Luna Williams, a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, writes for Counterfire on racism in the UK
“I can’t breathe”: these three words have galvanised nations around the world, as the murder of black American George Floyd has stoked the fires of anti-racism campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic.
Following Floyd’s death on 25th May at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, protests and campaigns started to spring up, first in the US, and then further afield. From Australasia to Europe, residents around the world have been gathering amid varying lockdown restrictions so that they can stand in solidarity with George Floyd, and the numerous other black victims of police brutality who have been killed or hurt by officers in America.
While his death has acted as a catalyst for the revived Black Lives Matter movement, the circumstances of Floyd’s murder were unfortunately neither unique nor uncommon. He forms the latest in a long list of victims, mostly black men and boys, who have lost their lives at the hands of the US’ discriminatory criminal system -- a system that not only platforms racist officers, but also continues to promote racism and racial discrimination at an institutional level.
The protests, then, have allowed people to commemorate those who have died and demand the reform of a brutally unequal system.
Although the centre of the Black Lives Matter movement has, understandably, been focused on the US (in which acts of overt racism like this one are prolific) campaigning has also begun to branch out, turning its attention to the presence of racism in other countries.
The last few weeks have seen protests spring up around the UK, with tens of thousands of people collectively gathering across the country to show their support for Black Lives Matter. Through this, protesters have set about calling Britain’s laws, curriculums, and customs to account.
And while discourse has taken to comparing the presence of more overt forms of racism – such as police brutality, racist bullying and hate crime – in the US and UK, such comparisons can often be limiting. While direct forms of racism are certainly present in Britain (racially-motivated hate crime has been on the rise since the EU referendum result, for instance) it is in the more covert forms that ongoing race inequality is perpetuated.
In 2018, a report was commissioned by the UN and undertaken by special rapporteur Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume. This investigated the presence of racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and racial inequality in the UK and paid particular attention to the presence of covert, or systemic racism. According to Achuime’s findings, racism exists in almost every walk of UK life, from education and employment, to judicial and criminal law, and everything in between.
Race continues to define the parameters of opportunity for residents of the UK, and this begins at infancy. Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) babies are subject to inequalities that take affect from birth, and continue through their childhood and adult years.
In healthcare, for example, the report finds that parents of BAME children are less likely to have access to the pre and post-natal healthcare they need and are entitled to. This is particularly the case within migrant communities, as fears surrounding hostile immigration policies were shown to prevent many pregnant and new mothers from booking and attending essential appointments, including births. As such, infancy and maternal mortality rates are much higher than average in these communities, particularly in refugee women.
These fears are, sadly, not unfounded. The UK government’s stringent hostile environment policy, which was rolled out in 2012 by Theresa May’s Home Office, has encouraged hospitals (and other service providers and businessowners) to discriminate against anyone they deem to be ‘illegal’ by vetting and refusing their services to those unable to produce sufficient documentation. This has historically resulted in the mass discrimination of non-white migrants and Britons and meant that many have either been cut off from essential care for themselves and their children or have developed a distrust in healthcare professionals which has prevented them from seeking support as a result.
Unfortunately, the issues do not end there, as BAME children continue to face inequalities as they grow up in Britain. According to Achuime’s report, non-white children are much more likely to grow up in “persistent poverty” than their white counterparts; the report finds that an estimated 1 in 4 black and Asian children live in poverty in the UK compared to 1 in 10 white children.
Away from home, the story isn’t much better. Britain’s education system presents a myriad of inequalities for BAME children: from racially-motivated bullying and disparities in teaching methods and punishments for white and non-white children, to teaching workforces and curriculums that include minimal non-white representation and history. As such, the British education system is a breeding ground for ongoing racial discrimination and inequality in the UK.
Sadly, these facets become a norm in most areas of adult life, too. According to employment statistics, the unemployment rate in black communities is almost double that of white communities in Britain. Equally, these disparities continue in other areas of daily adult life, many of which are again directly linked to discriminatory policy.
For instance, many BAME people have repeatedly reported being discriminated against by potential landlords, on the basis of their ethnicity. In part, this is due to practices developed within the hostile environment policy; as well as encouraging NHS trusts, education providers, and employers to discriminate against potentially ‘illegal’ people, the hostile environment also entrusted landlords with the same powers. In doing this, the Home Office created the Right to Rent scheme – which has garnered controversy since it was implemented in 2014. According to a survey by JCWI, the scheme resulted in wide-spread racial discrimination, with many potential tenants being refused consideration based on the fact they had a “foreign accent” or “foreign-sounding name”.
These forms of racism are far more covert than some of the incidences of police brutality that are being placed under the spotlight in the US’ current anti-racism movements. However, this does not make them any less harmful or concerning. Systemic racism is entrenched in many of our laws and social structures and works to place non-white communities on the back foot from birth.
As such, it is absolutely essential that the UK government listens to the issues being pushed to the forefront of the UK Black Lives Matter’s agenda. We must go further than investigations and analysis. Racist policy and practice must not only be highlighted; it must also be changed. Anti-racist campaigners have highlighted the cracks in UK policy, and it is up to those in power to make sure that they are not simply filled in, but that broken policy is redesigned, restructured, and rebuilt.
Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in UK, Ireland, and the US.
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