Image Credit: Grave Press,1968
‘Black Lives Matter Book Club’ is a weekly series, designed to complement the amazing work of the UoY Black Lives Matter Book Club. The project was created and is run by UoY Amnesty International Society, Literature Society and Feminist Society. The focus of the project is on education and re-education. Each week, a member of the Book Club will be writing a review of that week’s content, allowing further analysis for anyone to engage with and to hopefully further promote the material and the book club too. Those wanting to join the book club can do so by following along on social media: @uoyblmbookclub on Instagram and Facebook.
For this week, we focused our attention back across the Atlantic to the UK. “The UK is not Innocent” is a phrase that has been reverberating around protests, media outlets and online discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few months. Whilst BLM protests in the UK were initially sparked by the death of George Floyd and the attention it brought to American police brutality, it has also brought a sharp focus onto racism and police brutality in the UK. Whilst it is vital to stand in solidarity with American protestors and to not forget the roots of the struggle in the USA, we must also be self-reflective. The UK’s own past is deeply disturbing, and a reckoning is long overdue.
There has been a lot of counterproductive discourse in the media about how racism in the UK is incomparable to America and even suggestions that we are ‘better’ when it comes to issues of police brutality - the implication being that any level of excessive police brutality and racially biased policing is acceptable in itself shows how flawed the dialogue is. Racism is not a comparison game and America’s very serious problems with institutional racism is no excuse for us to point the finger at them, whilst refusing to address our own deeply ingrained issues. This does not mean we should not still be fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the countless other victims of police brutality in America. However, if this is a truly global anti-racist movement, we need to also be raising the names that have gone unacknowledged in the mainstream British press: Rashan Charles, Sarah Reed, Nuno Cardoso, Sean Rigg, Adrian McDonald, Daniel Adewole, Christopher Alder, Azelle Rodney, Derek Bennett, Sheku Bayoh to name just a few.
The UK’s own protests about racism have been directly linked to police brutality or the mishandling of cases by the police due to racial bias. Cynthia Jarrett’s death in police custody sparked the Broadwater Farm Riot in 1985 and the shooting of Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, which left her paralyzed, led to the Brixton riot the same year. In 2011, the police shot and killed Mark Duggan, leading to national protests and the failures of inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993 led to the MacPherson report, concluding that the Metropolitan Police Service were institutionally racist.
While most UK residents could easily name Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr, and are familiar with the concept of Jim Crow segregation, fewer would be able to name comparable leaders in the racial justice movement in the UK such as Darcus Howe and Claudia Jones . If anything, they may note the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, and remark that the UK was at the forefront of ending the transatlantic slave trade (without acknowledging the inconvenient truth that our nation’s economy is built on the back of slavery and exploitation, and slave traders are still venerated in the form of statues and street names). They may even evoke the name of William Wilberforce, the classical white saviour trope embedded into our nation’s narrative in favour of the numerous black leaders, who have fought and are still fighting for racial equality in the UK.
Recently, The Treasury tweeted for their #FridayFact that, “millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes,” in effect revealing that the UK was still paying back its debt for compensating slave owners until 2015. Not only is this fact deeply disturbing, but also the attitude it conveys, that taxpayers, some of whom are descendants of slaves themselves, should be pleased and grateful to know that they are still contributing to the retribution paid to slave owners.
Considering this, we wanted to begin to understand the legacy of racism in the UK from a two-fold perspective: looking at racism within the UK as well as the racist attitudes and systems the UK has imported globally through colonialism (including to America). This week we listened to Reni-Eddo Lodge’s brilliant podcast About Race (available via Spotify or for free online) which delves into race in the UK, in both cultural and political spheres, from the 1980’s onwards.
One thing that is so interesting about this podcast is the critical angle with which it interrogates our constructed dialogue around race, and the examination of terms like ‘political blackness’ and ‘white working class’. Lodge opens up a discussion that not only examines Britain’s recent history but critically examines the ways we have become accustomed to think about race. She speaks to a wide range of interviewees, often with differing views, highlighting that there are many facets to the antiracist movement. From British sit-coms, to the BNP, to casting diversity in Star Wars and period products for asylum seekers, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s discussion in just nine episodes is as wide ranging as it is deeply thought provoking and interrogative. If you enjoyed it, please check out Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which is available as an e-book on Yorsearch.
Alongside the podcast, for our core text we delved into two essays in The Wretched of the Earth by the famous postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon. Although Fanon was born under French colonialism in the Caribbean island of Martinique, his discussion of the political, social, and psychological impact of the colonial and post-colonial experience, speak deeply to the impact of European colonialism more generally. He cites the disruptive impact of the colonial model in causing many postcolonial societies to fall into the pitfalls of dictatorship, military coups and oligarchies and the long-term damage the exploitative dynamic of colonialism has caused. Colonialism, as an economic system, with deeply racist overtures is still being replicated in neo-colonial dynamics and economic systems. It is something we need to be actively geared towards dismantling if we are focusing on antiracism more globally. Fanon addresses the difference between countries who have had to fight for their independence, versus those who were simply given it by a Colonial power, and how the act of resistance creates and progresses national culture. These resources are only a brief starting point in a long process of re-education on British history but we hope they are helpful.