The demonisation of white people
George Floyd’s harrowing murder has spurred tens of thousands of people in the West to join Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against anti-black racism.
There is no doubt that racism and black disadvantage exist in the UK, but as the red mist has descended important nuances have been swept aside and the debate has become oversimplified, inflammatory and dishonest.
One of the key flaws of the BLM movement is its demonisation of white people, who are criticised with near total impunity by protesters, with dramatic slogans such as ‘white silence = black death’ being tossed around promiscuously. The suggestion is that all white people are somehow complicit in black disadvantage and exclusion regardless of their individual attitudes and behaviour, their social class or their level of powerlessness in society.
This accusation follows a trend for white people bashing that has been picking up steam in recent years. With no fear of being called out for racism, so-called progressives have blamed white people for everything ranging from spreading COVID-19 to BAME people’s lack of usage of woodlands and their non-participation in the environmental movement.
Even the most well intentioned white people, such as the Extinction Rebellion (XR) organisers, have found themselves accused of deliberately excluding black people. Black communities were under too much strain in their daily lives and faced too much discrimination from the police to sign up to XR’s white-centric protests, according to some critics. The current BLM protests, now in their fifth week, have made a mockery of that argument, showing that black communities are well capable of facing off the police and protesting when an issue resonates with them.
There has also been much talk about the ‘micro-aggressions’ black people suffer daily at the hands of the police and wider white public. “I was walking down the road the other day and an old lady clutched her handbag and crossed over to the other side,” complained one BLM protester to a TV news journalist. The implication here is that white people are entirely to blame for inter-ethnic tension as if aggressive and passive aggressive acts flow in one direction only: from white people to black people.
The more complex social reality is that these micro and not so micro aggressions also flow in the other direction as well as between other ethnic groups and between those other groups and white people. Nearly half of all victims of racial murders in the UK are white while 18% of racially motivated hate crimes are committed by BAME people, which is higher than their share of the population. The Ethnic Minority British Election Study indicates that 15.5% of BAME people believe some races are innately less intelligent and that 39% of South Asian people would object to a family member marrying a black person.
My heart goes out to the BLM protester who felt hurt when the old lady crossed the road, but she and others like her must not be allowed to dominate the narrative while the rest of us cower in the face of overbearing group-think. When it comes to individuals – rather than institutions – racial aggression is complex, nuanced and moves in multiple directions.
Many people will say that abuse or attacks on white people by BAME people cannot be racist because they involve the oppressed lashing out against their privileged white oppressor. It’s an utterly ludicrous argument. How much power or privilege does a white council estate kid or a care home teenage girl have? Most white victims of racist abuse or attacks have no power and have never oppressed any group.
Furthermore, while racism still persists in Britain, we are an inclusive society overall, with 93 per cent of people here believing you don’t have to be white to be British. Compared to other European countries, the UK scores well when it comes to discrimination against black people. An EU investigation into anti-black racism in Western Europe found the UK had the lowest rate of any of the nations considered.
The myth of white privilege
White privilege, a term often used now by anti-racism campaigners including BLM, suggests that all white people hold an advantage over all BAME people courtesy of their skin colour. The concept is overly simplistic and inflammatory. White British people are sharply divided along class lines and white people whose families have languished in poverty for multiple generations should never be lumped in together with the seven per cent of our population who attend private schools and hog the top jobs and levers of power.
Low income white people endure multiple disadvantages and to suggest in any way that they are basking in the glory of their whiteness is laughable. White working class boys are now, and have historically been, more let down by our education system than any other group. Black British children are outperforming white children at Progress 8 school measures and more of them are getting into university. Meanwhile, the top earners in the country are Chinese and Indian, not white, and on average black people are earning only slightly less than their white peers, which is admirable given many black Britons hail from families that arrived in the UK relatively recently from poor communities in poor countries.
However, all is not rosy for Britain’s Caribbean and African communities. Black Britons have one of the highest persistent poverty rates, the highest unemployment rate, one of the lowest levels of wealth and below average levels of home ownership.
Law enforcement and criminal justice are the most notorious areas of black disadvantage, with killings or mistreatment of black men by police often being the trigger for protests and riots both here and the US. But the rage generated by this issue can sometimes obscure the facts and contexts. Listening to the accounts of police brutality given by the media and UK and US BLM protesters, people could be forgiven for forming the view that only black men are killed by the police. No other victims of any ethnicity get a mention, as if they either don’t exist or don’t matter.
The BBC’s Panorama programme George Floyd: A Killing that Shook the World featured a guilt-ridden white female BLM protester saying “this (police killings) just doesn’t happen to white men.” She seemed to believe that white privilege shields white American men from the bullets, batons and neck locks of officers of the law. The BBC let the remark pass unchallenged, which is a shame because it’s wrong. Twice as many white as black people are shot to death by the police in the US each year and while, proportionately, police killings of black people have fallen in recent years those of white people have sharply increased.
One of the most troubling videos I’ve ever seen is the police cam footage of the machine gunning to death of Daniel Shaver while he grovelled, cried and crawled on his hands and knees towards the police. His killer was judged not guilty for the slaying. Daniel was white and there was no murmur of protest about his death.
To point out these facts, however, is not to deny that black Americans are given a raw deal by America’s justice system. They are more likely than white Americans to be arrested, sentenced, convicted and given lengthy prison sentences. They are also 2.8 times more likely to be killed by the police.
In the UK 8% (13) of the 163 people killed in police custody over the last ten years were black, which is disproportionately high given black people make up only 3% of the population. Stop and searches are another major grievance for black people in the UK, which is not surprising given there were 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 white people in 2018/2019, compared with 38 for every 1,000 black people. Black people are also four fold over-represented in the prison population.
These figures are the meat and potatoes of the UK BLM movement, the fuel that fires up their public speakers and sets their followers’ pulses racing. But the stats look a little less shocking when compared to the numbers of black people involved in serious crime rather than (as is usually the case) the total black population. In 2019 and 2018, for example, black people accounted for 21% of murder convictions, 22% of robbery convictions and 8% of convictions for assaults causing actual bodily harm.
This cannot be attributed to higher conviction rates among black people as the rates are actually higher for white defendants than black defendants – 85.3 per cent compared to 78.7 per cent respectively in 2017. It is hard to argue that white defendants are enjoying white privilege when they are more likely to be convicted.
And despite the UK BLM placards saying “stop killing our brothers”, the truth is 140 of the 163 people who have died in police custody in the UK are white and white arrestees are 25% more likely to die in police custody than any other group (not all people in custody are arrestees).
But the overrepresentation of black people in serious crime and in stop and searches undoubtedly suggest the UK’s black population, or at least sections of it, are experiencing serious challenges. For BLM, the root cause of the problem is racism and the solution is an overhaul of white people’s racist attitudes. For me, this is an overly simplistic and prejudicial analysis that demonises white people and fails to take into account the complexities of race dynamics, the varying performances of different ethnic groups in different areas of UK life or the role played by economic inequality.
Income and wealth inequality are key missing parts of the puzzle. Data shows that countries with high levels of economic inequality, like the UK, have more social and health problems, including violence, obesity, low social mobility, low levels of trust, mental illness and poor educational attainment than more equal countries. While people throughout the social pecking order are affected, the most badly hurt are those at the bottom – regardless of their ethnicity. Meanwhile, some studies show that it is class and income rather than race that are the best predictors of police killings and rates of incarceration.
For Britain’s black communities, which, along with some other groups, are overrepresented at the lower end of the economic spectrum, the problems associated with income and wealth inequality may be further compounded by prejudicial attitudes towards them.
And so BLM does have a point. Many black people are suffering, their lives do matter and black disadvantage needs to be addressed. But by de-contextualising the data, oversimplifying the issues, focusing only on black victims of inequality and racism and engaging in lazy labelling BLM has indulged in blinkered, divisive identity politics that has made it more difficult than ever to talk about race and racism.