There will be two types of problem here – those who oppose the movement on principle and those who simply do not understand. The former will be trying to manipulate the latter so this is to help explain what the issues are and how to avoid being led astray by rhetoric and misleading posts.
George Floyd was arrested in the US and, despite his protests, the policeman knelt on his neck for long enough to kill him. This was taken by many to be yet another example of police brutality fuelled by racism. That was in the US, but it raised yet again the question of whether, in some way black lives were less valued. The conviction that they are, both in the US and the UK, led to demonstrations.
One side will argue that the reaction is an understandable and genuine fury at an action that is morally wrong in itself and, worse, typical of an attitude to black citizens. Another will argue that (a) the demonstrations are a venting of emotions locked down during Covid and using this as an excuse (b) a lot of individuals and groups are jumping on the bandwagon for publicity, virtue signalling, attention, an excuse to make trouble etc (c) the issue has been ‘politicised’ to score party points.
Even if all this were true, it would not detract from the central questions – is this an example of systemic racism and, if so, is it also present in the UK? If so, why have we not acted before
What is ‘systemic racism’?
Simply, the operation of a system that somehow, not necessarily deliberately or consciously, causes disadvantage to one group.
For example, more BAME people die of Covid that any other group – mortality rates are up to four times higher with black lives at the top of the scale.
Is this some sort of genetic issue or has it a social cause? Some analysts argue that a disproportionate number of black lives are more likely to be at the bottom of the income scale, with more menial jobs, so the real cause is poverty, diet and overcrowding issues and the real question is why more black citizens are at the bottom of the social scale.
Educational achievement in schools and at university has varied widely.
… the proportion of young black people achieving more than five A* to C GCSEs in 2011, including English and maths, was 38.5%, compared with 47.5% for young Asian people and 69% for young white people. Although there has been significant improvement in those disparities since 2008, they remain of grave concern.
.. nationally, 55.5% of economically active black men aged between 16 and 24 years are unemployed, and that this rate has doubled since 2008. For young black people, the unemployment rate is 44.4%;
similarly, 27.6% of Asian young people are unemployed, rising from 22.8% in 2008. Breaking that down, 33.6% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people are unemployed, and 24.2% of Indian young people, which compares with 20% of white British young people. https://debbieabrahams.org.uk/educational-attainment-in-bme-communities/
So there is a complex range of issues, perhaps with ethnicity affecting social position and this in turn affecting life chances.
We are not just talking about individual attitudes but of whole groups clearly being held back by causes we need to investigate. This has been the case for generations and we have yet to solve the problem. So a person arguing against BLM protests may not be ‘racist’, consciously or unconsciously, but they may not see that the tolerant, democratic society they are proud to live in seems to have flaws we need to explore. To say society is racist is not to insult individual members of it, but to state a statistical fact, although we have to accept that putting it this way will probably alienate some people.
Britain is not a racist country?
To say we are a racist country is not to say we are a country of racists. The recent BLM protest is not necessarily the same as any argument about treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. It is easy enough to show that the present government has policies that are treating while groups unfairly and are immoral. Whether that is based on an attitude to others that is essentially racist is something we can argue but it is a separate argument. We may have an ignorant racist government, but not all Tories are racist and that is not why we can say that British society, as a system, discriminates.
All lives matter
That is often heard as one attempt to defect the argument. Maybe the simplest way to explain why it is silly is this. A house is on fire. The fire brigade rush in. You say “all houses matter”. Yes, of course nobody wants your house to burn down. But your house is not on fire right now, That one is. And some people want to look the other way, because it is not their house and they don’t care. So stop getting in the way.
Protest is justified but vandalism is not
When the crowd (or mob, if you really prefer) tore down the statue of a slave trader in Bristol, it was a perfect chance for commentators to start saying they backed peaceful protest but not ‘vandalism’. Innocent peaceful protests taken over by hardliners etc etc. The statue has been giving offence for years and peaceful protest did not remove it. During slave trade voyages, if the ship suffered in bad weather then slave women and children were thrown overboard to lighten the load. Anger is understandable and only the statue was damaged – nothing else.
It is harder to deal with American examples, where BAME businesses were torched by protesters, which doesn’t help, but that is not our problem so we don’t have to defend it. There have , in the past, been demonstrations where some overexcited person decides they can best make their point by throwing abuse or bricks at the working people who happen to line the route in a blue uniform. But that is not the issue here. Some officers may be racist, some are not, but whether the whole force is institutionally racist is a different question – see above. How individual demonstrations are policed can alleviate or exacerbate tensions. That is sometime a management or experience issue. But to argue that anger is not real or needing expression is naive, and to argue that vandalism undermines or devalues the protest is too easily an excuse to ignore the underlying issues. We should not be talking about the protests, but about the reason for them. The issues remain after the litter is swept away.
Of course, now the issue has been raised, some people are looking for statues to attack as representatives of a racist or colonial past – e.g Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. Other feel that attacking old statues, part of our heritage, is vandalism. This takes attention away from the main questions – is society racist in effect and, if so, how do we change it. A statue can at as a signal about our attitudes and depth of understanding, but it is not about statues.
Protest is irresponsible during Covid
The local protest was socially distanced. Others haven’t been, although it has been claimed that some were moved too close together by police tactics. But once again, attacking the way a protest is organised it a good way to ignore why it took place. If we started now a real conversation about the issues, we would not need to make them.
I am not a racist but..
In many statements, especially public political statements, anything before the ‘but’ should be ignored. It is not helpful constructive or good politics to accuse an opponent of racism because they cannot see your point of view (yet). But neither is it helpful on their side to claim racism is not a major an urgent issue because they do not think they display it personally. One way round this impasse is framing the argument in statistical terms and asking them to explain the cause.
So what next?
The most valuable element of this movement is to support those who feel undervalued by showing we really are, as community, on their side. That we understand. There will many people using the cause for their own aims, and many failing to address the main issue as they do so. One post recently attacked the ‘vandalism’ of statues and ended with hashtag “oppose communism” as if anyone outraged by a colonial past or moved to anger by a failure to understand the issue was automatically a communist. As a society we need more mature attitudes.