The founder of the Black Reformist Movement and ex member of BLM UK, Imarn Ayton, explains how institutional racism and more covert forms of bigotry have replaced what we once thought racism looked like
In May of this year, a 20-year-old black student (who wishes to remain anonymous) was arrested by police in London. This young woman endured seven police officers holding her to the ground while they kicked and punched her (a fact they later admitted to, according to a report on the incident on Newsnight). She claims they also lifted her up by her braids, resulting in her hair being ripped from her scalp, and intimately strip-searched her in the presence of male officers, including one who kneeled on her neck. Luckily, she did not meet the same fate as George Floyd.
You are probably wondering what she was charged with after such humiliating and degrading treatment: having found no drugs or weapons on her, she was released without charge. This incident illustrates the fact that black people are disproportionately targeted through police stop-and-search tactics – a recent set of government statistics shows black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people – and 85 per cent of searches never actually result in a formal charge. Ironically, this percentage has not altered much since 2001, yet black people are still seemingly perceived as “the problem” thereby justifying the relentless targeting and “use of force”. So how does that work, exactly?
The above is just one example of why the Met Police have been consistently accused of being “institutionally racist” – and I would happily bet my bank balance that it won’t be the last.
Despite the term first being coined in the US in 1967 by civil rights figure Stokely Carmichael, and later expanded upon by Sir William MacPherson (UK Met Police Enquiry 1999), institutionalised racism continues to be fiercely debated – and politically rejected.
Defined as “biased everyday operational practices and procedures”, institutionalised racism is a covert form of structural racism that affects every aspect of life, including employment, policing and healthcare. Fuelled by unconscious racial bias, stereotyping and racial prejudice, this insidious form of racism is widespread and imperceptible yet continues to disadvantage the black community in the UK. Home Office figures for England and Wales show that black people are roughly six times more likely to be subjected to “use of force” by the police than white people – and yet Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick, when pressed on the subject, says the term institutionalised racism is “unhelpful”.
While organisations may have glossy strategies and public-facing policies, what often lies beneath is an ever-expanding “normalisation” of racial bias which manifests as discriminatory behaviours and a “culture” of prejudice. This cumulatively results in pervasive racial disparities and inequalities. For example, in the NHS (a racially diverse institution) there is evidence of “differential attainment”: black and Asian ethnic minorities do not progress up the career ladder at the same rate as their white counterparts, despite being equally medically qualified.
ATTEMPTING TO RECTIFY INSTITUTIONALISED RACISM, WITHOUT TRULY ACCEPTING ITS EXISTENCE, IS AN ART FORM THAT SUCCESSIVE BRITISH GOVERNMENTS HAVE LEARNT TO MASTER
After two decades of talking about institutionalised racism, why does the UK have a problem accepting its existence? Firstly, the term itself is considered contentious and therefore has been rejected and replaced by politically innocuous phrases such as diversity and inclusion (D&I). Organisations across the UK have been encouraged to have “D&I strategies”, which, let’s face it, in essence serve to ensure that they avoid discriminatory practices (AKA “institutionalised racism”). As nonsensical as it may be, attempting to rectify institutionalised racism, without truly accepting its existence, is an art form that successive British governments have learnt to master.
Secondly, it could be argued that the modern British sense of good and evil was forged in the blustering speeches of Winston Churchill when opposing the Nazi regime during the Second World War. British culture has long since identified itself as “good” and firmly synonymises racism (including Nazism) as evil. Therefore, any notion that the UK is a racist country would be firmly rejected from Lands’ End to John O’Groats. We’re supposed to be the good guys.
It is little wonder that the UK remains content to call out individual acts of racism, as opposed to admitting that “structural racism” is firmly interwoven into British society. Admitting widespread institutionalised racism would cause justifiable outrage within the black community and beyond – and so leaving us in the festering pit of unacknowledged racism and inequality is far more of a palatable approach.
Last, but by no means least, institutionalised racism – the big bad wolf that makes the faint-hearted squirm – is an uncomfortable and polarising truth, which, if acknowledged, could potentially endanger the very fabric of British identity, notwithstanding the fact that it would undermine the prevailing notion that the UK is a fair, tolerant and equitable society (with its police one of the things standing at the vanguard).
AS A NATION WE HAVE FAILED TO GRASP AN UNASSAILABLE TRUTH: THAT WE HAVE SIMPLY TRANSITIONED FROM OVERT TO COVERT RACISM – FROM PENALTY TO NO PENALTY
Confident and painstakingly in denial, the general consensus among many sectors of the UK population is that we have made great progress with racism and that racists are only a small percentage of the population. However, as a nation we have failed to grasp an unassailable truth: that we have simply transitioned from overt to covert racism – from penalty to no penalty.
Due to a change in English law, the days of individual acts of overt racism – such as openly calling a black person the n-word with no consequence – are over, but where have all the overt racists gone? Did they disappear overnight when the law changed?
We see less overt racism these days, which is why many believe we have made progress. Yet this insults the black community – one only needs to witness the recent outrage associated with major UK brands using black people in their TV adverts to see the scale of the problem. If in fact we have made progress with racism in the UK, and racists remain the minority, then the pertinent question we should all be asking ourselves is: could the few in fact be larger than we acknowledge and if so, what jobs/positions do all these people have?
This isn’t academic theory, this is a truth that we as “black people” have to face. So if the UK collectively fails to recognise the existence of institutionalised racism, we will continue in this perpetual state of denial – which, as we all know, is not a river in Egypt.