police brutality, particularly that which is aimed at Black Americans, has been ever present in the USA. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced by House Democrats last June and amongst other things this would have ensured that training was put in place for state and local law enforcements to fight racial profiling, chokeholds and federal no-knock warrants would have been banned, and a federal register of problem officers would have been established so that they would not have been able to move easily between departments. This passed the House, but the Senate failed to act on it as the Republicans controlled the Senate at the time. This has meant that no major federal legislation has been passed on police reform since the death of George Floyd.

This inaction has undoubtedly led to the deaths of more Black Americans. One such incident includes the death of Andre Hill, an unarmed Black man, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ohio last December. The officer now faces murder charges, but whether justice will truly be served is yet to be seen. If history is anything to go by, this looks unlikely. Incidents similar to this will continue until significant reforms are adopted across the USA. Following the lack of action up to this point, a culture of racism and racial insensitivity still clearly underpins many police departments in the country. You only need to look back to last month for another example of this, when it was reported that a group of officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were being investigated for sharing a photo of George Floyd with the words “you take my breath away” for Valentine’s Day. There is really little surprise that trust in the police in the USA has diminished so much.

As expected, the advent of a new administration that has been shown to be in favour of stronger police reform has meant that there has been renewed movement in this area. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was reintroduced to the House by Democrats and passed last week. This must now pass the Senate, requiring 10 Republicans to join all of the 50 Democrats in voting for the Bill. Only then will it reach President Biden. If this Bill did go through it would mark some of the most significant police reforms in the USA in decades. The outcome would be widely welcomed by those protesting against racism, but as always the proof of effectiveness will need to come from a quantifiable reduction in police violence and racial profiling. Arguably it will be the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin that will receive greater attention in the coming months. The decision in this case will really dictate whether police officers in the USA will continue to be shielded from justice when they have clearly used excessive force. 

So what has been the response in the UK following our own mass protests against racism last summer? The protests were held in most major cities across the UK and they certainly felt significant at the time. They also led to the now iconic scene of the statue of Edward Colston, a British slave trader, being torn down and thrown into the docks in Bristol. This action marked the beginning of much wider scrutiny of how the names of historic slave traders are still present on many prominent buildings and streets across the UK and led to a reevaluation of whether this is acceptable. Whilst ultimately symbolic, this has been a positive outcome of the anti-racism protests and should work to realign our surroundings in a way that reflects our worldviews today. Whereas some have argued that these actions only serve to deny history, there is little behind these arguments given the obvious fact that our history is not recorded in statues or street names. In truth, influencing the change of place names or the removal of statues has been one of the easiest ways for anti-racism campaigners to see concrete action and affect change. 

These symbolic acts, while they have been a positive outcome of the anti-racism protests, will not be enough to achieve the goal of racial equality and justice within the UK. The real success will only come when the government and corporations alike take concrete action to address the systemic issues of racism within our society. Following the protests, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to look at all aspects of racial inequality. Although that was not before he said that the UK “was not a racist country” and described the Black Lives Matter protesters with the word “thuggery”. The commission is still ongoing and the government has been accused of using it as another way to kick the can down the road and avoid the responsibility of taking concrete action. The Coalition of Race Equality Organisations (CORE) have expressed as much by saying that the commission “should not act as a tool to distract the public from inaction on race equality”. 

The concerns of groups like CORE are wholly understandable. It is questionable why there even needed to be a commission on this issue in the first place given the wealth of work that had already been done in this area. Over the last five years alone, including the new commission, there will have been five major reviews and audits looking into race and discrimination in the UK. Of those that have been completed, they showed there are racial inequalities in educational attainment, healthcare, employment, and discrimination against ethnic minorities in the justice system and within the workplace. It is unlikely that the new commission will find anything new and resources would have been far better utilised by implementing the recommendations of previous reviews, yet we remain waiting for any credible response by the government to this research while the latest commission continues to run on. 

When the outcome of the commission is finally released there are likely to be further delays in acting on any recommendations, if that is seen to happen at all. It would not be a surprise if the government simply capitalised on the fact that anti-racism stories are not currently making daily headlines and completely avoided taking action. There are already signs that they could well take this approach following their recent response to a report on race in the UK by the House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights. This was published in November and recommended that the government establish a race equality strategy and implement the recommendations of previous reviews. They rejected the former recommendation and suggested that they have already implemented the majority of recommendations from previous reports, including 33 of the 35 recommendations by David Lammy’s 2016 review into racial discrimination in the justice system known as the Lammy Review. Unsurprisingly, Lammy has called the government’s comments deeply misleading and that the reality is they have only implemented a “handful” of the recommendations in full. 

So where does all this lead us? Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that there has been concrete change in the UK to address racial inequalities and discrimination. The symbolic acts show that certain aspects of society have come to understand that blatant support or idolisation of figures that have fuelled racial inequality will not be accepted, but fundamental and systemic change must come from the government. The government is aware of what needs to be done but continues to hide behind their commission as a pretense for action. In the time their commission has been ongoing, racial inequality and discrimination continues to be rife in the UK and shows no sign of disappearing; a Sainsbury’s advert starring a Black family can ingnite racist abuse online, Black individuals remain at a far higher risk of dying from COVID-19, representation of Black people in boardrooms remains at dismally low levels, deaths such as that of Mohamud Hassan hours after being released from police custody in Cardiff continue to occur. This list could go on. 

The government’s inaction will ultimately only serve to create more anger amongst those campaigning for racial equality and it is foreseeable that the longer people believe they are not being heard the more extreme the measures they may take to get their message across. The government must take immediate action to address the current state of the UK and reduce the racial inequality systemic in our society. The time for lip service to the idea of racial justice is over, the time for action is now. 

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