After months of Black Lives Matter protests, a 12-year-old boy was this month handcuffed by armed police officers in his own home because he had been seen playing with a blue toy gun. It is the latest in a series of incidents which should make us ask: how much can we really expect Boris Johnson to change with his racism review?
In June, Johnson announced plans to launch a commission into institutional racism in response to the mass protests in the UK in the name of Black Lives Matter. Now, obviously, I would love him to succeed. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I just don’t think he’s willing or able. The reality is this Government can’t handle racism.
The evidence is clear: we are not an equal opportunity country. Researchers at Oxford University tested how just the Englishness of your name can affect your opportunities in life. They sent out 3,200 job applications, using identical CVs and cover letters, changing only the name and found that people with Pakistani, Nigerian, or Middle-Eastern names had to send between 70 and 90 per cent more applications to get a job offer. Given that employers decide people’s quality of life, there’s no getting away from the fact that life in this country passes through a racist filter.
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Johnson, with his majority of 80 MPs, could punch a massive hole in that filter by forcing employers to use blind CVs so they only see the National Insurance number and not the candidate’s name or gender. No such luck. Even when announcing his racism review, Johnson said his task was to “change the narrative” in order to “stop the sense of victimisation”, as if the racism I just highlighted was because black people like to feel like victims.
We also know that black people are 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, according to the Government’s own data. A certain type of person will respond, “but look at the crime stats”, as if being black makes you naturally more into crime. Tell me: how many middle-class black people carry knives? The links between poverty, lack of opportunity and crime are well-known.
Speaking about research conducted in London, Laurence Guinness of The Childhood Trust said: “The areas that have the highest number of recorded violent crimes are neighbouring those that have the highest levels of people in poverty.” I’ve never lived in an area where I felt that if I wasn’t myself carrying a knife, I might not make it home. I’m also financially comfortable. What if I was born without those privileges? We’ve already established that it’s about 80 per cent harder for someone with a name like mine to get a job, and therefore be trapped in poverty. We also know that poverty rates among black people are significantly higher than among white people. Those same people whose racism traps me in the economic group most likely to commit crime will then use those crime stats to justify their racism against me.
Stop and search has historically been racially discriminatory, yet Johnson has said: “There’s nothing kinder or more loving that you can do, if you see a young kid coming down the street, who may be carrying a knife, than to ask him or her, almost invariably him, to turn out his pockets and produce that knife.”
On top of the fact that that’s basically giving permission to racially profile British citizens, that’s not even the law. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act says they need reasonable grounds to suspect that specific individual of committing a crime.
In north London, Huugo Boateng, a 13-year-old boy was on a charity bike ride last month with his father when they were both stopped and detained by police investigating a stabbing. Huugo’s father Andrew told The Guardian they were threatened with Tasers during the “aggressive” arrest. An officer said they were looking for someone who matched the description of “IC3 [police code for a black person] males on a bike”. Are you kidding me? Does that sound like reasonable grounds to stop them to you?
When your Prime Minister is seemingly giving officers permission to discriminate, distrust between black people and police will only grow. In one session of Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson repeatedly refused to even criticise Donald Trump after he threatened those who were protesting against the killing of George Floyd by a racist police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. A few weeks later, a Metropolitan police officer was suspended after he was filmed appearing to put his knee on the neck of a black suspect, who was screaming: “Get off my neck”.
Racism and intolerance trickle down. Johnson likened Muslim women to bank robbers and anti-Muslim attacks spiked. Johnson won a campaign which labelled EU citizens as a burden on the country and that year saw the sharpest rise in hate crime since 2013.
The best way to make the UK less racist generally is via education. In school, all I learned about in history classes were stories of UK achievements and victories across the world. All other countries were either enemies or places we saved. So is it any surprise we still have problems with white supremacy and British exceptionalism? If everyone was taught the simple fact that Western economic superiority was achieved through the colonisation, murder, enslavement, rape and robbery of the countries we see as inferior, we would stop seeing them as inferior.
In 2016, Johnson wrote: “The problem [in Africa] is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” What’s needed in the UK history curriculum is the legally compulsory inclusion of Empire and our role in the slave trade, so that children know that we were not consistently the good guys in every story. But it appears as though we have a Prime Minister who believes we were.
The reforms in education, policing and employment that are vital to removing systemic racism from our country are at odds with the beliefs and rhetoric of our government. So while I wish Boris Johnson the best in his efforts to “change the narrative”, I can’t see that happening until we have a government that’s willing to change the reality.
Femi Oluwole is a political commentator and anti-Brexit campaigner