Racism like taxes and death will always be with us. I know this is a very depressing thought. However, we can and must make sure that racism does not so disfigure lives that people feel they have no chance to have anything like a normal life let alone prosper, and no choice except to give in to nihilism and despair. The tsunami of protests that have followed the horrific killing of George Floyd may or may not prompt the fundamental changes we need but they could mark a game-changing moment in the long battle to get racial justice.
The demonstrations in the US have made many people talk about the protests in the 60s against the Vietnam war and also the epic civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King. The Vietnam protests, like that prompted by the Floyd killing, had their echo in this country. The American Embassy was besieged, Mick Jagger wondered if there might be a British revolution, the police were called pigs and the police retaliated with much brutality. For many of my generation America’s war in Vietnam was colonialism made worse by Americans hypocrisy trying to cloak it as a bogus fight for freedom. Vietnam along with apartheid were the two issues that really concerned me, and I never thought that America would be forced out of Vietnam or that apartheid would end. In that sense it could be said that the demonstrators and those who supported them like me won.
Yet it is important to note the big difference between the demonstrators of the 60s and what we are seeing today. The demonstrators against the Vietnam war in America were largely white males, not willing to be conscripted to fight the war. The blacks in America then, who were called negroes, had long before that been waging a titanic fight to get the vote and essential civil rights in their country. Martin Luther King did highlight how the American blacks were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam and Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted and felt the force of the US government and lost his heavyweight crown but the war in Vietnam was not central to the civil rights movement. In this country too the Vietnam protests were also largely white although one of the leaders of the movement was Tariq Ali.
This is where the current protest is so different. Both America and this country has seen black and white come together. In parts of America some of the police have expressed sympathy and even taken the knee, the symbolic emblem of the protest and a poignant one given it was a policemen’s knee on Floyd’s neck that led to this death. What is more the protest has spread far and wide with sport stars who normally shun the issues of the day willing to stand up and make their views known. To see Jado Sancho wear a shirt showing his support for Black Lives Matter, Hertha Berlin players take the knee in the centre circle, Rio Ferdinand march in central London, Lewis Hamilton talk about how white Formula One is and Rahim Sterling speak out against racism are significant milestones which would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. They represent the new generation of blacks not prepared to accept a knee on their neck as a previous generation was.
It is also worth remembering that in the 60s the word ‘racism’ was never used. People who were racist were called ‘racialist’ as if this was an individual thing and did not reflect a structural flaw in society which the word racist denotes. Now racism as a concept is so widely accepted that we can even have a former Conservative Chancellor Sajid Javid speak out against it, stating that there is greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons here than in the United States and call on Boris Johnson to drive real change. He does however tread carefully praising his party for the progress it has made in becoming more diverse. This is most noticeable when he reveals he went to work in America because he had faced discrimination in the City. Then, as if afraid of being accused of playing the race card, he hedges it, saying that it was, “in part, I think, because of my class and the colour of my skin.”
The protests in the 60s took place against a background of a musical running in London called Hair whose main song was all about white girls drooling over black boys and black girls drooling over white boys. One lyric about black boys went “black boys are so damm yummy they satisfy my tummy”. And one about white boys went “white boys are so pretty, skin as smooth as milk.” The musical suggested all racial problems could be solved by interracial sexual bonding. This belief was very strong in my generation which meant that the deep divisions caused by structural problems were not really looked at. It is interesting that there are still quite a few in Britain who when looking back on the empire, particularly the one in India, suggest that if only the British had slept with Indians the problems would have been solved. This is often the basis of fictional series on the British Raj but that they are made shows little understanding. The reality of life in a country where a foreign power, from another race, is ruling over a people and who make no secret of the fact that they believe that the people they rule over are inferior is far more intractable than that. A few of the conquerors sharing a bed with the conquered would never put them on the same plane.
The protests however can lead to a better world if we, and this means society as a whole, are prepared to make more than token changes at an individual level. Back in 2006 I was the first non-white to be made an editor of the BBC, my job being sports editor. Since then two other non-whites have become editors, Faisal Islam and Amol Rajan. Progress you may say. But for real progress we need to tackle the facts that in the UK, as the Department of Work and Pensions has reported, there are “high levels of name-based discrimination in favour of white applicants”; that whites are more likely to be promoted than equally qualified black people; that young blacks are twice as likely to be suspended from schools compared to whites who commit the same offence and that twice as many blacks doing the same job as their white colleagues are overlooked for a pay rise.
To tackle all this needs a fundamental change in thinking starting with accepting that the whole question of race is still very much with us. . That change must start with getting rid of the illusion that we are now living in a non-racial or post-racial world, a notion that gained momentum after the election of Barak Obama and may get much traction in this country if Rishi Sunak become Prime Minister. Such individual elections do not mean any such thing. They mean a person who is non-white has broken through a system that is still geared in favour of whites. That system must change and for that we need to look at where we have come and how far we need to go. It is too early to say how this might happen , but we need something much more than Sajid Javid’s idea that Boris Johnson can lead such a change. That is frankly risible. If he is the man we are looking to provide leadership in this task then there is little hope of reaching the promised land.
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