The legacy of subjugation corrupts American society – and shows us why we need to put our own house in order too

As night turns to day, another black man is killed by the police in the United States of America – and his death is ‘televised’.

The response from the Minneapolis Democratic Mayor, Jacob Frey, to denounce the killing and sack the four policemen involved in the brutal death of George Floyd, was swift. But this has not been enough to quell anger. We know this is yet another example of police brutality which has led again to the loss of a black man’s life. 

The circumstances leading to the brutal murder of an unarmed man at the hands of the police are not new and perpetuate the dangerous trend in policing of black communities across America. The question before us is whether George Floyd’s death disrupts this trend and becomes, as Keir Starmer said on May 30th, a catalyst for meaningful change in the lives of African Americans – or whether his death merely perpetuates and reinforces ‘the cycle’:   

Step 1. Black individual stopped by the police;  

Step 2. Police brutality and then death;  

Step 3. Outrage/ protest/ twitter storm/ virtue signalling;  

Step 4. Silence and the media circus move on; and,  

Step 5. Go to Step 1and repeat.  

If we are ever to break this cycle and change the structural inequalities that continue to define and disfigure life in the USA, we believe that a peaceful, national civic revolution is required. A commitment to social mobilization and an effort, unparalleled in peacetime, is needed to reboot the USA so that its ethnic minorities can fully access and participate in American society. Life chances should never be defined by skin colour.   

When the Founding Fathers declared the unalienable rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, people of colour were not at the forefront of their thoughts – quite the opposite. The USA was founded on the subjugation of Native Americans and enslaved Africans. It is this legacy of subjugation that corrupts contemporary American society. The acceptance that black lives matter has to become central to the American way of life if it is to have any moral purpose going forwards.

There are criticisms made of the Thirteenth Amendment in the American Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as criminal punishment. There is anger in the USA today that this was only a partial abolition and another injustice— one that concretely exists today. People still forced into grinding and unremunerated work, but as prisoners. In a number of states, the prison population is disproportionately made up of people of colour.

Incarceration rates for ethnic minorities are significantly higher than for non-ethnic minorities, African Americans are imprisoned at 5 times the rate of white Americans, and although African Americans and Hispanic Americans (those of Spanish speaking ancestry) make up 32% of the U.S. population, they make up 56% of the American prison population. 

Black men in America are also 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Black women are also 1.4 times more likely to killed by the police than white women. So common is death at the hands of the police it has been recognised as a leading cause of death for black men. These are systemic problems which must not only be challenged but fundamentally changed.

When it comes to the experiences of black communities, those in the US share similarities with those in UK. Yet there are particular differences in the legacy of slavery and the lived experience.

Modern British society was founded on the back of the wealth accumulated by the creation and expansion of the British Empire.

Have you ever wondered why black colleagues and friends have ‘English/Scottish/Welsh/French surnames? From where do you think some of our ancient UK businesses and cultural institutions acquired their wealth? Have you stopped to ponder the issues influencing the environment, and determining the life chances, of the young black man standing on the street corner?

Have you considered the motives of both government and parliament in removing the rights and citizenship of black British citizens? 

The challenge for the British Labour movement, in the wake of the current wave of protests, is to define and develop the changes we think are necessary if we are to bring any kind of meaning to George Floyd’s death— not to mention all the others who suffered before him.   

We need to harness the pain and the anger of the moment, honing our transformational zeal, and reaffirming that the Labour party is the home for the aspirations and desires of black communities across the UK, especially among the working class.  

Change begins with the individual, not the institution, so the first question is about what we’re doing individually within the confines of the Labour movement: how can members create lasting change rather than simply speaking about the need for it?   

The protests taking place in London and across the UK demonstrate solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the USA and bring attention to our own faults at home. However, solidarity – especially the social media variety – tends to evaporate over time. A society built, instead, on the foundations of equality, fairness, and meritocracy is everlasting.  

We need to hold a mirror up to ourselves and be honest about where we have come from and what we want to see in the future. The UK is not immune from the worst aspects of institutional prejudice. There is a list of inquiries and reviews which proves this point: the Lammy Review, the Angiolini Review into deaths in police custody and, most damning of all, the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. 

Within our movement, there is still debate on how to increase the prevalence of black MPs and Councillors, especially black males, who find themselves in the minority. Where are the numbers of black senior staffers in Parliament and Labour HQ? Do we not have enough quality black graduates with an active interest in politics? We must put our own house in order first.

Our movement must seek, from this point onwards, to develop radical, anti-racist policies to deal with our own structural impediments. If black people aren’t in the room, then no one speaks for us on the policies affecting our community. If we think it is wrong for policies to be predominantly forged by white men, then we need to empower and promote women and black people in numbers that give them influence at senior levels. Perhaps, if black people were in positions of power, we would have a school system that delivers; a prison system that doesn’t warehouse its talent; and a country that protects its BAME population so they aren’t disproportionally represented in Covid-19 mortality statistics.  

As a roadmap for genuine change, we’ve set out some immediate challenges for Labour:

In The Party: Let us be the change we seek to promote. We should review and transform BAME-related political structures and increase Black representation at all levels of the Party. 

On Education: The impact of Covid-19 provides an opportunity to look again at our current educational structure. We should seize the opportunity to transform our primary, secondary and tertiary education systems, especially for black boys in our inner cities. How can we justify a policy for a national education service when sections of our community fail to benefit from the most basic of human rights? 

On Health: BAME communities are experiencing a disproportionate Covid-19 impact, whilst the Government downplays the situation by omitting the recommendations of its own BAME Disparities report. We need a credible Public health and NHS strategy, and implementation plan. Not mere slogans and protests, but genuine action to protect the BAME community.  

On Social mobility:  We don’t talk enough about social mobility and class. We should revamp our current policies, to truly promote social mobility, by appealing to the aspirations of the black community and enabling its talent to flourish. 

On Community Policing: As senior black Councillors in one of the UK most diverse boroughs, we know there is distrust between the police and sections of the black community. We can— and must— develop a plan that drastically improves perceived and actual community relations with the police. 

On Policy development: We must involve BAME communities in the development of policy outside of traditional areas such as health, education, housing and crime. We must be inclusive in our discussions on the most relevant issues of our time, such as climate change, Brexit, infrastructure, AI and the fourth industrial revolution.

Shirley Chisholm— the first black woman elected to the US Congress, and the first black candidate to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination— said in 1972: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”  

Now is the time for both: we must bring the folding chair and push for ample room at the table.

Terry Paul and James Beckles are Councillors and Cabinet Members in the London Borough of Newham and write in a personal capacity. They tweet @terrympaul and @james_beckles, respectively.

5 Comments

  1. John Gray on June 9, 2020 at 9:00 pm

    Great article. Telling it as it is.

  2. Dean Armond on June 10, 2020 at 6:10 am

    Excellent article with some viral, practical examples of what needs to be done!

  3. Cate Tuitt on June 11, 2020 at 12:10 am

    At the heart of the violence of structural racism is the financial benefits from slave trade that build Tower Hamlets West Indies docks and East india docks is undisputable.
    Reparations must now be made to us the descendants of the slaves. As my ancestors had no vote in the matter of being kidnapped, murdered, raped , transported to the Caribbean and placed in metal chains and beaten and murdered and forced to work for free.
    There is a number of caribbean countries claiming in a legal case, funds from Britain for this.
    I am personally calling for reparations.

    As a lot of poverty caused by the actions of cruel and inhumane murderers of British slave trade and this must be rectified.
    Do not celebrate slave owners, they were violent criminals.
    It is due to the dark past of Britain that we have racism present in our lives as black people today. Stand in solidarity with me and all councillors.
    Best wishes

  4. Jackie Landman on June 11, 2020 at 11:48 am

    Good points made. We do need to do more to enable more talented black members to be elected to official positions in our party and as councillors and MPs, while it is great to celebrate 33 years since Bernie Grant, Diane Abbot and Paul Boateng were first elected, there is still much to do. Its good that we are questioning the signs and symbols of our past, but we must not be satisfied with removing statues: we need to have out place in history recognised. By UK governments eroding what citizenship means it has created ‘subjects’ who are excluded from their rights as citizens as well as Britons, their access to welfare, and means of livelihood, their rights. This isnt a new form of unfreedom, it reminds me of when I was a child in Apartheid South Africa, and the apprenticeships that followed slavery throughout the empire – we need to ensure that the laws that underpin the hostile environment are repealed. Lets consider paying reparations to the former slave colonies to help alleviate the structural inequalities that are the legacy of slavery. Lets ensure all institutions, banks, and city councils, as well as universities like Cambridge, Glasgow acknowledge the debt owed to slavery and empire.

  5. Valerie A Bossman-Quarshie on June 18, 2020 at 9:07 am

    What a magnificent article written by two of the best black men, I have had the pleasure and honour to learn so much from as LP members as well as seen them both achieve successfully in their own right as political leaders.

    It is refreshing to see black men write an account about race and politics, as for far too long when debates on racism are being had, many times others may want to talk on behalf of black people. I personally feel that we do need to discuss the lack of black representation, whether that be in politics, medicine, teaching, law, police, business ownership or political spaces and yes why can’t we one day have our first elected black Prime Minister in the UK!

    For far too long others have spoken up for us as black people, the political elite have told us about what they think black peoples needs are, without experiencing the black persons plight or truly collectively speaking to our communities! So many people now want to talk about black peoples pain and pretend that they understand or are true allies 🤷🏾‍♀️…’black pain for other political gains I call it…😢.

    Before the murder of George Floyd and the countless commissions I for one have lost count of, I have always known who my true allies were! Same way I knew, those folks who actually appreciated my opinions and would actually listen to my cries of structural racism and discrimination. For far too long others have taken credit for black achievement or excellence, its about time we have more mediocre black people in all places of industries, just as Dawn Butler has articulated so well on many platforms, I personally believe we have volumes of good abilities like our white or Asian counterparts and need to be equally represented.

    I personally want to see more allies speak up for black people to bring fundamental change across the divide! I want to see more black representation in all industries and I would love to see more black faces in all spaces as we are just as talented, skilled and capable of carrying out various activities/tasks like our white or Asian counterparts. Some are afraid of quotas but I say roll them out, as audits will show the lack of representation of black people within our society of employment as we are
    heavily underrepresented in all sectors of our working spaces, especially in media outlets etc. We need to give back hope to the many young black people/children growing in the world, up and coming who really want to make a fundamental change and difference within our world for the better!

    No more commissions or articles being written from the eyes of others, I would just like to see a systematic change in how black people are perceived within society and if we all truly believe in equality, then lets embrace true diversity and differences by giving more spaces to black faces for true equity and this will be the right result! Solidarity!

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