Black Lives Matter: Tackling racial inequalities and injustice (blog post)

A blog post by Cumberland Lodge Fellow, Heather Hatton, on our 'Black Lives Matter: Race & Justice' webinar, held on 8 July 2020

On Wednesday 8 July 2020, Cumberland Lodge hosted the first Dialogue & Debate webinar in a four-part mini-series on the Black Lives Matter movement, focusing on race and justice in the UK. 

Three guest speakers – Dexter Dias QC, Dr Suhraiya Jivraj and Kerrin Wilson – joined Chief Executive, Dr Edmund Newell, to discuss what ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) means to them, and the potential it has for generating widespread change.    

Throughout a stimulating discussion, the panellists explored issues such as structural racism, unconscious bias, racialised policing, racialised outcomes, white privilege and the myth of race.

The conversation highlighted key issues around racial inequality in the UK and what we can all do to help tackle racism and make a positive difference. It drew on some of the recommendations that were presented in the Cumberland Lodge Report on Race in Britain: Inequality, Identity & Belonging, published in autumn 2019.

Structural racism and implicit bias

Opening the discussion, Kerrin Wilson, Assistant Chief Constable for Lincolnshire, reflected on how the BLM movement in the United States has opened up important debates in the UK about how the police works with the communities it serves. She stressed, however, that it is important not to confuse the styles of policing that exist in the UK and the US.

Reflecting on whether there had been a decline in overt racism in the UK, human rights lawyer Dexter Dias QC, argued that the biggest problem we need to address is implicit bias and structural racism, rather than explicit racism. He stated that ‘racialised policing’ is a major issue, and that if we operate in a society with highly racialised structures and societal norms, then our police force is likely to reflect that.

Dr Suhraiya Jivraj, Reader in Law and Social Justice at the University of Kent, spoke about how issues of racial inequality can be compounded by other factors, such as gender, sexuality, age and disability, and thus need to be tackled through an intersectional approach. Reflecting on her university students and the BLM protests more widely, Suhraiya argued that many people feel they are ‘reported out’ and want ‘considered action’ rather than just words, although this should not be a ‘knee-jerk’ response.

Honest conversations and safe spaces

All three panellists highlighted the need for honest conversations about racial inequality in the UK, and for the creation of safe spaces in which to have these discussions.

Kerrin discussed how conversations about racial inequality should be led from the ground up and not driven by institutional agendas. Safe spaces must be created in which people can be brought together with institutions, to discuss racial issues.

Dexter argued that while we need safe spaces, we also need to raise awareness about institutionalised racism more broadly. Despite evidence provided by recent reports that there is too much ‘gaslighting’ (defined as manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity) of institutional racism – we need to face up to the reality of its existence.

Suhraiya highlighted how universities were diversifying reading lists and creating panels to discuss racism but that, too often, such groups simply became ‘talking shops.’ There are still very few mechanisms in place to support students with reporting instances of racism and feeling comfortable in doing so.

The need for meaningful action

Something repeated by all three panellists in this discussion was the need for meaningful action on racial inequality. Dexter spoke about how we need to understand historical contexts and conditions – the economic uncertainty created by the 2008 financial crash, the impact of huge population movements, the rise of populism throughout Europe and the world and the creation of nostalgic myths in order to effectively address racial inequalities.

Kerrin also suggested that the police and wider society need to respond to the fact that different forms of racism exist within the UK. Part of the issue, she argued, is that we have ‘left communities behind’ and not addressed inequalities within working-class communities, which can manifest in terms of polarised views.

Seeking solutions

In response to a question from the online audience about what can be done to achieve justice for Black, Asian and other minority-ethnic groups, the panellists pointed to several possible solutions.

Kerrin highlighted the need for criminal justice boards to come together, to better understand the diversity of the people going through the system and get a clearer picture of where the injustice lies. Dexter spoke about his positive experiences of diversity and inclusivity training in the legal sector, and the need for honest conversations about the nature of structural racism and how it effects all parts of our community. Suhraiya argued that people in positions of power need to be modelling best practice, by acknowledging their privileges, including the existence of white supremacy and domination, and how certain people have benefitted from this.

What we can do better

The webinar concluded with the panellists reflecting on another audience question, about what white people from privileged backgrounds could do to better understand racism, and the practical actions they might take to address discrimination.

Suhraiya discussed a step-by-step process produced by her students which can be found here. In particular, she highlighted the importance of people listening, reflecting on their own privilege, and educating themselves before they act. Dexter argued that the most important place to start is by acknowledging that race is a social construction that has been used historically to ‘rubber-stamp’ and justify inequalities of power, access to resources and the appropriation of land.

Both Dexter and Suhraiya stressed the pressing need to address the ‘wilful ignorance’ that exists around conversations of race.

Kerrin concluded by saying that it is human nature for people to group themselves together, based on characteristics they deem to be similar, so perhaps simply highlighting the scientific explanations that refute the existence of race might not be the best tactic in changing peoples’ perceptions. Dialogue, learning and the building of shared understandings, within and between communities, might be more powerful.

For me, as a white PhD student studying the impact of settler colonialism in an early American context, one of the main take-away points from this discussion is how we all have duty to educate ourselves, to understand and acknowledge our own privileges, to question what knowledge is, and to examine how particular narratives are constructed in ways that reinforce existing views and behaviours.

As a former secondary school history teacher, I believe that educators and governments alike can, and should, do more to ‘decolonise’ and diversify the curriculum. By considering what, and whose, history we are privileging, and by creating more inclusive curricula, we might better equip students with the knowledge to identify and act upon racial inequalities both now and in the future.