It may be Black History Month, but it’s business as usual in the UK

Black Lives Matter London protest, 6 June 2020
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Every October, we mark Black History Month in the UK. It’s a time in which we’re encouraged to reflect on the Black presence in Britain, and to celebrate the contributions Black people have made and continue to make to our society. However, for many institutions and individuals, this month appears to have been business as usual.

So far, we’ve seen a school banning pupils from speaking Black British English, the mainstream media blaming drill music for knife crime and a racist attack on the Windrush memorial. Meanwhile disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock has been appointed as the United Nation’s special envoy to support coronavirus (Covid-19) recovery across the African continent.

Criminalising the language 

Ark All Saints Academy, a secondary school in south London has banned pupils from speaking in Black British English (BBE) – framed as ‘slang’ – in “formal learning settings”. Black British English is a language in its own right, with a rich history of migration and resistance.

Grassroots organisation Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health (BLAM UK) responded to the school’s ban by saying:

The organisation sent an open letter urging school leaders to reverse the ban. The group highlights the ban is harmful for Black students’ “racial esteem” and ‘reproduces anti-Black linguistic racism’. They add that it isn’t in line with the 2010 Equality Act which states that public sector bodies must seek to “eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation”, or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which protects children’s right to speak their own language. They also highlighted it’s in breach of the 2002 Education Act. This Act states a curriculum should ‘promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils’ and ‘prepare pupils for later life’.

In a press release, the charity’s founding director Ife Thompson said:

The implementation of this policy reinforces the ideology of the inferiority of Black languages linking to the historically racist and imperialist view of Black people as ‘less than.’ BLAM rejects the guise of ‘professionalism and preparation for the future’ as explanations provided by the school for the ban… We also need to think deeply about the historical implications of what we deem to be ‘proper’ English.

Criminalising the culture

The stigmatisation of Black British culture didn’t end there. On 11 October, the Independent published a headline reading:

This was based on a report by right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, which also points to the Met Police’s “unusual and unjustified” policing strategy. Clarifying the report’s claims, the Network for Police monitoring (Netpol) shared:

Pointing to the structural issues that are linked to rising knife crime, one Twitter user shared:

Indeed, 40 years of cuts and privatisation, an increasingly fascist state, and a devastating pandemic have resulted in a frustrated, volatile population with very little to lose. In the last decade, the Tories have cut funding to youth services by an astonishing 73%. On top of this, young Black working-class people face persistent marginalisation through disproportionate racist school exclusions, stop and search, and policing on and off school grounds. As set out by United Borders – a charity that supports at-risk young people – drill music is very much a ‘symptom‘ of this depressing state of affairs, rather than a cause.

No justice for Windrush victims

On 12 October, the Voice reported that the Tilbury Bridge Walkway of Memories has been vandalised in a suspected race hate attack. The memorial was created as a tribute to the Windrush generation who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean. It features images of those who arrived at Tilbury Docks aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948. In an act of vandalism, a number of these panels have been smashed.

The Voice shared:

This act of hostility came as the UK Home Office continues to delay sending compensation to the victims of the Windrush scandal. The Windrush scandal refers to the Home Office‘s unlawful detention, deportation and denial of hundreds of Commonwealth citizens’ rights, having destroyed thousands of immigration records. At least 21 people have died before receiving the compensation they applied for. Speaking to the ongoing injustice, Black and Asian Lawyers for Justice tweeted:

Adding further insult to injury, one of prime minister Boris Johnson’s special advisers turned Windrush justice activists away from the Tory Party conference. Julia Davidson and Anthony Brown had paid for their tickets and sought to engage delegates, but were turned away. Expressing her disbelief, Windrush lawyer Jacquelin McKenzie shared:

Exporting British incompetence

On 12 October, former health secretary Matt Hancock announced his appointment as UN special envoy to support Covid-19 recovery efforts across the African continent. His announcement came after a Commons inquiry found the Tory government was responsible for one of the worst public health failures in UK history. At the time of writing, the UK’s Covid death toll is over 137,000, one of the highest in the world. The report also noted significant racial disproportionality in UK Covid deaths.

Responding to the news, journalist and anti-racist organiser Roger McKenzie tweeted:

Lawyer and activist Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu shared:

Shedding light on the gravity of the situation, Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy shared:

Pointing to the colonial overtones of Hancock’s appointment, Afua Hirsch added:

So far, Black History Month has been another month of British institutions doing what they do best – making life considerably worse for Black people everywhere.

Featured image via James Eades/Unsplash

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  • Show Comments
    1. Beginning as a young boy watching the original release of the 1977 TV miniseries ‘Roots’, I can recall how bewildered I’d always get just by the concept of Black people being brutalized and told they were not welcome — while they, as a people, had been violently forced to the U.S. from their African home as slaves! And, as a people, there has been little or no reparations or real refuge for them here, since. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the narrator notes that, like the South, the Civil War era northern states also hated Black people but happened to hate slavery more.

      After 3.5 decades of news consumption, I’ve found that a disturbingly large number of categorized people, however precious their souls, can be considered thus treated as though disposable, even to an otherwise democratic nation. When they take note of this, tragically, they’re vulnerable to begin subconsciously perceiving themselves as beings without value. (I’ve observed this in particular with indigenous-nation people living with substance abuse/addiction related to residential school trauma, including the indigenous children’s unmarked graves in Canada.)

      While the inhuman(e) devaluation of such people is basically based on their race, it still reminds me of an external devaluation, albeit a subconscious one, of the daily civilian lives lost in protractedly devastating war zones and heavily armed sieges. They can eventually receive meagre column inches on the back page in the First World’s daily news.

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