We face a double pandemic of Covid-19 and endemic racism: it is up to us how we respond
The Covid crisis and the death of George Floyd must form a watershed moment to fix the BAME democratic deficit and our history of racial inequality
Events over the last few months, from the devastating effects of Covid-19 on the BAME community to the brutal death of George Floyd, have exposed deep racial inequalities and forced our societies to confront an uncomfortable truth. At all levels and in almost all key areas of our lives – including health, education, employment, housing and the criminal justice system – entrenched and deeply debilitating racial inequalities still persist.
For the last decade or more, Western governments and societies have been deluded that our wretched past of slavery, colonialism and the theft of the rich resources within them is not only a distant memory, but bears no cultural, political or economic relevance on the present. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Culturally, this was laid bare when our own Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed into the poisonous non-debate about the BBC considering dropping the colonial song, Rule Britannia, from the Last Night of the Proms when he said: “It’s about time we stopped the cringing embarrassment about our history, our culture, our traditions, and we stop the self-recrimination and wetness. I just wanted to get that off my chest.”
Under such relentless pressure it’s no surprise the BBC capitulated. The PM, along with a powerful media lobby, basically said: how dare you question our cultural national anthem? Even though the song was written during the height of Britain’s trading in human misery with the clearly jingoistic lyrics of “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”.
For some powerful people, this seemingly innocuous reflection about whether this “cultural anthem” stands up to scrutiny in a modern, progressive society becomes emblematic of a broader, made up, deeply politicised ‘culture war’ which in effect becomes shorthand for: we demand the status quo broadly remain same and any attempt to change it will be seen as a declaration of war about what is most dear to us.
Far too often during discussions about our shared history and culture, the metaphors of ‘war’ become a rallying cry intended to shut down debate. But the more worrying default in this there’s-no-discussion-to-be-had attitude is the inevitable maintaining of the status quo. And sadly, unless we can get past it, we are in serious danger of losing a profoundly historic moment afforded to us by this double pandemic. We have never been better placed to both acknowledge our systems are deeply discriminatory and have the momentum to fundamentally transform our institutions, our society, and above all who we are.
Think about this for a moment: next year, Operation Black Vote (OBV) celebrates its 25th anniversary. That’s a quarter of a century fighting, campaigning, and lobbying for greater social and racial justice including better political representation. In all that time I’ve never known a moment like this in which so many people are open to change.
As an organisation we’ve always been small, around four to five staff with the same compliment of volunteers, but we’ve tried to be visionary, bold and quick to see opportunities to move the race equality dial. Given our title it’s no surprise we’ve focused on voting, registering to vote and getting more MPs, councillors and other public figures from BAME communities. Our rational has been, if you get greater representation around key decision arenas, then the policies that better reflect our multi-cultural society and the nation’s general discourse will dramatically change. Well, yes and no.
If you’re poor and Black you’re four times more likely to die from this pernicious disease
For example, when we began in 1996 we had four BAME MPs: Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng, all of them trailblazers. Now we have 65, 10% of whom have come directly from OBV leadership schemes. But still we have the Windrush scandal, and Grenfell, and a Metropolitan Police Commissioner in Cressida Dick whom we thought would usher in a new dawn of progressive policing, but instead ramped up stop and search in a move that looks more like the bad old days than the progressive 21st century ‘policing by consent’.
So we have more Black and Brown talented faces in high places, as our slogan demands, but the fundamental shift we truly demand is going into reverse.
The double tragedy of the global pandemic and the brutal killing of George Floyd have wrought havoc and heartache in equal measure, but they give us a chance to ask: how do we respond? How do we do better?
If we forensically follow the brutal inequality that Covid-19 has laid bare, we can see the areas of our society that are deeply racialised and must be fixed. It has shone a spotlight on those in low- or zero-hours contracts, and in poor, overcrowded housing. The desperate reality of this and the wider inequality of health is that if you’re poor and Black you’re four times more likely to die from this pernicious disease.
It has also highlighted the inequality in our revered NHS. If you think of the organisational structure as a pyramid, you’ll see mostly BAME individuals at the lower end; the higher you get, the whiter it becomes – of our 279 NHS chief executives, only seven are from BAME backgrounds.
And regarding the death of George Floyd, while you might say in hushed tones it couldn’t happen here, we need to burst that delusional comfort bubble. It has, and it could occur again unless we move the cultural dial that too often sees law enforcement engage with Black individuals as though their lives depended on it. Which invariably means they are hair triggered to react violently to an interaction where violence clearly isn’t necessary. We forget at our peril that 64-year-old Judah Adunbi, who posed no threat to officers, was tasered within an inch of his life, as was Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara – tasered in front of his young child.
And who could forget the very recent incident suffered by British athlete Bianca Williams and her partner, Ricardo dos Santos, while driving their Mercedes with their three-month-old son in the car. They had broken no law but were routinely stopped and Ricardo handcuffed.
Could anyone imagine a young white couple in an expensive car with a baby being a whisker away from extreme violence? The police officer who approached the couple’s car looked poised to smash in the window if the driver didn’t quickly open the door, and the couple were dragged out and handcuffed, obviously distressed, while their child was in the back.
As a father I honestly don’t know how I would have remained calm and restrained under that unprovoked aggression but it told me that, in spite of all the progress we’ve made over the last 25 years, we’re still confronting a society that too often sees us as ‘less than’.
We must not lose another generation of talent because our systems of education, health, housing and employment see and offer less
So yes we still need greater political and civic representation at every political and civic level. This is critical but not the whole deal. As my friend Rev Al Sharpton reminds us: “All my skin folk are not my kin folk,” which means just because you have greater representation, particularly at the top table, doesn’t necessarily mean the job is done. In reality we all have to play our part as agents for dramatic change.
Therefore, collectively as a society, we have an historic moment to use this awfulness that has unfolded to allow us to better understand our past, warts and all; to know how it has built many of our institutions today and duly acknowledge these systems need radical rewiring – because at present they are ‘hot-wired’ to produce more of the same with a bit of tinkering here and there.
We must not lose another generation of talent because our systems of education, health, housing and employment see and offer less. As a campaigning activist, and now a Parliamentarian, I personally won’t stop until our institutions are fully rewired so that all potential talent can flow and our perception of who can do what dramatically changes.
On a personal note, I want all my fellow Peers to look at me in our exquisite Library and see me as one of them rather than the Library help – something that has occurred three times in less than three months.
In this journey of transformative change we’re not there yet, but with insight, honesty and action we can be.
Lord Woolley is a crossbench peer and founder of Operation Black Vote.