Race Matters

Connecting the dots: structural racism in 2019

Our Research Analyst Laurie Mompelat explains why recognising and fighting against structural racism is as appropriate today as ever.

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The date was chosen as 59 years ago on this very day, police shot and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against the racist apartheid "pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa.

Decades later, and, although the apartheid regime was officially dismantled in 1991, deadly racism continues to thrive across the world. Just last Friday, more than 50 Muslim men, women and children were murdered by a white supremacist terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

In many Western countries, as in the UK, Islamophobia is a daily reality for Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslim. On Monday, a Solidarity Vigil was held in London in support of the victims of the Christchurch massacre. A few hundred protesters gathered in a strategic location: in front of News Corp Headquarters. Protesters wanted to hold the media accountable for the climate of islamophobia - or anti-Muslim racism - that has been fuelled by their heavily biased portrayal of Islam and Muslims. The vigil was called by a coalition of community groups such as The London Latinxs, Women of Colour Global Womens Strike, Black Lives Matter UK, Docs Not Cops, NUS Black Students’ Campaign and the Khidr Collective.

Amongst the tears, candles, prayers and songs, there was anger. Speakers from various strands of London Muslim communities reminded all of us attending that while we can be heartbroken and distressed by what happened last Friday, we cannot be surprised. We live in structurally racist societies, from New Zealand and South Africa to the US and the UK. And it’s been the case for as long as any of us can remember. 

By structural racism, I mean the set of circumstances artificially created over generations, through European colonialism, and which holds ‘whiteness’ to be superior. Structural racism affects individuals on a day-to-day basis; one person may be overlooked for a job because someone with a ‘more English’ sounding name is preferable; another may never get to see someone who looks like them in a role of significance to which they aspire. Structural racism also means that, collectively, people of colour are held back from achieving their cultural, political and economic potential, and are kept distant from power, representation and resources. 

Structural racism means that international inequalities and the class divides we observe in society are highly racialised, with black and minority ethnic (BME) people more likely to be working-class than their white counterparts in the UK.  For example, it is the reason why the overwhelming majority of Grenfell victims were from BME backgrounds. Structural racism is why black people in the UK are more than 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police when compared to their white counterparts. It is why 40% of African graduates are overqualified for their roles. It is why about 2% of white British households experience overcrowding, compared with 30% of Bangladeshi households. Structural racism is why more than 40% of young people in custody are from BME backgrounds. It is why BME women are the most harshly hit by funding cuts.

Structural racism is encrypted in the very fabric of our society, our history, our institutions and our policies. 

Last week, I attended the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s launch of their report on Grenfell. After almost two years, they officially found a breach of the Human Right to life, embedded in a structural failure in public service delivery. Breach of residents’ right to adequate housing, and to residents’ freedom from torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, as well as a breach of equality law, were mentioned. 

The first question to the panel was asked by a local resident who had been affected and displaced by the Grenfell fire: “Where were the Human Rights before? Where were the Human Rights when people simply needed decent housing conditions? Where were the Human Rights when local residents were seeking support from their local council? Where were the Human Rights when they were trying to be heard rather than compensated for a tragedy that was predictable, and yet tore their homes and lives apart?"

The victims of structural racism and white supremacy are too often only paid any attention once some of them are killed.

On the official ‘Elimination of racism day’, it is crucial to remember that it is not good enough for us to openly condemn racist slurs and attacks. We must also challenge racism in our policies and institutions, from the police and the media to the housing, health and immigration systems. This is the only way our Human Rights and Equality Laws can bear meaning, and is one of the ways in which we can honour the victims of structural racism and white supremacy. 

We need to remember that our voices and contributions matter. If our institutions and policies structurally dehumanise and discriminate against entire groups of people, we need to end complacency. And if we can imagine and carry a better world in our hearts, let’s keep fighting for it. And let’s eliminate racism.  

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