Written by:
Shabna Begum

After the last 14 years, what’s next for racial justice?

Read time:
5 minutes

After the last 14 years, what’s next for racial justice?

These last 14 years bear the deep wounds of austerity, a programme of economic violence that stripped away our social and welfare infrastructures and widened inequalities to staggering levels. Working class people are more likely to be hungrier, colder and living in precarious, unsafe housing, whilst at the same time the number of billionaires in the UK has doubled.

Whilst stripping away our social fabric, the introduction of the ‘hostile environment’ saw an aggressive extension of exclusionary politics. No longer interested in polite, euphemistic rhetoric, the policy actively enlists the public and private sector into a border surveillance system designed to purge the UK of so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants. The policy operates with brutal racialised application, as demonstrated by the Windrush scandal. That the ‘wrong’ people were caught up, meant that we had accepted that there were indeed ‘right people’ that are worthy of such treatment. In fact, as we saw when Shamima Begum’s citizenship was stripped, a person of colour can evidently move from the ‘wrong’ to ‘right’ category, with little mercy.

We were offered Brexit as a solution to deepening hardship; leaving the EU and winning back our borders became the answer to people struggling with their day to day living.  We had an extraordinary campaign drenched in divisive narratives, demonising migrants and people of colour, an imagined island ‘under siege’ from migrants. Hate crimes soared, as did the tolerance for more open racism.

However, individual hate crime statistics have never been the best measure of racism in a society, and often distract from the more persistent and hidden forms of structural racism. During the early days of the pandemic, we saw how structural racism translated to excess and avoidable deaths, linked to inferior housing and employment experiences for many working class communities of colour. These articulations of racism are often ignored - deemed too complex to prove and understand; but the deaths of people of colour who are deprived of fair resources by the collective activity of a system are not wildly dissimilar to the violence of the death of Belly Mujinga, a transport worker spat at by a random customer. They reflect a view about the value of our lives and our entitlement to economic and political respect.

The exposure of racialised inequalities by the pandemic, alongside the brutal murder of George Floyd saw the revitalisation of a Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 - young, exploding with energy and demanding change - this movement was also a national moment. The subsequent Sewell Report commissioned by the government, feigned an independent and impartial analysis of issues, concluding with incredulity that Britain was a bastion of opportunity and any persistent inequalities were due to cultural deficit and individual failures. The report was widely discredited and condemned even by the UN for its denial of institutional racism. 

Predictably we witnessed an acceleration of the so-called ‘culture wars’ - a defensive and regressive reaction to racial justice voices. Deflecting from the egregious failures of austerity policies, and worsening economic conditions, our politics became fixated with the ‘threat’ to statues, anthems and National Trust homes. Whilst many young people of colour became more engaged with politics, the state responded with restrictive legislation, stripping the rights of people of colour through measures like Voter ID, making it easier to strip a person’s citizenship through the Nationality and Borders Act, and limiting  people’s right to protest through the Public Order Act.

In this context, the rise of Reform was neither natural nor inevitable. Mainstream political and media elites have spent the last few years and decades fomenting optimal greenhouse conditions for their power to grow and flourish. The cost of living crisis and its ongoing impacts are not solved by ‘strict limits on immigration’ or ‘scrapping EDI targets’, but lie in reckoning with structures that fiercely protect wealth but fail to protect people from hunger. Fixating on flights to Rwanda - or indeed Bangladesh - has become an easy distraction from a combusting economic system that exploits people and planet alike.

Whilst scapegoating people of colour is not new, there was a distinct difference in the last few years. Much of the groundwork was laid by a form of toxic diversity from the heart of  government. Reform and the enabling of far right, racist politics has been assisted by an entourage of Black and brown ministers, and media enabled spokespeople that have given plausible deniability to policies that would otherwise be labelled racist. Whether it is Braverman, Badenoch or Birbalsingh - we have seen demonising and divisive rhetoric that has pitted communities against each other, whilst at the same time doubling down on vigorous attacks on civil society voices that refuse to surrender to the fiction of meritocracy that they pretend to represent. 

We are turning a chapter in our political history, Labour have won a substantial majority but have a political inheritance that requires urgent, bold work. We call on the new government to tackle the deepening inequalities and the racial injustice that has punctuated the last period of government. We have a series of recommendations that set out where the new government can start in priorities for racial justice in Britain.  

Reform has shown that it can mobilise public support, capitalising on discontent to demonise migrants, villainise Muslims and sow division amongst multicultural communities. It is up to new parliamentarians, government and opposition alike to reject the politics of hate and to restore the politics of hope; hope that politics can answer the urgent questions of our time and build a fairer and more racially just Britain.

Dr Shabna Begum is CEO of the Runnymede Trust.

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