The killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white American police officer has sparked outrage and protest in the United States and throughout the world. In Britain it has brought thousands on to the streets in solidarity, led to the pulling down of statues of some of those implicated in the slave trade and prompted demands for greater justice for black people living in this country. Are the events of the last week a necessary and overdue reminder of unfinished business? Or are we at risk of getting things dangerously out of proportion?
The rallying call of those on the streets both here and in America is the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. To some people, however, it seems bemusing. ‘Of course black lives matter,’ they might say. ‘Apart from the sort of out-and-out racists who regard black people as barely human – and there are fortunately many, many fewer of them any more – everyone would agree that black lives matter because all lives matter. So what’s the beef: the protestors are campaigning on behalf of something we all believe anyway.’
But to those marching behind the banners this misses the point entirely. The reason they have chosen ‘Black Lives Matter’ as their slogan is not because they believe that everyone else actually holds the explicit view that black lives don’t matter. It’s because they believe what others may think they think is irrelevant. It’s their view that society is run along lines that demonstrate that black lives don’t in fact matter. And they will cite plenty of evidence to back up their claim.
Did black lives matter to those who fitted highly inflammable cladding to Grenfell Tower? Or to Home Office officials who, on the back of a ‘hostile environment’ policy, packed Windrush generation immigrants back to the West Indies after decades of living in this country? Does the disproportionately high number of black people in the 40,000+ Covid deaths suggest their lives matter as much as everyone else’s? Or the high number of blacks in poverty, or stopped by the police? Does the significant under-representation of blacks in the top universities or in the major professions suggest an equality of treatment? So the list could go on. And they might add that, at a symbolic level, can it be right for the large black population of Bristol to have to walk daily under the statue of Edward Colston, a man who earned his fortune and his place on the plinth out of the slave trade? Surely, if black lives matter, it’s only right the statue should be pulled down.
Many people would acknowledge the strength of all of this, recognise that much needs still to be done to make black lives matter in this more practical sense and agree with Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, that though it was wrong for demonstrators to take it into their own hands to pull Colston down and dump him in Bristol harbour, he should have been removed long ago.
But things start to get very much more controversial when another question is asked in response to that list of grievances. It’s this: why it is that black lives don’t seem to matter so much. To the most radical among those who have been out on the streets or drawing up lists of more statues to be pulled down, the answer is quite simple. The root cause is itself racial.
Black people suffer because they are the victims of white privilege. White subjugation of blacks may no longer take the form of ships sailing out of Bristol harbour to transport black slaves in West Africa to plantations in America and returning with the cotton picked by those slaves to help build the wealth of a British empire that ground other non-whites under the heel across the world. But white subjugation of blacks is still what it is about. White colonialism has simply taken a new form, more hidden but no less real, and its black victims are to be found at Grenfell, in police custody and in the mortuaries of Britain’s Covid hospitals. Britain remains a racist country and there is only one remedy for a racism that some claim to be an even more lethal virus than Covid: whites must admit guilt, offer apology and make amends.
That, in summary, is the radical account of why Britain remains incorrigibly racist. To many people, though (and not just whites), such a ‘black-and-white’ analysis is little short of ludicrous. In their eyes, victimhood is just too easy an explanation for the tougher life many blacks undoubtedly lead. Isn’t life just more complicated than that? Of course there are systemic and institutional factors in play here and they must always be kept in sight. But there are other things that affect blacks and whites alike: things such as luck or an individual’s own behaviour and sense of responsibility and so on. Is all that to be held as being of no consequence?
And in any case, they would say, Britain has made huge progress in countering discrimination against black people. No landlord any more could put up a sign in his window saying ‘No blacks or Irish’. No parliamentary candidate could campaign as one did in Birmingham in 1964 with the slogan: ‘If you want a ****** for a neighbour, vote Labour’. (And win.) Legislation has long been on the statute book outlawing racial discrimination. Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood never flowed and there is remarkable blindness to the colour of skin, especially among the young. The problems, in short, are not about race: they are fundamentally social and economic, better seen in terms of social class and economic inequality than in racial terms. And best tackled in such terms too.
So the idea that the admission of white guilt is the way forward is quite simply outrageous. Whites have no more nor no less reason to feel guilty than anyone else. Even the charge of colonial guilt is hopelessly one-sided. Of course atrocities were committed by whites in the name of the British Empire, but is that all that our white forbears contributed? Did they bequeath no benefits to the world, including to black people? Are we to believe that the current treatment of blacks by other blacks in, say, contemporary Zimbabwe (old Rhodesia) is wholly due to the legacy of empire, the abiding poison of white privilege, and for which blacks themselves have no responsibility? And should our most urgent response to it be to tear down Cecil Rhodes’ statue in Oxford to show how upset we are?
To those who see things this way, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign is simply a conspiracy to make decent white people feel guilty when they have no reason to do so. And many think it’s working. The liberal establishment, white and privileged, has for decades, they claim, been appeasing this point of view precisely because its privilege embarrasses it and makes it susceptible to feelings of guilt. Instead, it should have been challenging it. That’s the charge made against papers like the Guardian and also against the BBC. You can’t turn on one of its comedy programmes these days, it’s said, without being obliged to listen to a young black women preaching sermons about how white people have sinned.
And, they say, there is a danger in such alleged appeasement. It risks inciting a backlash against that establishment by white people who don’t want others to apologise on their behalf, thank you very much. How long will it be before there are marches behind banners declaring ‘White Lives Matter’? Tommy Robinson and his crowd are coming back into the news.
Where all this may lead is to confrontation between two armies who each feel themselves to be victims: blacks who regard themselves as victims of white privilege and whites who see themselves as victims of false accusation. To the bemused middle – those who, if they had any banners at all, would march behind ‘All Lives Matter’ – this is not an appealing prospect.
So what do you make of the British response to the killing of George Floyd? Have the marches been a legitimate act of solidarity and a necessary reminder of continuing racial inequality in our own country, or have they risked stoking racial division? Should statues of those associated with the slave trade have been pulled down, and should others follow, or should we leave history alone? How much do you subscribe to the notion that many of the problems black people face in Britain today are due to white privilege? Do you believe in white guilt or not? How worried are you about the prospect of racial polarisation on our streets? And what’s your answer to the underlying question: is Britain racist?
Let us know what you think.