- Interview by
- Laith Al-Khalaf
The police killing of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis on May 25th sparked a global wave of protest that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier this month, The New York Times published research suggesting that the movement might be the largest in US history – but its resonance extended far beyond the United States.
In the UK, Black Lives Matter produced numerous high-profile events, from a demonstration at Whitehall to the pulling down of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. But the narrative surrounding the movement was also hijacked by media controversies such as those about alleged racism in television shows, which had nothing to do with protestors’ stated aims.
Two months after the beginning of Black Lives Matter, journalist Laith Al-Khalaf sat down with one of Britain’s most compelling writers on race – former Guardian columnist and current Manchester University professor Gary Younge – to discuss the movement’s progress, the debates it has provoked and racism in the UK today.
The current wave of Black Lives Matter protests began with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Why do you feel this resonated so much with communities of colour in this country and to what extent do you feel that there are shared experiences of police violence across our two countries?
The murder of George Floyd was both shocking and unsurprising. It confirmed what many of us see from policing, particularly in the United States. It also resonated in different ways across the globe – remember there have been Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Reykjavik and Helsinki. Race doesn’t play out in the same way in each of these countries, but throughout the West racism remains a problem in some form.
When we compare Britain with the US, one of the principal differences is that America is a more lethal country in every possible way: they execute people, they incarcerate people on an enormous scale and they shoot people at an incredible rate. While our police are less likely to carry guns and kill people, there are still clear issues with how the police treat black minorities. In fact, the propensity for incarceration among black Caribbean men here rivals that of African-Americans.
It’s also important to remember that BLM isn’t just about policing – it’s about housing, education and employment and in all of those realms, black people face challenges both here and in the US, even if the situations aren’t exactly the same. Across the Western world the resonance lands very easily, so long as you don’t take it literally.
We’ve just passed the third anniversary of Grenfell and the second of the Windrush scandal. What do you feel that these events – as well as wider issues around Prevent and the hostile environment – say about how racism manifests itself in Britain today?
Because black people have been in this country significantly shorter, one of the ways racism manifests itself is through the immigration system. In this country immigration is not only a black issue, but there has been an enduring focus since the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act to restrict black immigration. Of course, one of the most heinous expressions of that has been Windrush, where we see British people deprived of their citizenship and deported. It is amazing how rarely it is brought up with reference to Black Lives Matter.
With Grenfell, you have this multi-racial community who fall victim to the four horsemen of late stage capitalist apocalypse: deregulation, austerity, inequality and privatisation. However, with both it’s important to note that while race is a key theme, neither was uniquely racial. Windrush is more widely about the hostile environment, which does not just effect black people and Grenfell is about sub-standard housing, deregulation and funding cuts which, again, does not exclusively hurt black people.
As you say, Grenfell was a story about class as much as race. How do you feel those two interact in the current context?
They can’t be used as proxies – they are undeniably not the same thing, but you can’t understand one without the other. The British working class is multiracial. The number of people working in ship-building, coal mining and steel today, which were once the bulwarks of the working-class movement, are outnumbered by the amount of people working in Indian restaurants. That not only tells you something about what the British working-class looks like now, but also how the type of work has changed.
The challenge for the Left comes in understanding things other than class as being material. Some seem to link anything belonging broadly to ‘identity’ with ‘feelings’ when they do have material effects. If you’re a woman, you earn less than a man; if you’re Pakistani or Bangladeshi, you’re fifteen times more likely to live in overcrowded housing; if you’re black, you’re four times more likely to die of Covid-19. All of these things are material.
So, in order to understand the intersection, you need to understand how a range of identities have a material impact on your livelihood and aren’t just about cultural issues. It’s not possible to have a meaningful conversation about race that doesn’t take class into account, but it’s also impossible to have a meaningful conversation about class that doesn’t take race into account.
How do you feel that Covid-19 has accentuated racial inequalities in this country?
This exemplifies why BLM has to be broader than police violence. There is this idea that what happened to George Floyd is the way racism looks, rather than being just one manifestation of it. Most black people in US and UK will not be killed by the police in a way that can be filmed and have a visceral affect.
However, when you look at how black people interact with housing, education and jobs you see the more bureaucratic, paper-shifting ways that they fall to the bottom of every pile. When you ask, ‘why are black people more likely to be nurses and bus drivers and other unsafe jobs?’ you are leading to a systemic understanding of how race impacts life.
On this particular topic too, there is a lot of research tracing shift patterns to vulnerability. It has been shown that black people are less likely to speak up, and more likely to be disciplined in a way that makes them feel less empowered and makes their work less safe – even when they’re not working class.
Representation has proven to be a contentious issue in the discussion surrounding the protests. Famously, Cornell West decried the role of “black faces in high places” in reference to Barack Obama. What role, if any, do you feel the black bourgeoisie should play in this movement, and do you feel their presence has helped or hindered the movement for black lives?
Well, in this country I don’t think we have a black bourgeoisie. We have middle-class black people but these are generally people of income rather than of wealth and there aren’t institutions to buttress them as such.
In the US, we have the issue of who these people are representing. Obama never claimed to be representing black people. He was representing the Democratic Party, which is embedded in a range of financial institutions and corporate interests that are not in the interests of African-Americans. Under Obama the racial wealth and income gap grew and the Black Lives Matter movement started.
One doesn’t need to criticise him personally to understand that the principal gains Obama made were symbolic. Generally speaking, the problem with the black bourgeoisie is that they do what bourgeoisies do, but with greater ties to their blackness. They call on people to trust in institutions that have never served the black working class and seek a respectability in political establishments.
At the start of his presidency, during the foreclosure crisis, Obama brought in financial interests into the White House and said, “I’m the only guy standing between you and the pitchforks.” Well, in that case, get out of the way! He comes in when black people were losing nearly a generation of wealth, and he never really acted to redress that balance.
The Black Lives Matter debate has played out in large parts of the media through elites arguing about culture wars. How can we move away from symbolic questions onto more material inequalities when BLM is such a nebulous organisation?
BLM is barely an organisation, it’s a concept. So when talking about why Black Lives Matter don’t do any number of things, people assume a structure that isn’t there. This is a critique not a criticism.
When I went to a BLM march a few weeks ago in my local area there were a few thousand people and yet I didn’t see anyone taking names or doing anything that one would associate from a movement-building organisation. I’m 51, so that might just not be the way that it’s done anymore, but my sense is that BLM is not an organisation but a group of organisers, marches and events under this broad rubric. The obvious strength of this is that it can be quite rapidly responsive, but the weakness is that its agenda is funnelled through a media that is hostile and then reduced to discussions around Basil Fawlty.
This movement is pollinating fast and a variety of demands are being made throughout a variety of institutions. My fear is that 90% of it will end up in racial awareness training – but I hope it remains more persistent and dogged. The problem is it lacks the structure and because of that we need significant pressure to maintain the movement. The capacity to exert that pressure has dissipated somewhat.
How do you feel this movement differs from older civil rights movements?
It’s a lot more fluid and a lot vaster. The American civil rights movement was initially concentrated in the South and then spread out into big rebellions in urban centres in the North. Comparatively, this has been everywhere, stretching from Idaho to Sweden to Italy. Secondly, it’s faster, partially because of new technology but also because of institutional reasons.
Finally, it’s not just less structured, it’s unstructured. It’s not like you go to Minneapolis and there’s a Black Lives Matter office – that’s just not the movement. There are benefits to the lack of structure due to the speed and ease with which movements can travel. I also think the less centralised form it takes allows for more women to rise to the top. We shouldn’t expect it to look like the past but there are some elements that are missing that need to be there if it will be sustainable.
This moment is also much more multiracial and Western-focused. In the 1960s it was black America joining with the Developing World fighting common battles, whereas this feels like it is taking place on more Western terrain. I don’t know how BLM is understood in Ghana or Tanzania or Bolivia, and the extent to which it is expressed solely in terms of solidarity or whether it challenges internal issues too.