Do black lives matter in the UK?

For many the current position of Britain's black population is one that is mired between achievement and marginalisation

by
    Do black lives matter in the UK?
    Many argue that 21st century Britain remains troubled by racial tensions. [Alys Tomlinson/Getty Images]

    Glasgow, United Kingdom - They are one of Britain's most dynamic and enduring communities whose presence in the UK dates back hundreds of years.

    From serving Britain with distinction in the first and second world wars to their modern-day success in the world of film and television and sport, black Britons have helped to shape the UK of today.

    The month of November saw the BBC broadcast its Black and British season - a series of programmes dedicated to the achievements of black people in the UK and exploring the rich cultural heritage of black Britain.

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    The considered thoughts of black British figures such as Olympic gold medallist Denise Lewis, Homeland star David Harewood and supermodel Naomi Campbell were showcased alongside programmes involving Britain's role in the slave trade and domestic discrimination.

    Indeed, for many observers, the current position of Britain's black population is one that is mired between achievement and marginalisation in a nation where being black and British remains, statistically, a hardship. And where, some say, the UK's true-scale involvement in the transatlantic slave trade remains little known to the wider public.

    "There's a tendency with some people who don't want to talk about many aspects of British history, to say that slavery is talked about too much," said David Olusoga, a BBC producer and historian who was involved in the making and presenting of the corporation's Black and British season.

    "I think we know very, very little in this country about Britain's involvement in the slave trade and slavery."

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    He added to Al Jazeera: "When someone tells me they're sick of hearing about slavery - that that's all anyone talks about - I say, 'if you're so bored of hearing about it, then you can obviously name a number of plantations, name a number of British slave ships and owners and merchants', and, of course, people [normally] can't."

    Despite the BBC's season of programming, many advocates of black British history say that, in the modern-day UK, it remains hard to promote the achievements of black Britons.

    Stephen Bourne is a historian with 25 years experience writing about the success and contributions of Britain's black community. He told Al Jazeera that, from the high point of black British coverage in the 1990s, interest from the mainstream media and the publishing world fell off a cliff in the aftermath of the report into the 1993 racially motivated murder of black London teenager, Stephen Lawrence.

    "That [1999] Macpherson Report accused the London Metropolitan police of institutional racism - and looking back, it was around that time that [British] media facilitators withdrew and kind of backed off race," contended Bourne, author of Black Poppies - Britain's Black Community and the Great War.

    "So, black British history got sidelined and I lived through that period and struggled in that period."

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    'Black lives don't matter in the UK'

    Although black Britons had been present in the country long before, their numbers really began to grow in the mid-20th century when, from the 1940s to the 1960s, the first wave of black immigrants arrived on to British shores from the Caribbean. 

    A second wave, beginning in the late 1980s, saw those from the African continent head to the UK, with Nigerians and Ghanaians leading the way. Today, Britain's black population stands at some two million in the country of 64.6 million people.

    Yet, the lives of many black Britons remain somewhat perilous. According to a 2016 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, black Britons are more than twice as likely to be murdered as white Britons. It also revealed that black workers with degrees were, on average, earning 23.1 percent less than their white counterparts.

    "Black lives don't matter in the UK - if you are poor and black, the colour bar is a lived reality," said activist and campaigner, Joshua Virasami, who is a core member of Britain's emerging Black Lives Matter UK movement.

    "From big wage gaps to unemployment, low educational attainment to stop-and-search, incarceration to deaths in police custody and prisons, black people are disproportionately represented, black women are often triply oppressed by race, class and gender."

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    Talking positives

    London-based Virasami told Al Jazeera that Black Lives Matter UK had already started campaigning across England and Wales and that it was planning its first Britain-wide gathering in the New Year.

    "I believe the movement has one fundamental objective - the self-determination and emancipation of black people from a global system of 'white-hetero-patriarchal' capital which subjugates us at the mercy of the profits of a corporatocracy, the same captains of industry who have run this violent operation of exploitation for centuries," he said.

    As black immigrants began to settle in Britain in large numbers from the middle part of the 20th century, driven by a post-war labour shortage in the UK and a want of job opportunities in many of Britain's colonies, racial tensions played out in a number of ways.

    There were the 1958 race riots in the English cities of Nottingham and London, the notorious 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech by Conservative Party MP Enoch Powell and the rise of the unabashed racist National Front movement in the 1970s.

    Indeed, many black Britons frequently experienced both direct and indirect racism during this time. Some, including a teenage David Olusoga himself, even found their own homes the target of racist attacks.

    Yet, said Bourne, who has spent a career gathering the first-hand accounts of many older generation black Britons, there is another narrative.

    While, Bourne observed, "in the 1980s, there was a huge push to talk about racism, and to talk about black people in British history as victims of racism … that one could only talk about black people in British history through that framework … that wasn't how they perceived themselves."

    Black Britons, he said, "were more interested in talking about the positives, the achievements, the successes that they had. Racism played a part, it wasn't ever ignored when they talked to me, but it wasn't the way they perceived themselves. They didn't perceive themselves as victims."

    If the strong words of Virasami are anything to go by, in today's UK, in the 21st century, Britain remains troubled by racial tensions. And, while it is clear that some of the barriers that prevented black Britons from succeeding have been overcome, the country has still some way to go if the aspirations of all black Britons are to be met, said Olusoga.

    The historian stated that the very fact it was perhaps easier to name black athletes or musicians in Britain than it was to name black writers, thinkers and intellectuals, revealed "that in the areas where black people were said to be deficient, black people are still either excluded or self-excluded - or probably a bit of both".

    Indeed, a 2015 report laid bare that, shockingly, just 0.49 percent of professors in UK academia were black.

    "It's important that we challenge the areas where the racism that emerged in the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries said black people were deficient," explained Olusoga, author of Black and British - A Forgotten History.

    "I would much more readily rush to say that we've got somewhere when I saw 20 black [British] history professors, rather than one."

    Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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