For over 400 years, blacks have been chronically and systematically hated, demonized, terrorised, traumatised, abused, deprived and denigrated. It is a wonder that despite this they have not risen to form their own version of the Ku Klux Clan.
Professor Cornel West – Professor Emeritus (Princeton University)
As hideous as it was, slavery and the emancipation of blacks from the chains of oppression and its evil trade, remains an integrally significant aspect of British history. The Great British Empire was at the time a thriving colonial kingdom, wielding vast reach and influence across world regions that were under its jurisdiction. As far as the slave trade and Britain’s involvement is concerned, we cannot erase the facts of its symbolic, albeit historically reprehensible past by just a flick or by mob-fuelled sentiments. I refer to the ‘Black Lives Matter marches and demonstrations that have held across the UK over the past week as an extension of the mass US protests over the murder of George Lloyd by a white police officer. We have all heard in the news about the desecration and destruction of some of these historical monuments targeted by ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrators. There is the admirable as well as the worrisome aspect of this movement in the wake of the renewed indignation following the George Lloyd killing and the injustices of the American policing system this tragic killing continues to highlight. It is of course encouraging to witness the solidarity across all racial divides where blacks, whites and Asians have joined forces effectively to denounce and to stand against the evils of racial prejudice that continue to culminate in the frequent killings of African American males in the US by white police officers. It signals a new era perhaps in which the apathy prevalent for so long may now be confronted in a much more socially vocal way going forward.
However, I do not accept that any one person or groups of individuals whatever the justification, should be allowed to deface these historical symbols of which slavery and its abolition forms a crucial part. Historical monuments must be left to stand as a reminder of the best and worst parts of our historical context and consciousness. It is not about celebrating the ugly but rather about remembering how and what about the past got us to the present period and what paths we need to be forging ahead as part of our historical evolution. The UK as a multicultural society has been very ‘good’ at smugly applauding itself over its attempts to address racism’s pervasive undercurrents. In truth, the UK remains one of the most racially diverse and integrated societies on planet earth but the fact is not to be mistaken for any assumption that racism and the prejudices that ensue from it aren’t still a societal cankerworm. On the contrary and to some degree the ills of racism in our midst remain glaring, perhaps a topic for another day. On the surface, life for many, if not most black people may be described as simply good enough, assuming reasonable educational attainment as well as above the average.
For black males perhaps slightly more challenging when it comes to securing employment within the more financially rewarding fields of employment. Some may wish to subscribe to the view that ‘good enough’ should be good enough. I prefer turning the argument on its head and in this case I believe life should not just be good enough but should be as it ought to be for those who aspire and strive to accomplish better; and as comparatively good for them as that of their white counterparts. In other words, ‘good enough’ is not good enough if factors of racial prejudice constrain or hamper the ability to attain levels of success (relative to their white counterparts). Too often these factors influence the outcomes in ways often hard to pinpoint. Such is the power of modern racism’s indiscernibility. The physical shackles have been substituted for different types of shackles. Shackles that leave us free to live ‘good enough’ but make it exceedingly difficult to attain beyond that. We must aim to remove the invisible glass ceilings that exist; that persistently hamper the ability to rise to pinnacles in our chosen fields of endeavour. This is all too evident within the corporate and professional sectors. The racial lens too often influences the measure and levels of success that are achievable as well as the access to the very opportunities that can aid successful advancement; and where these opportunities are ostensibly available to all, the frequent experience is that white counterparts always stand the better chance over black counterparts. There is a culture of being transparently non-transparent. I struggle to put into words how this plays out but most black people in their various professional career fields of will appreciate exactly what I mean.
People of black heritage must work and scale twice as many hurdles as their white counterparts of equivalent educational status or career experience or even less. Yet we have mechanisms that are supposedly designed to create the impression that skies are the limit for those who dare to aspire. While this might theoretically be so, the experience for blacks falls far short of the expectation. The point-blank questions to ask are why and what? The equally point-blank answer is this: the colour of one’s skin seems to unfortunately inform the attitude, the perception and the reaction towards the attempts of a black person to progress as well as a white counterpart. The answers are also to be found in the subtle patterns of institutionalised racism fuelled by attitudes, perceptions and structuralized systems that whitewash the issues of race without genuinely addressing the heart and nuance of racial inequities at stake. Much effort is put into creating the misleading impression that issues of racism and equality have a proper outlet of address when the stark reality and experience are quite the opposite. It continues to amaze me how many white people in positions of leadership or prominence are quick to jump on the bandwagon to decry and shun racism in all its forms; expressing their support for anti-racist movements but continue to have little or no representation of black people at senior levels within the sectors and corporate organisations they represent. Such is the hypocrisy that is rife across the rank and file of UK society that reflect the subtleties of racism and prejudice affecting black people regardless of how qualified or experienced they might be.
The overarching mechanisms and corporate habits that enable equitable and successful access to opportunities are the very blockers that inhibit fairness of access. These are very real bread and butter considerations on racism that need to be tackled. This hypocrisy is reflected at the very uppermost echelons, across the spectrum of wider society and well entrenched. At best, some form of ‘tokenism’ is adopted as a rather feeble attempt to address the apparent imbalances. For most sectors, the status quo despite being clearly inadequate from a racial quota perspective is often considered good enough. The truth is that the glass ceiling culture is the prevalent experience. There is also the issue of stereotypes cultivated and perpetuated by the systemic nature of ingrained racial bias that only serves to reinforce racial pigeonholes eliminating them. Why for instance is it ok to have athletics and football littered with black faces but a glaring absence of same black faces within senior level corporate sectors. Yet British universities are populated with black students who in many cases pursue degree and postgraduate programmes with even greater fervour and determination than their white counterparts. One would expect that the same opportunities permitting white counterparts to achieve success in the corporate world would be just as available to their ethnic counterparts. For instance, why are the lucrative media positions both in front and behind the scenes typically and almost exclusively occupied by white faces except for the token black face chosen most probably as a tick-in-the-box token quota exercise than for anything else. On both sides of the figurative racial aisle, we seem to have settled into a complacent resignation towards these disparities.
The fundamental disadvantages of these forms of overtly covert racism and prejudice will never be resolved by mere superficial or rhetorical measures. Nor will they be resolved by solely exercising the right to engage in peaceful demonstrations however emotionally charged and however much these protests may be needed as morale-boosters. What is needed is a deep-dive approach into analysing the invisible bottlenecks that hamper much needed change, examining chronic under representation across corporate niches and sectors at all levels, wherever under representation has become a norm. Acts of vandalism or violence towards police officers tasked with maintaining law and order ill-serves the core message at the heart of the solidarity movement and undermines its very authenticity and integrity. We cannot allow our actions to mirror what we are trying to change or those we accuse. If black lives matter then the protagonists of the movement must also ensure that their conduct reflects this truth in relation to the manner in which they convey their message; otherwise we leave ourselves open to the same accusations that we allege against others and we lose some of our moral ground. Our historical monuments must be left alone. They serve as a reminder of history’s stain on the conscience of our collective humanity. In addition to these protest demonstrations, the most effective way to achieve tangible results is to form strategic alliances and coalitions that can lobby government and organizations by pressing for a combination of initiatives and soft legislation to pave way for creating the enabling environments to usher in the changes we seek. In other words, doing away with the tokenistic forms of racial inclusion to make way for much more balanced and representative inclusion across corporate public and private sector employment.
So, let us not become politically correct or knee-jerk reactive over an issue that is more endemic and problematic than we have cared to admit until now. The issues that stem from race prejudice are much more intrinsic than the monuments representing the hallmark of a distasteful history. Several years ago, I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel, a centre dedicated to the memory of the holocaust and the millions of Jews that were killed during the period. This was a gut-wrenching experience for me, witnessing through the creative preservation of the holocaust artefacts, historical monuments and records what served as a haunting reminder of man’s breath-taking capacity for evil. Likewise, slavery and the historical monuments that marked its grim event need to be preserved – not as a form of veneration but as a stark reminder of why we must advance the cause for continued emancipation and why the fight for justice and racial equality must persist until societal transformation is achieved.
Police enforcement must be poised and prepared to enforce the law and to apprehend those who vandalise structures in the name of whatever movement. There should be absolute zero tolerance towards these acts of vandalism and violence towards our police officers who may not be perfect but are certainly a million times better and more humane than their US counterparts. I am appalled at the images of police officers being attacked on the streets by protesters and in other incidents across London. This must not be excused or condoned, and a severe example must be set with the perpetrators to discourage others from following suit. If we expect respect from our police officers, we must also accord them the same. Failure of the police to maintain law and order for fear of public opinion only leads to social anarchy and breakdown of law and order. Let us stop all the politically correct hogwash and focus on the real issues with a view to finding lasting solutions that improve social and racial cohesion and equality. But we cannot and must not rewrite history to pander to mass emotionalism. Rather, we must educate, enlighten and stamp out the invisible face and stranglehold of racial prejudice in all its silent, chronic and overt forms.
To recap, these historical monuments serve as a reminder of an era, a world and a system depicting the gross inhumanity and reprehensibility that once was and still prevails in some respects; it reminds us of the heroes and the villains of that era and the part they played in it; good or bad. I do not wish for these historical figures to be photoshopped out from history, rather we need visible reminders of where we once were, how far we have come and how much further we have left to go. Seeing images of demonstrators going around vandalising monuments and attacking police only makes me less sympathetic to any cause that chooses violence and lawlessness as its modus operandi. Britain in embracing its increasingly multicultural character is not to imply that pro-multiculturalism is in any way anti-British or anti-British history; whatever the facts of that history might be. Please leave our monuments alone. In trying to advance the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, we must not alienate more conservative minded people or white folks who are still on the path to getting their heads around the emerging socio-cultural landscape. They matter too, whether we are in sync with their views. We must always make effort to win the hearts and minds of those who may still feel uncomfortable with what the cause might mean for them. Adopting vandalism and violence as a means of expression of outrage will certainly not help any cause and certainly not that of the Black Lives Matter.
Senior Management & Strategy Consultant, Writer & Speaker