Since the murder of George Floyd two years ago today, I have been anecdotally observing the phenomenon of African-American refugees: families I have met who have fled racism in the US and sought refuge in Britain. Their journey follows the arc of all that has happened since. This time two years ago, they were traumatised by the possibility of police violence against their own children. Little more than six months later they were tipped over the edge by the Capitol riots. Seeking another English-speaking home where they could obtain visas and avoid armed police, they came here.
As they have discovered, Black people here hardly perceive this country as a sanctuary. In the past week alone we were confronted with inquest evidence that Ian Taylor, a 54-year-old asthmatic, was told to “stop acting up” by police officers but then died from a cardiac arrest. The verdict found that police assessments of the risks he faced were inadequate. The timing finds us on Floyd’s anniversary absorbing another painful story of a Black man pleading in vain for help to breathe.
In the same week, they may have encountered the story of Raheem Bailey, a little boy who lost a finger desperately trying to flee attackers. We don’t yet know the full facts of his case, but his mother says he had been hounded by racist bullies since the beginning of the school year.
They will read the findings of a year-long study describing systemic racism in UK maternity care. And that minority-ethnic people make up about 13% of the UK’s population, according to census data, but the latest figures from England and Wales show that these groups make up 34% of those held on remand in prison.
The promises that flowed after the murder of Floyd have been flagrantly broken, or kept only in the most cynical way. It’s true that for those working in companies or public sector organisations, language and tone has adjusted. US studies have shown that the mention of “systemic racism” has increased 300-fold at company events such as earnings calls and investor meetings.
But investigations into British companies, museums, academic institutions and public sector organisations found that few of their high-profile public statements in the six months after Floyd’s death were matched with action.
And yet this ineffectual and often performative anti-racism has still been enough to trigger a backlash. In the US, rightwing fanatics have confused the hitherto academic critical race theory with anything anti-racist. This has proved such a heady cocktail that some US states have spiralled into a book-pulping frenzy. While the British government is yet to embark on this particular bender, it seems inspired, and has also attempted to make CRT a villainous household name.
But the most sinister, perverse consequences of Floyd’s murder are the new laws that put both the actual bodies of Black people and anti-racist activism as a whole at risk.
In the US at least 160 Confederate statues were removed in 2020, but the UK has moved swiftly to protect its racist symbolism. The Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act invokes the toppling of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue – for which four people were acquitted of criminal damage – and makes future damage to memorials punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Protest will now be harder and more aggressively policed. This speaks directly to already aggressively overpoliced Black people in particular as a double attack.
The Nationality and Borders Act makes it possible to strip people with dual citizenship of their Britishness without notice, a fitting tribute to another troubling anniversary this year: 10 years of the “hostile environment”.
But not all refugees are equal. The Americans I have met, who were able to arrange corporate relocations to facilitate their flight from racism, are likely to consider visiting Rwanda as a form of chosen return to the African continent, while the Nationality and Borders Act means black and brown refugees from poorer nations face being deported there against their will.
Those Americans, like other middle-class Black families, are also likely to be better cushioned against the coming recession, which new data suggests will widen an already record level unemployment gap between ethnic minority workers in Britain and everyone else. Recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics show Black households face being disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis, with the majority of households having less than £1,500 in savings, and being more likely to go hungry.
And yet, I have not seen the same energy for racial inequality evidenced in October – when Black History Month gave racial inequality modest airtime – on budget day.
In June, the UK will celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, but questions of racism are almost nowhere to be seen. It’s as if the royal family and structural racism are wholly unconnected.
But the years since Floyd’s murder have emboldened Black and Indigenous communities around the world to see British royal tours as the tip of a multi-generational iceberg of racist trauma. The royals, meanwhile, still seem to think they are heading to subservient colonial playgrounds. The tour of Jamaica by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was so disastrous it unintentionally became a generous gift to the republican cause. Prince Charles’s tour of Canada was met by demands for the Queen to apologise for atrocities committed against at least 150,000 Indigenous children
At home, Britain remains distracted by the wrong questions. One survey asked people if they would be comfortable with a minority-ethnic prime minister, to which the majority answer is apparently yes. But to ask if the public are at ease with diversity assumes that there is something to be uneasy about, and strikes me as the radically wrong question.
A better question being asked in the US is what happened to the reconstruction-era promise to the formerly enslaved that they would be given 40 acres and a mule. Had that promise been kept, Floyd’s life would have turned out very differently – he may have inherited a tobacco farm rather than finding himself in the struggle to buy a pack of cigarettes that led to his death.
Britain never bothered to make any such promise to either its enslaved or exploited colonial subjects. And a better question is: why not? Why is the UK failing to recognise, for example, the impact of its colonial land grab in Kenya? Mau Mau survivors there think a fitting way to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee would be recognition that their own elderly relatives were robbed of their dignity and land.
I think about African-American refugees to Britain, and any other newcomers, visitors or tourists, watching in awe as the nation gears up for the spectacle of union jack-lined street parties. But it’s what is absent that counts: I anticipate our supposed newfound anti-racist insight will also be suspended mid-air like bunting.
It’s great that people are more fluent in the language of anti-racism, allyship and racial equity, but the cultural compartmentalisation of events such as this are the tests we continue to fail.
Afua Hirsch is a writer, broadcaster, and former barrister