Global Extremes

Can Black lives really matter in the UK before addressing Britishness?

Politicians cannot plausibly address ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage while ignoring how we conceptualise Britain.

Varun Uberoi
9 July 2020, 12.00am
BLM protest in Brighton, UK. 13 May 2020.
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Picture by Dominic Alves / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
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Flying a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner in the sky over a football stadium and etching ‘White Lives Matter’ into a Bedford hillside seem like extreme responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in Britain. These acts were apparently intended to indicate that white people's lives matter too, yet no one disputes this fact. The movement is not called ‘Only Black Lives Matter’ and prominent ethnic minority organisations in Britain show why we must reduce the suffering of white working-class people too.

There are also less extreme and more universal responses such as ‘all lives matter’. But again, few would deny that all lives matter. Indeed, the idea that all lives matter is implicitly endorsed in the following idea: black lives matter too, so we must reduce their systematic discrimination and disadvantage. This is seemingly the idea that those who rally behind Black Lives Matter in Britain endorse, and it accepts not rejects that all lives matter.

But such extreme and implausible responses in Britain also seem like immediate responses. In time, they will be replaced by more considered ones just as occurred after other divisive episodes such as the Rushdie Affair. As this happens, we will have to discuss a topic that has rarely featured in the Black Lives Matter discussion in Britain: namely, the various ways in which we conceptualise Britain. This topic is important for at least three reasons.

First, some ways of conceptualising Britain exacerbate the discrimination that ethnic minorities suffer. For example, many in Britain conceptualise it as a country whose culture and identity are threatened by immigration. This way of thinking about Britain was a driver for Brexit and it exacerbated hate crimes and other types of discrimination after Brexit.

While some ways of conceptualising Britain exacerbate ethnic minority discrimination, others help to generate support to reduce ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage

Second, some ways of conceptualising Britain also help ethnic minorities. For example, if Britain is conceptualised by British people as a country that values its ethnic minorities just as it does all its other citizens, then more people are likely to worry about ethnic minority discrimination and their unequal health, educational, workplace and other outcomes. While some ways of conceptualising Britain exacerbate ethnic minority discrimination, others help to generate support to reduce ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage.

Third, the ways in which we conceptualise Britain affect how we think about public statues. For example, if we think, that Britain’s history was determined by human beings who, like human beings everywhere, are not infallible, then statues of figures whose lives had proud and shameful moments are inevitable. Indeed, it is peculiar to expect anything else. Yet if we think that Britain is a country that today values its ethnic minorities just as it does all its other citizens then it is unclear how we can value ethnic minorities and ignore how many of them have the following opinions: a public statue of a figure who exploited people like them offends them; suggests that mistreating people like them is a thing of the past; and focuses the mind on the acts of individuals instead of discriminatory systems and assumptions.

Some conceptions of Britain generate support for removing certain statues. Others suggest keeping them. There is thus a need for a consensus on the ways in which we should conceptualise Britain so as to resolve such issues.

Such a consensus is hard to generate. But over time, a government can encourage certain conceptions of Britain through, for example, high school education curricula, the norms prospective British citizens are expected to learn, the way in which the arts are funded and so on. And if successive governments didn’t think this was possible then their promotion of ‘British values’ in their education, citizenship and anti-terrorism programmes is inexplicable.

If leading politicians are serious about reducing ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage, they will not ignore it

The government is thus familiar with the need to encourage certain conceptions of Britain. Yet it has announced a commission to investigate inequality in ‘health, education and in different areas of life’ with objectives that say nothing about whether it will discuss how we do and should conceptualise Britain.

Equally, the Official Opposition lists many reports that might make the Prime Minister’s new commission unnecessary, but they omit the only one in the last twenty years that examined the connections between how we conceptualise Britain and ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage. This is the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain Report (CMEB) which also has a chapter on the arts and media that is suggestive about public statues. Leading politicians cannot plausibly address ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage and ignore how we conceptualise Britain. Yet they have been doing so.

This may, of course, be deliberate because discussing how we conceptualise Britain entails the complexity of discussing how we conceptualise England, Scotland and Wales. These complexities are unavoidable, but not insurmountable as many have written about how to address such issues. Indeed, the best starting point for policy makers when reflecting on all of the complexity that surrounds conceptualising Britain and its relationship with ethnic minorities is the CMEB Report and the scholarship surrounding it.

Bhikhu Parekh, Stuart Hall, Tariq Modood and others, drafted this report and showed why and how we can ‘re-imagine’ Britain in ways that will help to reduce ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage. Those who remember this report will remember how the media were hostile to it. As many have shown, this is largely because journalists focused on, and misinterpreted, just a few passages in this report and ignored the other 312 pages.

As immediate responses to protests give way to more considered ones, this report contains ideas that will be of use. And if leading politicians are serious about reducing ethnic minority discrimination and disadvantage, they will not ignore it.

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