The disproportionate number of BAME death rates during the coronavirus pandemic need to be investigated, but Brian Richardson argues, only if we tackle the racism that underpines them
There is a widespread consensus that when Britain finally emerges from lockdown there will be what the Observer’s chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley characterises as “the mother of all public inquiries”. Socialists could be forgiven for rolling their eyes in contempt at such a prospect.
Many people would agree with Guardian journalists Paul Lewis’s and Rob Evans’s suggestion that inquiries are usually initiated in order to “silence critics with one fell swoop and kick a controversy into the field of long grass where (those in power) hope it will be forgotten”.
Indeed the very inquiry that their brilliant book, Undercover: the True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, led to is a case in point. The Undercover Policing Inquiry was announced in 2014. After years of wrangling it was finally due to begin hearing evidence this month. The pandemic has caused a further delay, but even before that, its chair Sir John Mitting had indicated that his final report should not be expected until December 2023.
As it happens, a number of inquiries into coronavirus are already either under way or are imminent. The Labour Party has appointed Baroness Lawrence to lead a probe into the disproportionate effect that Covid-19 has had upon those of us from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
Similarly, a Public Heath England review led by Professor Kevin Fenton was due to be published as Socialist Review goes to press. The involvement of former Equalities and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips in that particular process has attracted considerable criticism. Phillips’s much publicised comments about BAME, and in particular Muslim communities, has led to accusations that his views “are luxuries that cannot be afforded by many of our key workers”.
Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott has been one of Phillips’s most vocal critics. As president of Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) she has led the call for an independent public inquiry into the issue of disproportionality. The model that SUTR’s statement cites is Sir William Macpherson’s widely praised inquiry into the police investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Macpherson’s report is especially noteworthy because of its headline-grabbing acknowledgement of the existence of institutional racism in British society.
This conclusion was a huge step forward from Lord Leslie Scarman’s report into the 1981 Brixton riots. That report had empathically rejected similar suggestions about the nature of the police force. Instead it concluded that the problem was one of a few rotten apples contaminating an otherwise wholesome barrel.
It is worth pausing to consider the process that culminated in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry because it is important to understand that it was not simply bequeathed by a benevolent government.
Stephen was murdered in April 1993 and yet it was not until 1997 that the then shadow home secretary Jack Straw committed an incoming Labour government to initiating an inquiry. Between times, the
Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign had to fight a bitter battle, initially in the face of hostile coverage from newspapers such as the Daily Mail.
Stephen’s father Neville openly admitted that in those dark days two things kept the campaign going. The first was the publicity they received when the recently released South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela met them when he visited Britain.
The second was the unconditional support of the trade union movement. Neville received a standing ovation when he addressed the TUC’s annual conference in 1998 and crucially, a commitment to financially underwrite the family campaign.
This very concrete display of solidarity did not come from nowhere. Rather, it was the result of tireless campaigning by activists who built support in their workplaces and communities. Resolutions of affiliation were passed in trade union branches and ratified at national conferences.
Working class people from former mining communities and football fans from Liverpool supported the Lawrence family because they knew from their own bitter experience what it was like to suffer at the hands of the police and state.
The inquiry hearings were a revelation. Beforehand the Lawrence family had expressed serious concerns about Macpherson’s judicial record, and lobbied Straw to appoint someone who could empathise with BAME communities.
That request was rejected but it did succeed in putting the chair on notice that the family would not simply sit quietly and observe the proceedings. Instead, they were actively involved, and their contributions
were buttressed by the presence of hundreds of supporters both at the main hearings in London and those that were held in the regions. This level of community engagement had a profound effect. The concept of institutional racism did not simply emerge fully formed from Macpherson’s brain. It was first articulated by the American activists Stokeley Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton in their 1967 book, Black Power — The Politics of Liberation.
It was that radical tradition that informed the interventions of the activists who spoke at the inquiry. Macpherson admitted himself that it was the weight of opinion and concern expressed repeatedly by those that addressed the inquiry that forced him to reach his landmark conclusion.
This was an important victory, but we should be mindful of its limitations. On one level, of course, it could never deliver real justice for Stephen’s family. Neither the inquiry nor the 1997 inquest, with its similarly headline grabbing verdict about Stephen’s murder, could resurrect him and enable him to fulfil his dream of becoming an architect. Still today, only two of the fivestrong gang believed to be responsible for the murder are serving time for the offence.
Macpherson cannot be blamed for that injustice, and he was doubtless sincere in his hope that his report would lead to a “step change” in race relations.
Many people believed that lasting change would occur when Straw accepted all 70 of the report’s recommendations. Soon afterwards he established a Home Office Task Force that included Doreen and Neville Lawrence to monitor progress in achieving these specific goals.
From 2 April, 2001 the Race Relations (Amendment) Act (RRAA) placed a statutory duty on all public bodies to “eliminate unlawful discrimination” and promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups”.
The warning signs were there from the outset however. Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism was far weaker than Carmichael’s and Hamilton’s, and failed to capture its true nature and extent. Instead, it provided a get-out-of-jail card for those implicated by the report.
Metropolitan police commissioner Paul Condon had defended his force to the last at the inquiry, and angrily asserted that he would resign rather than accept any finding of institutional racism.
Straw should have denied the beleaguered commissioner the opportunity to fall on his sword and sacked him. Instead he insisted that Condon was the best man to lead the Met into an enlightened new era,
and the grateful officer was only too happy to oblige.
As Dr Kambiz Boomla indicates (pages 20-21), the impact of coronavirus upon Britain’s BAME communities is devastating. It is now 20 years since the passage of the RRAA and a decade since an Equality Act that supposedly “consolidated and updated it”. Yet the trail of destruction that we report provides the most damning evidence that institutional racism remains deeply embedded.
An inquiry and a handful of reforms were never going to deliver the change we need because racism is far too important for those that deploy it. At the heart of Carmichael’s and Hamilton’s concept is the notion that racism stems from those at the top of society and is built into the structure of the institutions that they establish and dominate.
As historian and former prime minister of Trinidad Eric Williams pointed out in his magisterial study Capitalism & Slavery, the origins of racism lie in the birth of capitalism. It was developed as an ideology by landowners to justify the brutal oppression and exploitation of those that were captured, transported and put to work.
Since then it has been constantly adapted and revised as capitalism has evolved. It persists not simply because of “ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping”, as Macpherson suggested, but because it continues to serve the needs and interests of the ruling class.
A robust inquiry is important because BAME communities are entitled to raise our concerns and demand immediate action to protect our lives. It is precisely this type of agitation that can force our rulers into making concessions.
By chance I am writing these words on the very day that it was announced that the government had caved into criticism and agreed to waive the surcharge on foreign-born NHS and social care workers. This was another of the demands raised by SUTR among others.
The Tories’ retreat is a victory that will have a real impact on the lives of those affected.
Ultimately, however, a few reforms will not be enough to protect us from a resurgence of racism. BAME communities are disproportionately, but not exclusively, affected by coronavirus. The majority of those that have died, fallen critically ill or are suffering under curfew are white and were born on these islands. The same is true in the United States, where we have seen similar debates about disproportionality.
It follows that working class people of all ethnic backgrounds have a common interest. Right now we must come together to demand that frontline workers receive the protection and equipment they require and to oppose an end to the lockdown that imperils our lives. But we should also have our eyes on a greater prize.
Building solidarity is central to the fight for a society that serves the needs and unlocks the potential of us all.