As hundreds strode peacefully along the streets of central London yesterday for the Black Lives Matter protest, I was struck particularly by one voice. A middle-aged woman, wearing a striking colourful headscarf, proclaimed statements at a volume that seemed disproportionate to her slight frame. “We feel your pain. We know your struggle” she said, to sounds of approval from the crowd.
The fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police have caught the world’s attention. They are the latest in a long list of shocking incidents of police brutality towards Black Americans, a list that pre-dates all of our lives. The gross injustice of the cases has resonated amongst Black Britons – perhaps why “We know your struggle” seemed so poignant amongst the crowd yesterday.
Owing to the repeated dramatic shootings, now often revealed to the world through video phones and social media, press attention has focused particularly on problems with race in America. It has been made clear through these incidents that there are huge issues surrounding the value of black life in the states. What is less clear is the extent to which this issue is mirrored in Britain.
Criminal Justice is the most discussed element of racial disparity in this country and America, and the statistics reveal deeply ingrained prejudice. In 2012, it was revealed that West Midlands police were 28 times more likely to Stop and Search black people in comparison to white, a pattern that was reflected in other Met forces. A study in 2011 also found that black offenders were 44 per cent more likely than white offenders to be given a prison sentence for driving offences and 27 per cent more likely for possession of drugs. Those figures play a part in understanding why, despite accounting for only 3 per cent of the UK’s population, 10 per cent of the prison population is black. As poet and journalist Chimene Suleyman tells me “Our police might not have guns to shoot in the streets, but black men and women are being killed in cells, and have been for a very long time.” The evidence shows a gross disparity in the justice system that has a destructive effect on black life in the UK.
The effect of government policy on black Britons is a less-explored issue. Despite earning around 70% of the weekly income of white households on average, and suffering from higher unemployment rates, Westminster has repeatedly neglected the black population. In 2015, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that the coalition government’s austerity cuts had fallen disproportionately on black citizens, and that there were no plans in place to improve this. Before the last general election, Labour and the Lib Dems were the only parties to make significant pledges to the BAME community in their manifestos – the current Conservative government gave none. It is the remit of government to look after all of its citizens, and seek betterment for all. Again, though, we see systemic disregard for black Britons.
The British mainstream press has repeatedly been accused of misrepresenting black Britain in a two-dimensional, negative light. Maurice Mcleod, a Trustee at the social policy think tank Race On The Agenda, says: “Black people are still portrayed as being more inclined to crime, less professional, more chaotic, less trustworthy, and more violent than their white counterparts, despite zero evidence for any of this.” Social commentator and long term activist Patrick Vernon reinforces this. “Sadly with the odd exception the media portrays black youth in a negative and demeaning way. This was highlighted in the reporting of the riots in 2011 and not much has changed since then.” A 2011 study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda found these negative media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men. The media plays a crucial part in how we shape our views and values, and hence how British communities gel. In this field, again, we see a worrying picture.
The statistics relating to law enforcement, policy, and media representation are damning. As it currently stands, just as in America, Black Lives Matter less in this country than white ones. With a surge of racist feeling emerging since the referendum, it seems vital that Britain uses this moment to address a race issue so often swept under the carpet.
While it is rooted in issues beyond our borders, then, the Black Lives Matter campaign is pivotal in the UK. Presenter Ria Hebden, who attended the march, says it “felt like a big awakening. It reminded people of the collective power we actually have, when we all come together, black, white, European, and stand up for what we believe in.”
Black Lives do not matter enough currently to law-makers and enforcers. This must change, and will take meaningful and productive action to do so. Unity and solidarity in the face of injustice are just as necessary here as they are in America.