After multiple reviews, it is time for a Race Equality Strategy to fundamentally change the system
When it comes to tackling racism, Boris Johnson has shown where his priorities lie. We need to address the laws, policies and structures that embed inequality in the UK
It’s been 33 years since Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK. In that same year, 1987, four Black, Asian and minority ethnic members of Parliament were elected for the first time: the late Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz, and Diane Abbott MP, who of course is still in the House of Commons today.
Black History Month has always been about celebrating and recognising all elements of our history, while looking forward to how we can directly change existing racist structures today.
This year we have seen two crises that disproportionately impact the lives and livelihoods of Black people across this country: the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. While these affect us all, the structural racism that still forms part of our everyday lives has meant that many Black people have felt the worst of these crises. Undoing a system of oppression that is so implicit is extremely difficult when so many are unaware or refuse to see the racial injustices before them.
For example, Black women are five times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth complications in the UK than their white counterparts. Keir Starmer challenged the Prime Minister on this last month, asking him to commit to an inquiry into Black maternal mortality, but any government-led action has yet to be taken.
Similarly, data from the Office for National Statistics which shows that Black men are four times more likely to die of Covid-19 has been met with near silence from the government.
Examples like these only scratch the surface of the structural racism that so many of us experience. And, in cases like these, ignoring them has deadly consequences for Black people. It doesn’t have to be this way, yet the Conservative government is not doing nearly enough to tackle this issue.
In the last three years alone, the government has commissioned and received multiple reports – totalling hundreds of recommendations – on race in the workplace, the criminal justice system, lessons from Windrush, school exclusions and more.
But instead of implementing these recommendations, Boris Johnson has shown where his priorities lie. When establishing a new, unnecessary, Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities he said he wanted to “change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination”. He should start by challenging the structural racism that still exists in 2020.
Labour has been calling for a Race Equality Strategy to reduce the structural inequalities faced by Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in Britain and fundamentally change the system and institutions where racial disparities thrive. Such a strategy must include reviewing the curriculum to incorporate Black history so that it can be taught all year round.
Only through understanding our history can we begin to unravel the injustices of today
While some schools already teach Black history – like St George’s in my own constituency of Battersea – this is optional. A recommendation made by both the Macpherson and Windrush Lessons Learned reviews was to consider a revised curriculum to prevent racism and value diversity, to ensure that young people learn about Black British history, colonialism and understand Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
All young people should be able to learn about trailblazers like John Archer, who was elected mayor of Battersea in 1913 to become the first Black mayor in London; Paul Stephenson, the brave leader of the Bristol Bus boycott, and Mary Seacole who set up the ‘British Hotel’ in 1855 behind the enemy lines of the Crimean War.
Too often, racism is only understood as explicit actions that deliberately intend to discriminate. But we can see how laws, policies and structures can have racist and discriminatory outcomes without even mentioning race at all.
The tragic murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the US ignited a global show of solidarity through the Black Lives Matter protests. Thousands of people from different backgrounds came together to demand fundamental change and challenge racial injustice in Britain.
What history has taught me is that our struggle will be achieved through collective action, like those that have come before us. And only through understanding our history can we begin to unravel the existing injustices of today. So this Black History Month, let’s celebrate the achievements, recognise where we are and look forward to what we can change together.
Marsha de Cordova is Labour MP for Battersea and shadow women and equalities secretary.