Voices: The optimism I felt two years ago has gone – the UK is failing on race equality

The King meets newly appointed Conservative Party leader and prime minister Rishi Sunak at Buckingham Palace (POOL/AFP/Getty)
The King meets newly appointed Conservative Party leader and prime minister Rishi Sunak at Buckingham Palace (POOL/AFP/Getty)

It’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd, and race equality is still not a priority in the UK. This is the sobering reality as Black History Month 2022 draws to an end.

We’ve seen an Asian prime minister, a non-white home secretary who “dreams” of deporting refugees and a Black chancellor (albeit for just 39 days) in this resoundingly quiet Black History Month – a time that’s as much about reflecting upon the Black struggle as it is focusing on the triumphs.

Despite high-profile political appointments of people of colour, the government has failed to harness the momentum raised by Black Lives Matter activism two years ago. The disparities faced by racialised communities, throughout their lives, could not be starker despite the fine achievements evidenced through important initiatives like the annual Black Powerlist and the London Chamber Black Excellence Awards.

From the widening ethnicity pay gap between Black and white workers to the “violent” deaths of Black people in prisons, the struggle is real. From the absence of Black history on school curriculums to the majority of Black Britons reporting experiences of racial discrimination by doctors and nurses, there’s yet more work to be done.

Today, annual statistics on the Mental Health Act have revealed that Black British people are still disproportionately affected in terms of detention and treatment compared to white people. It seems we’re no closer to seeing an end to these disparities.

I remember the summer of 2020 well, when progress on race equality seemed like a viable prospect, before the discredited government race report of last March was published, which concluded that Britain isn’t institutionally racist.

New Yorkers gather at the unveiling of artist Kenny Altidor's memorial portrait of George Floyd in Brooklyn, July 2020 (AFP/Getty)
New Yorkers gather at the unveiling of artist Kenny Altidor's memorial portrait of George Floyd in Brooklyn, July 2020 (AFP/Getty)

The world came to a standstill in the wake of Floyd’s death, as we all witnessed a spectacular global resurgence of Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world. It was dubbed “the largest civil rights movement” in British history, with over 5 million people supporting racial justice campaigns and lobbying for change during the latter part of 2020.

Just days before this tragedy, a Black man, Simeon Francis, met his demise in a UK police cell. Though he didn’t feature prominently in rallying cries within UK demonstrations, the sense of resisting injustices against Black people near and far inspired waves of anti-racism activity.

It was something to behold. Leaders within nations took the knee along with sports teams at the Euro 2020 tournament, pledges of solidarity with Black people were issued across public and private sector organisations, books on racism sold out, and there were promises from one and all to remain committed to inclusion.

Yet two years on, the government is pressing ahead with plans to send thousands of Black, Asian and Middle Eastern refugees to Rwanda, describing them as “illegal” migrants because they arrive by boat. Meanwhile, ministers have rightly opened our doors to tens of thousands of mostly white Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s bloody war.

Football at all levels is experiencing a rise in instances of discrimination, according to the charity Kick It Out, and the Home Office has suspended an immigration official over racist WhatsApp messages while presiding over policies that are typically hostile towards non-white people.

I remember 2020 well. The time when Cressida Dick, former chief of the UK’s biggest police force, described to me the “lessons” drawn from the Black Lives Matter movement. Fast forward two years and a damning report on the Met Police recently highlighted that Black, Asian and mixed-race officers are suffering because of systemic racism in its ranks.

As I type, the Independent Office for Police Conduct is assessing an incident where a Black teenager was mauled by a police dog in Birmingham, at gunpoint, and left needing reconstructive surgery, while also handling numerous complaints of Black children who were strip-searched by police officers – something that happens more frequently to Black kids than their white counterparts.

The police watchdog is itself facing legal action over its handling of the case of Omishore Oladeji, a vulnerable Black man who fell into the river Thames after being tasered by officers on Chelsea Bridge in July.

I don’t mind confessing to believing the hype in 2020; believing that we would finally see some lasting progress on race equality. I thought that at the very least, the BLM resurgence had emboldened more people to speak openly about race – especially Black people – and it could be a precursor to tangible, lasting change. I was truly hopeful - but that’s no longer the case.

The response to George Floyd felt like a watershed moment. But that moment seems to have been confined to 2020, because we haven’t really moved on since.

While bipartisan negotiations over a police reform bill prompted by the killing of Floyd has collapsed in US Congress, Black people in the UK are at least three times more likely to die following police contact and are getting sent to prison at disproportionate rates.

Chris Kaba, who was shot by armed officers (PA Media)
Chris Kaba, who was shot by armed officers (PA Media)

In recent months three Black men have died at the hands of police officers: Oladeji Omishore in July; a Black man in Devon, whose name hasn’t been disclosed to the public; and Chris Kaba in September.

Last weekend, thousands of people rallied around bereaved families whose loved ones have died in custody as they marched to Downing Street demanding an urgent meeting with the prime minister. Among them were the relatives of Chris Kaba, Oladeji Omishore, Matthew Leahy, Jack Susianta, and Leon Patterson – Black and mixed-race men, who died following police contact. There’s been no word from Westminster about these tragedies or public show of sympathy for grieving families.

Instead of advocating for equity, the newly appointed equalities minister Kemi Badenoch used her first parliamentary appearance last week to launch yet another inflammatory, baseless personal attack against a journalist. Though we have a new prime minister in Rishi Sunak, the first Asian and Hindu man to occupy this role, it does not mean that we are free from burning injustices visited upon minority groups – and to pretend otherwise would be foolish.

Sunak, who has a track record of voting against equality policies, was shoehorned into this role by the very same elite political peers who rejected him during the leadership race against Liz Truss, but then became desperate and changed their mind only after Truss was evidently unable to cope.

As I said of Truss’s “most diverse” cabinet that she appointed weeks ago, which has since been reshuffled, there’s a difference between diversity and inclusion.

Just this weekend, Sunak issued a statement denying that the UK is a racist country in response to comments made by Daily Show presenter Trevor Noah, who alleged on his US show that some people aren’t in favour of Britain having an Asian prime minister. Sunak and his peers, such as Sajid Javid, were quicker to counteract Noah’s comments than they are to address racial disparities happening right under their noses. Funny that.

Many Black people feel politically homeless, with a government that’s out of step with the needs and perspectives of marginalised groups, and an opposition in Labour that’s fraught with its own issues on race.

While blocking popular anti-racist campaigners from running for MP in the next election, such as Maurice McLeod and Emma Dent Coad, the Labour Party has come under fire for failing to address anti-Black racism within its ranks as revealed in the damning, much-delayed Forde Report in July. This is something that Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black female MP, wrote at length about this October.

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Over the weekend, a white man threw petrol bombs attached to fireworks at an immigration centre in the southern English port of Dover on Sunday and then killed himself.

The incident has the hallmarks of a domestic terrorist attack and yet media and political commentary has stopped short of branding it as such, leading critics to question whether such labels are only applicable to Black and Asian perpetrators of similar attacks.

This comes as hate crimes have increased in the past year – something that speaks volumes about attitudes towards minority people in England and Wales. The government’s Hate Crime Action Plan, apparently launched in 2016 to tackle these disparities, appears to have ground to a halt. There hasn’t been a word from ministers about the worrying surge in these incidents.

So you must forgive those of us who no longer have the optimism about change that we had two years ago. Things are looking incredibly bleak, and it’s incumbent on those in power to take these issues seriously. Happy Black History Month.