openDemocracyUK: Opinion

In the fight for racial justice, optimism is not enough

Our desire for a better world must not lead us to ignore the fact that inequality is systemic, and ongoing

Nasar Meer
7 March 2022, 12.00am
Kill The Bill flag seen at a London demonstration opposing the Nationality & Borders Bill
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Thomas Krych / Alamy Stock Photo

In the six years since Theresa May took office promising to tackle the UK’s ‘burning injustices’, an exemplary chapter in the story of Britain’s racial injustice almost writes itself.

Take May’s own role in the Windrush scandal – in which up to 57,000 Black and minority ethnic Britons may have been deported or stripped of their rights – and the ongoing failure to provide adequate compensation. Then there’s the increase in the number of Black children being cautioned or sentenced in England and Wales, which has doubled since 2010. Black children account for 28% of all children in custody, even though Black people make up barely 4% of the national population.

From precarious employment, where Black and minority ethnic millennials are 47% more likely to be on zero hours contracts compared to their White peers, to the appalling ethnic disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic, injustice persists.

How has this come to pass, when our present and future could be so different? Why has progress on racial justice been stagnant and failure so cyclical?

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To reflect on these questions is to reckon with a widely-held assumption among anti-racist researchers, activists and policymakers. Namely, the optimistic view that racial justice will advance because social acceptance of racial difference has increased.

In my new book, I argue that this view supports the dominant narrative that racial justice is inevitable. But it is a cruel sort of optimism.

Take the opening statement of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, published more than 20 years ago. The authors of the Macpherson report believed that “awareness of the problems directly and indirectly revealed” would herald “a signal opportunity to deal with specific matters arising from the murder and all that followed”.

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This opportunity came and went but the systemic racial disparities remained. With the help of the late Laurent Berlant, we can see why this expectation of progress ultimately rests in “optimism’s double bind”, where “an image of a better good life available” creates an impasse that does not easily allow us to “detach from what is already not working”.

For example, the striking thing about the MacPherson Report’s assessment is that it had been offered long before. The Scarman Report, which investigated the causes of the 1981 Brixton riots, concluded: “the evidence which I have received, the effect of which I have outlined … leaves no doubt in my mind that racial disadvantage is a fact of current British life … Urgent action is needed.” Lord Scarman was reticent to name institutional racism, and yet he could not deny that “racialism and discrimination against black people – often hidden, sometimes unconscious – remain a major source of social tension and conflict”.

More recently, the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, conducted by Wendy Williams, emphasised the role of “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” in the scandal, which she concluded “are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism”.

What Berlant helps us to see is that while shocking racial injustice may appear traumatic when accounted for at one moment in time, as a society we have learned to live with a systemic crisis – or, as Berlant puts it, “crisis ordinariness”. In this telling, extraordinary events such as the Windrush scandal or the impact of the COVID-19 crisis turn out to be “an amplification of something in the works”.

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How else can we understand the abysmal Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which the Home Office admits may cause “indirect difference [of] treatment on the grounds of race”? Or the Nationality and Borders Bill, with its proposal to strengthen the power to strip people from immigrant backgrounds of citizenship? What else should we make of the government’s attack on Black Lives Matter, which the Department for Education describes in its recent guidance on “political impartiality” as “views which go beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable”?

Our optimism should not become naivety, or being “hostage to the belief that everything is going to improve or turn out well”. It is instead to hold that what is morally unjust should not prosper in our societies.

This is perhaps most keenly expressed in the statement by Stephen Lawrence’s father Neville, at the inquiry into the racist murder of this 17-year-old son. “We have to look forward,” he insisted, speaking through grief. “This is a very small place, this world of ours.”

These words, spoken by a parent surviving bereavement, remain a profound call for a better society, one greater than that which so cruelly took his son. More than twenty years later, they remain unheeded.

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