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What Black Lives Matter Revealed About Racism Abroad

A Black Lives Matter protest takes place at Parliament Square, joined by a demonstration in against the war in Yemen, in London, Sunday, July 12, 2020, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA last month. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

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A Black Lives Matter protest takes place at Parliament Square, joined by a demonstration in against the war in Yemen, in London, Sunday, July 12, 2020, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA last month. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

The Black Lives Matter movement didn’t arise to draw attention to the methods foreign governments use to cover up racism within their own territories, but that’s precisely the effect it had in the United Kingdom. After this past summer’s protests against police brutality went global, the British government commissioned an inquiry into race disparities in the U.K., but instead of a genuine examination of racism in the U.K. and what to do about it, the commission has gone out of its way to whitewash the experiences of its minority citizens provoking anger and disbelief from race and equality activists.

The report released last month reached the farcical conclusion that institutional racism no longer exists as a barrier for the country’s Black and brown communities. It went on to add that the U.K. should be lauded as a model of equality for other white majority countries with a race problem. Race denialists and grifters welcomed the report as ground-breaking in challenging “the dominant narrative” among social-justice activists and the vast majority of people of color: that the U.K. suffers from entrenched, systemic racism, there is a significant evidence base to back it, and we need to address it as a matter of national urgency.

Despite the right’s well-documented enthusiasm for certain  U.S. political and intellectual trends, a number of right-wing politicians and commentators have grumbled that race is one area where thinking from across the pond is not welcome. The Telegraph, the premier broadsheet of the Conservatives, published an editorial this week in which it praised the leadership of Tony Sewell, the Chair of the Commission on Racial Disparity, for “breaking free of the identity politics that cause such problems in the U.S.” In a speech last year in the House of Commons, the Conservative secretary of state for equalities, Kemi Badenoch, called BLM a “pernicious” political group and placed the government in unequivocal opposition to Critical Race Theory,  “an ideology” imported from the U.S. Their insistence that the experience of minority communities are different in the U.S. and the U.K. is true but only in the most trivial way. Focusing on the differences ignores the similarities and the solidarity that has existed between British and American activists for decades. One major difference—unflattering to the U.K.—is that public discourse on race in the U.S. is far more open and honest than in the U.K., and the report stands as an emblem of that deficit. We can’t even acknowledge that there is a problem.

I spent my formative years in the U.K. where I attended school and university but it wasn’t until I lived in the U.S. and read African American literature that I began to acquire the vocabulary I needed to articulate my experiences as a woman of color in the U.K. Suppression in the U.K. is such that there are few spaces where minorities can speak about their experiences or try to make sense of their environments and the prejudices they experience. We must quietly “endur[e] or shrug[] off” the affronts we face, the race report suggests, lest we be labeled trouble makers.

As an Obama Fellow, I met American peers fighting for reform in the criminal-justice system, and for community empowerment and voter rights, who understood their work as intersectional and their efforts as part of a long struggle for civil equality—their heroes immortalized in documentaries, films, museums, and monuments; unlike the U.K. where an equally historic struggle for civil rights has largely been excluded from the curriculum, cultural institutions, and public debate. Those of us looking to understand Britain’s multi-ethnic history still face myriad challenges, and must dig deep to find literature on our own centuries-old resistance.

By contrast, despite the huge race disparities in the U.S., minority communities are not only able to produce and celebrate giants of the civil-rights movement but contribute to a considerable literature that provides a nuanced understanding of the impact of racism and prejudice. From Nadine Burke Harris, who screened children for early trauma, to Arline Geronimus at the University of Michigan, who investigated the health costs of microaggressions, to Resma Menakem’s work on intergenerational trauma, British activists look to Americans for inspiration.

This work is more urgent than ever. On both sides of the Atlantic, COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on Black and minority communities. Minorities make up a large number of essential workers who keep our cities humming, yet must nevertheless contend with the economic insecurity of the gig economy. They represent a high percentage of redundancies and unemployed. Prisons are full of Black and brown people detained for minor crimes like possession of marijuana, and on top of these depredations, Black Americans must also contend with wide-ranging efforts to suppress their right to vote.

Yet while vocal advocates continuously highlight and fight these injustices in the U.S., their U.K. counterparts are brushed aside as “well meaning” but “wrong.” The U.K. government is busy publishing a propaganda report that serves more as a wink to the white population in England than an effort to allay the fears its Black and brown citizens have about their futures.

The authors of the report thought nothing of describing slavery as “the Caribbean experience” or arguing that familial structures were to blame for chronic depravation of minority communities in the U.K. They dismissed the large stock of evidence that clearly contradicts their conclusions including an audit commissioned under Theresa May and a report compiled by a Conservative peer which estimated that racism costs the U.K. economy approximately £24 billion a year. They also ignored data showing that the National Health Service, which is the largest employer of Black and minority people in the U.K., has an almost completely white leadership, and the fact that 95 percent of medical staff that died of COVID were people of color. By ignoring the plight of minorities they have demonstrated the arrogant obduracy of a government that British citizens have come to know so painfully well in the last decade.  While America has far to go in addressing structural racism, British authorities could do well to look across the Atlantic for an education on how to at least acknowledge the role racism plays in our societies, just as British activists continue to draw lessons from their American counterparts.

Zarlasht Halaimzai is the founder of Refugee Trauma Initiative, an organization working with conflict-effected people. She is an Obama Fellow.