College Sociology Tutor’s Reflections on Black Lives Matter (BLM)

College News and Communications
Friday, 10 July 2020 09:58

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Dr Dennis Hamilton, one of South and City College’s Sociology tutors has written a powerful and thought provoking article about BLM, which was originally intended to be shared internally with other members of staff. He has kindly given his permission for the college to share more widely.

Dear colleagues
I hope that you and your families are all healthy and keeping safe? I also hope you do not mind if I take this opportunity to share my thoughts, concerning the murder of George Floyd in America and the subsequent Black Lives Matter [BLM] protests, particularly those in the UK. I am sure you all agree that racism should have no place in modern Britain. However, despite the passing of three Race Relations Acts in 1965, 1968, 1976 and also an Amendment in 2000, racism continues to flourish and its impact reduces the life-chances and opportunities for many minority ethnic groups in the UK. Due to the increasing rhetoric from right-wing agitators on social media platforms, and in the mainstream media, it is important to emphasise that the BLM movement is anti-racist but it is not anti-Semitic, nor is it anti-White. BLM is an inclusive rather than an exclusive movement, which embraces all who share the view that racism in society is an endemic and persisting problem that must be addressed. Although you may have heard of the BLM movement, you may not be aware of some of the evidence which suggests that the campaign against racism in the UK is just as salient and necessary as it is in the US. BLM is not promoting the idea that people of African heritage are entitled to special treatment, nor is it suggesting that Black lives matter more than White lives or any other life. BLM contends that Black lives should matter as much as all lives. The aim of the Movement is to raise awareness of disproportionate police brutality against people of African origin and to campaign for structural changes to remove racist policies and practices, which have a disproportionate effect on the lives of Black people.

The live streaming of George Floyd’s murder, contains some of the most graphic, horrifying and traumatic images that I have ever seen in my life. What made the footage even more terrifying for me is the thought that, for no other reason than the colour of my skin, I could have been George Floyd. It could also have been any of my sons, my wider family, or anyone who shares my racial identity – suffocating under the weight of a police officer’s knee for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The reality of racial violence is part of the unfortunate lived-experiences of Black British lives. The visceral impact of racism transcends generations, to the extent where many Black parents live with the fear that their child could become another Stephen Lawrence or George Floyd: murdered by the simple virtue of having a skin colour that is different to that of the White majority. Racism is essentially about power, privilege and legitimacy and does not operate in a vacuum. It is embedded in our political and institutional frameworks, which have the legitimate power to insidiously exclude on the basis of skin colour, and normatively portray racial others as deviant, pathological, and having less worth and social value. It is structural racism, rather than individual prejudice, that creates and maintains the social conditions in which Black lives can be taken without fear of legal repercussions. It is also economic and political powerlessness, which conflate to devalue Black lives, that is the focus of the UK’s BLM movement.

Police brutality against people of African heritage is not unique to the USA. Although the UK police are not armed in the same way as their US counterparts, Blacks more so than any other British ethnic group, are disproportionately killed in police custody or on contact with the police. The data is available and can be accessed online from the Inquest website. The death of Michael Powell, someone who I knew personally, forms part of that data. In 2003 Michael had a mental breakdown whilst visiting his mother, who called the emergency services to help him. An altercation occurred with the police, during which they used their vehicle to knock him down, reverse over his prostrate body, before handcuffing him and chocking him to death. All of this happened in front of his mother, on Leonard Road in Handsworth. Michael had no previous dealings with the police, yet he died in a similar manner to George Floyd. The only major difference was that Michael’s death was not filmed and streamed live for the world to witness. Although the police are supposed to protect all citizens equally, the BLM movement highlights that where the treatment of Blacks is concerned, police actions are not always lawful. There are some police officers – but by no means all – who subjectively act on their negative perceptions of Blacks, rather than basing their actions on evidence and the immediate context of the situation. If you are Black in the UK, you are over three times more likely to be arrested than if you are White. You are also less likely to be cautioned, more likely to receive a custodial sentence and serve a longer proportion of it in prison. Most arrests come from stop and searches. However, whilst stop and searches have decreased for all White ethnic groups, it has increased for all BAME groups and especially for all Black ethnic groups. This data is available online from the Ministry of Justice website.

The economies of Britain and America are driven by neo-liberalism, which contends that government should not intervene in the lives of its citizens but instead regulate the different market situations in which individuals compete for life-changing resources. Racism acts as a barrier, which constrains Blacks from competing on equal terms in UK and US labour market situations. In the US, African Americans are over-represented in lower-tier occupations, and in the UK the latest ONS data highlights that Blacks have an unemployment rate that is two-and-a-half times higher than their White Counterparts. Blacks are also clustered in high-risk, insecure occupations in Britain. Racial inequality, in the labour markets of both countries, is compounded by the over-representation of Blacks in the criminal justice systems. African Americans make up approximately thirteen per cent of the US demographic population, and account for thirty-five percent of the American prison population. In other words, the presence of African Americans in US prisons is almost three times higher than their proportional representation in the general population. However, not many realise that there is a higher proportional representation of Blacks in UK prisons than there is in US prisons. Black ethnic groups in the UK make up three per cent of the general population but account for twelve per cent of the prison population. This means that the percentage of Blacks in UK prisons is proportionally four times higher than their corresponding figure in the general population. This racial disparity in UK imprisonment rates is documented in the Lammy Review, which is a government commissioned report that is available online. In addition to the above, the 2011 National Census reveals that British-born Blacks occupied the same labour market positions as their Windrush Generation antecedents – who came to Britain following the passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act. This suggests it is racism, and not lack of ability that is the problem where the stagnation of economic opportunities is concerned. The data further highlights the need for the BLM movement in the UK.

I mentioned earlier that racism is embedded in the frameworks and practices of British institutions and our educational system is a very powerful apparatus in the reification of racism. The education system has the power to legitimise truth claims, which are effectively half-truths, and indoctrinate young minds by presenting them as the whole-truth and nothing but the truth. Nevertheless, education can also be utilised as a powerful weapon in the struggle against racism. This has been noticed more recently in the way that young people, from different ethnic backgrounds and social groups, have mobilised in support of the cause of the BLM movement. Our young people have successfully drawn the public’s attention to some of the reductionist aspects of our national curriculum, which overlooks how Britain’s past involvement in the enslavement of Africans has influenced the world we live in today. For example, prior to the recent events in Bristol where Edward Colston’s statue was unceremoniously removed, he was generally recognised as a benevolent patron of the city – which he undoubtedly was. However, because of the actions of BLM supporters, the public is now aware that Colston was also a Director of the Royal African Company, an organisation granted Royal assent to forcibly migrate, enslave and sell Africans.

The relevance of the UK’s BLM movement was recently highlighted in Parliament by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Although she condemned the actions of those who removed Colston’s statue, she made no reference to the thousands of Africans who lost their lives because of him. For hundreds of years Africans were enslaved, mutilated, raped, murdered and forced to labour on plantations owned by Europeans, whose wealth contributed to the growth of various European economies. In Britain’s case, the British Navigation Acts were instrumental pieces of legislation which were passed specifically to facilitate the enslavement of Africans by legally classifying them as chattel, and as property they had no rights of entitlement and protection under the law. One would undoubtedly support Jewish people, in their efforts to remove a statue of someone who was instrumental in the Jewish Holocaust. However, the treatment of Africans as less than human by Europeans, is not deemed as historically significant in the school curriculum, as the Jewish Holocaust undoubtedly was and continues to be.

Pupils are taught in schools about the English industrial revolution. However, the fact that Britain’s economic manufacturing and production base, was to a great extent financed by the enormous profits made by the plantation aristocracies in the colonial Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries, is conspicuous by its absence. Pupils are not taught that the foundries of the Black Country in the West Midlands specialised in making the chains, shackles and fetters used to transport and control enslaved Africans. The school curriculum overlooks how Birmingham derived substantial sums of money by supplying slave traders with the majority of guns used in the trafficking of Africans. Slavery was vital to the local economies of Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester and without Britain’s involvement in human trafficking there would be no City of London. Major banking institutions such as Barclays and Lloyds developed their financial infrastructure from profits accrued from their involvement in chattel slavery. This information is publicly available on UCL’s website: Legacies of Slavery and also in Eric Williams’ book: Capitalism and Slavery, to name but a few sources. Britain’s role in the forced migration and subsequent enslavement of African peoples is an important part of British history, which should be acknowledged and open to scrutiny.

The ways in which past racial inequalities have informed racism, and racist practices in the here and now, are far too extensive and insidious to articulate here. Racism perpetuates inequalities in health, employment, housing and educational market situations, and has informed the negative social and political constructions of others. There is a mythical notion, generally expounded by those who have never felt the brunt of racism, that Britain is a post-race society. This fallacy tends to be reinforced by the fact that unlike some other countries, Italy or China for example, Britain has specific laws which address racial inequality. However, that is like saying we should no longer be concerned about patriarchy in society, due to the existence of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the 2010 Equality Act. Legislation alone cannot eradicate inequalities unless the political will exists to punish the perpetrators. Politicians will not act if there is no agency in civil society, and citizens are unwilling to mobilise in order to change attitudes that nurture racism and hate. As educators we occupy key strategical positions, to be effective agents for change in the struggle against racism. My You[th] Against Poverty students – both past, present, Asian, White and Black – were out there on the streets of Birmingham in June, actively supporting the anti-racist agenda of the BLM movement. I did not ask them to participate; they thought that it was the right thing to do. I cannot convey how proud they made me feel, partly because I am aware that their participation was to some extent influenced by my teaching. Stuart Hall once said that to defeat racism we must struggle where we are. I have always taken on board his philosophy by implementing anti-racism in the A-Level Sociology and Criminology curriculums that I teach. By taking little, but nevertheless persistent, steps we can defeat racism. I urge you all to struggle against racism and resist it, wherever you are and whenever you see it. Silence is violence.

I really appreciate you taking the time out of your important schedules to read this. I sincerely thank you all. Stay safe and stay healthy.
Dr Dennis Hamilton
Lecturer: Sociology

Dr Hamilton gained his PhD in Sociology from the University of Warwick and has been a tutor at the Longbridge campus for nearly a decade.

To read the college’s statement regarding Black Lives Matter please click here.