Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

 

 

 

 

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British universities need Black Studies

This post was written by Dr William Ackhar, a lecturer in community and voluntary sector studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It was originally published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

In San Francisco in 1968 a group of primarily black students went on strike to demand that their college establish an academic programme that reflected their lives and experiences. Their demand was met, and San Francisco State College became the first in the US to have a department and degree programme in Black Studies.

Nearly half a century later, Black Studies, Africana Studies or African-American Studies, as they are now variously named in different institutions, are a coast-to- coast academic discipline. Their academic departments in Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia are home to internationally renowned scholars.

Built on the two foundational pillars of academic excellence and social responsibility, Black Studies in the United States has led to the emergence of more black professors, heads of department and university administrators. From small beginnings, it has emerged as a genuine success story of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle.

As someone who draws heavily on the work of African-American scholars to inform my own teaching and research, I can only look with envy at what has been achieved in the US and wonder why, after all this time, there are still no equivalent Black Studies degree programmes and academic departments here in the UK.

In the past, universities did not feel there was a demand, need or interest in the subject but this is no longer the case. Britain’s black population is approaching 3 million and its increasing significance nationally and internationally in politics, religion, economics, science and the arts more than justifies the need for an academic discipline dedicated to researching and teaching the black experience, to UK society and the wider world.

On 15 May, a group of black scholars will meet to set up a British Black Studies Association, which will call for Black Studies degree programmes to be established. There has been a growing sense of frustration and anger among black British academics over how our communities have been treated by the British university system.

Black students are being encouraged to enter higher education in ever increasing numbers, yet there are no courses or departments where we can learn about ourselves, there is very little likelihood of being taught by a black professor, and according to the latest data there is no chance of seeing a black person leading and shaping the strategic direction of the university.

No wonder many black students, according to the National Union of Students, have a demoralising experience in higher education and on average are leaving university with poorer results than white counterparts who entered with equal A-level grades.

Black Studies – a social science covering subjects such as history, politics, religion, the arts, economics, geography and psychology – is needed to counter the damaging and corrosive idea that black culture is somehow anti-intellectual and that black people are not capable of contributing meaningfully to the intellectual life of this country. For example, it could include study of the Notting Hill carnival, building insight into its historical significance and connections to the Caribbean, South America and Africa, the complex religious symbolism that underpins it, its economic, geographical and cultural impact, and its role in establishing London as a global city.

Gender Studies has played an important role in shifting cultural attitudes and public policy towards women. The study of the black experience could be transformative for schools, police forces, mental health services and other arenas of public life that still have issues with black people. In education, a Black Studies perspective could be instrumental in tackling the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys.

By seeing their intellectuals, scientists, artists, technicians, being discussed, analysed and eulogised in schools and universities, the relationship between the black community and the authorities would change from that of “problem” to one of being productive contributors to society, resulting in engagement and achievement rather than continuing disengagement and underachievement.

This enhanced status of black life in Britain would ultimately result in more black teachers, intellectuals, and professionals being seen and heard in public life. And that is something many communities and public institutions in Britain need as a matter of urgency.

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