The heinous murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the disturbingly sinister Amy Cooper video hit our screens during the Covid-19 crisis just as America was questioning its leadership led to the resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and America asking even more questions of its leadership. Together it lights the blue touch paper and reopens old wounds about race and racial inequality. Meanwhile, at the same time, on this side of the pond, we’re also battling Covid-19, checking our eyesight and questioning our leadership. Not exactly a George Floyd moment to light our blue touch paper, but what we do have is a growing awareness on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, and in particular BAME NHS staff. Mindful of the risk of opening old wounds about race and racial inequality here, our leaders commission a ‘Review’ by Public Health England. When published, it’s received with a collective rolling of the eyes by those in the trade. Does it tell us anything we don’t already know? Some even call it ‘tepid’. Talk of a missing chapter that has all the answers occupies the media for all of 24 hours and we move on!
But then, too late! The blue touch paper is lit, over there…and over here!
I’ve been thinking about what’s been going on in recent weeks and talking to lots of people via social media and through the daily webinars on the subject. What does it all mean? Is this really a turning point? Are our leaders really listening? Do they have the commitment needed to set out a new way forward and deliver it? How can we reach a non-party political, national consensus? Can our great institutions finally grasp the racial inequality nettle? For a moment I reflect on the Macpherson report and I’m compelled to revisit his definition of ‘Institutional Racism’. It reminds me of a report that I wrote to my Board at the time saying that his definition could equally apply to many institutions and organisations. Is that still the case today, over 20 years later?
Then, out of the blue I received an email from a former colleague. In it he said, ‘… You have been much in my thoughts over the last week because of the health burden of Covid and because of events in the US. It makes me realise how hard it is to be a black person in this world and how much expectation and responsibility you must personally carry around with you all the time’. I had to read it twice. I knew this colleague was extremely compassionate, empathetic and committed to equality and fairness, but for him to reach out to me like this, at this time? I was deeply touched. I replied to him as follows:
‘…You’re right, it is difficult to be a black person in the world right now, but it’s always been difficult. It’s something black people have lived with since slavery in the US, and here since mass immigration started in the early 1950s.
Black people have always had to deal with racism, and racists. How we’ve dealt with it and responded to it has been different through the generations. My parents, who came here in the 1950s drummed it into me that I should not respond, and the way to survive it and get through it was to integrate as much as possible. My parents were insistent that I speak ‘properly’, dress ‘appropriately’ and not challenge authority. That led to me subconsciously denying my heritage and my roots, accommodating and assimilating. Without doubt this helped me in my career and in my relationships with white people, as I was seen to be non-threatening. I see that now, but didn’t then.
Over the years, fewer and fewer black people have adopted that strategy as a way of getting through life. You see it through the different way many black people choose to speak, how they choose to dress and the growing adoption of more passive aggressive approaches to their interaction with authority and their lack of trust in institutions.
You’ll recall Macpherson’s description of the Metropolitan Police as ‘Institutionally racist’, and the furore that caused at the time. I believe that his definition is still relevant today, and can be ascribed to most, if not all of our major institutions. My sense is that this is what black people are responding to at the moment, brought about by seemingly unconnected events on both sides of the Atlantic...’
So, let’s have a go at joining up the dots. We have ‘Snowy White Peaks’ in virtually every organisation and institution, we have inequality in physical and mental health as well as life expectancy, in educational outcomes through to university level, in levels of income, in employment, in the judicial system, in fact in most places you care to look. When we stop looking at a collection of random dots, we start to see the picture that’s emerging. So what do we do about it? Well maybe the first step has been taken. The blue touch paper has been lit.