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George Floyd, one year on: No turning back

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Picture: Getty Images

On the 25th of May 2020, in broad daylight, George Floyd was slowly and cruelly killed outside a Minneapolis grocery store by a white police officer. Derek Chauvin pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes. The handcuffed black suspect said he couldn’t breathe 19 times. Three other officers were implicated in this atrocity. Distressed witnesses watched helplessly. Darnella Frazier, 17, filmed it all on her phone.

After the officer’s conviction

On 20th of April 2021, the day Chauvin was convicted of homicide, Frazier tweeted: “George Floyd, we did it. Justice has been served”. When Joe Biden met Floyd’s little girl Gianna, she told him “Daddy changed the world”. He certainly moved the world. And though there is no turning back, real change is a long way away.   

According to the research group Mapping Police Violence, since Floyd’s murder, a further 181 African Americans have been slain by police officers. Although millions of Americans were shaken and stirred by the Floyd case, Joe Biden’s push to bring in a new law on police accountability is proving to be highly contentious. Institutional racism continues unabated, white supremacist extremism and lethal bigotry still rages across this promised land. Americans do not deny these truths.

Racism in the UK

In the UK, embedded racism has been revitalized by Brexit, yet vociferously refuted. (Not all Brexiteers are racist. But all racists voted for Brexit). From the poorest and most segregated to the most integrated and successful, ethnic minority Britons are relentless subjected to overt prejudice and discrimination.

What racism actually sounds like

I daily get  missives like this: “You fucking Paki bitch, this is a grate (sic) country. You call us racist when we gave you everything. You should be deported to your shithole with your bastard family.” Media race baiting is a popular sport. Just heard a young black writer being cornered by a white male presenter on a commercial radio station: “If it’s that bad, why do you stay? Are you saying the British people are racist? Or are we just too tolerant of people like you?”

A few weeks before Meghan Markle got married, I wrote a cover story for Newsweek USA warning the bride-to-be that she was in for a shock. Americans are naïve about Brits and the royals. And sure enough, racism and snobbery targeted and overwhelmed her. That fairy tale of a mixed-race beauty marrying a Prince soon turned dark. They left Great Britain but the haters still stalk Meghan. Keir Starmer recently opined that Meghan’s treatment by the populist media was not racist. He must know it was but, in today’s Britain, didn’t dare say.

A government in denial

The shoddy government race disparity report was a masterclass in denial, victim blaming and obfuscation. It called for state resources to be redirected to white ‘left-behinds’. Why should  justice and equality for white people mean injustice and inequality for people of colour? This is not a zero sum game. Splitting class into racial components is the same old game of divide and rule, but something new and more sinister is going on too. The right is exploiting a nativist narrative about who truly belongs and who never can. Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch, Tony Sewell, chair of the controversial report – provide validation to this ignoble project.  

Black Lives Matter began in the US in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who’d shot dead black teenager Trayvon Martin. It stormed to our shores after Floyd’s death. This March, I was invited to talk about BLM to pupils at a London school. One black girl asked me this: “You’re a race fighter. How have you not given up? How do you not break when they attack you all the time? I can’t do it.” This is my long reply to her urgent question. And a brief history of racism in Britain:

My brief history of racism in Britain 

I left my birthplace Uganda in May 1972 to take up a post-grad place at Oxford. That autumn, the murderous military dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country. In the 1800s, Indian indentured labourers had been transported by the Brits to East Africa to build the railway and they were followed by small traders, adventurers and opportunists.

We became the obliging middle class, brown in-betweeners with white power above us and impoverished black masses below. We had it all until we were suddenly dispossessed. Ugandan Asians with  British passports were grudgingly permitted to resettle in the UK. Enoch Powell, a resolute white nationalist, opposed Heath and became enormously popular. The hostility against us was palpable. A man spat at me while I was in an Oxford park, reading George Eliot. In London, my family was tormented by racist white neighbours. I was the only brown woman in the department. Some lecturers were contemptuous. Others were condescending.

How racism hit my confidence

I completed my M.Phil, but lost confidence. It took a long time to find myself again. The day my son was born, the 30th of January 1978, Margret Thatcher, a little Englander, stated her country had been ‘swamped’ by too many cultures. It felt as if my womb had been kicked.  In 1989, at the ripe age of 37, I became a journalist. In September 2000, Norman Tebbit told me on the BBC Today programme that I could never be British. A year later, Powell refused to shake my hand before we appeared on a TV programme. (Perhaps he thought my colour would rub off on him).  

I was in the anti Fascist demo in 1979 in Southall when Blair Peach, a teacher from New Zealand, was killed by some Met officers. I marched in 1981 with those grieving for young black lives lost in the New Cross fire. One officer hit me viciously on the back of my leg with a truncheon. In that same year, the Scarman inquiry concluded that race discrimination was the underlying cause of inner city race uprisings. From the 60s to 1993, my dearest friend, British Trinidadian Frank Crichlow, owner of the multiracial hub The Mangrove Club was hounded and repeatedly framed by Met police. A court finally nailed them. Frank received substantial damages for malicious prosecution, but he was dispirited and died too young. These and other lastingly painful experiences made me who I am today — an activist and anti-racist bruiser.

Racism across political parties and over the years

Governments of left and right have always pandered to anti-immigrant nativists. They were at it the day the Empire Windrush landed in June 1948. Labour appeased its liberal rebels by outlawing racially prejudiced practices. Roy Jenkins, a decent Home Secretary, once told me he deeply regretted passing the 1968 immigration act which discriminated against overseas British subjects of colour.  

This is a story about extraordinary resilience and breakthroughs too. In 1987, the first four post-war MPs of colour entered parliament. You began to see non-white faces on TV and the media starting marvelling about successful Ugandan Asian businesses. Ken Livingstone and other local authorities promoted progressive politics, schools and universities became more inclusive. The curriculum was modernised; Salman Rushdie, Ishiguro, Ben Okri joined the literary firmament. I became the first person of colour ever to get a national newspaper column. 

I know Doreen and Neville, parents of Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered by racists in 1993. Sitting through the McPherson inquiry hearings was agonising. But this was a seminal moment. Blair’s government strengthened the race laws, institutional racism was acknowledged. As with BLM, the public and private sectors made commitments to equality and took action. The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, who’d met Neville, denounced Stephen’s alleged killers on the front pages.

An period of optimism

In the Blair and Brown and Cameron years, anti-racists felt optimistic, perhaps too optimistic. Racism is a light sleeper. Powerful Brexit politicians roused the beast.   

Mrs May proudly created a hostile environment for ‘third world’ migrants, including those who had been invited over after the war. The Windrush scandal was another example of British perfidy. Priti Patel, the daughter of a Ugandan Asian exile, is far more to the right than May was. Boris Johnson and his cabal are embarked on a culture war against anti-racism, anti-sexism, liberal values and multiracialism.

We are slipping back to the bad old days.

In 2019, a woman spat at me on a bus in High St Kensington. We are slipping back to the bad old days. Politicians placate nationalists. It’s all about those who truly belong in this nation and the rest of us, forever outsiders, who must put up and shut up. It’s a deal we will never accept.  

Floyd’s death and BLM have re-galvanised us. The struggle goes on.  

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