Creating a more equal society to make black lives matter

27 Aug

The summer of 2020 saw the spread of two pandemics.   The first, was that of Covid-19 that originated in a marketplace in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.  By 20 August 2020, there had been over 22 million cases worldwide and nearly 800,000 deaths.

The second pandemic began outside a shop in Minneapolis on 25 May when footage of an arrest showing a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an African American, while he was pinned to the floor.  Floyd said more than 20 times: “I can’t breathe!” while being restrained by Chauvin.   Chauvin’s three white colleagues stood by and watched.  Floyd was suffocated to death.

I           The George Floyd Saga

The saga began with a report of a ‘fake’ $20 (£16.20) note.  Mr Floyd was reported to have used it to buy a packet of cigarettes from Cup Foods, a grocery shop.   Believing the note to be counterfeit, a shop employee reported it to the police.  Floyd who had been living in Minneapolis for many years after moving from his home in Houston, Texas, had been working as a bouncer but, like millions of fellow Americans, was left jobless by the coronavirus pandemic.

Floyd shopped regularly at Cup Foods – a friendly face and pleasant customer who did not cause any trouble according to the store owner, Mike Abumayyaleh.  However, Abumayyaeh was not working on the day of the incident.  Rather, it was a teenage employee who had been following protocol in reporting a suspicious incident.  The employee told the operator who answered his 911 call that the customer appeared “drunk” and “not in control of himself” when he (the employee) demanded the cigarettes back over the alleged fake $20 note.

The four officers were arrested, and Chauvin charged with the manslaughter of Floyd. However, this incident caused several hundred demonstrators to take to the streets of Minneapolis.  The demonstrations spread to other US cities and from there across “the pond” to Britain, creating the Black Lives Matter (BLM) global movement.

It did not help that a CNN reporter of Muslim heritage, Omar Jimmenez, who was reporting the saga live was arrested on 29 May.  A few minutes later, several colleagues of his were also arrested. They were released later when they confirmed that they were from the media.  Tempers were inflamed by President Trump’s tweets condemning the demonstrations and threatening to send the National Guard and army.  On 1 June, he posed in front of a damaged church holding a bible upside down, after police used tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters.  Anti-racist protests spread throughout America and several people were killed by the police in their efforts to control what was by now wild riots and looting.

Anti-racism demonstrations were held around the world.  In Australia, protests in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane focused on the treatment of indigenous Australians. There were demonstrations in France, German, Spain and here at home, in the UK.  In Bristol, protestors tore down the statue of the seventeenth century slave trader, Colston, and flung it into the harbour.  On 9 June 2020, following the anti-racist protests around the world, 500 guests were invited to the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston (Texas) to the funeral of George Floyd in Houston (Texas).

II          Issues arising from the Floyd Saga

From the time I – of Indian-Jewish origin – was little, I could not get my head around to why it was that people unfairly discriminate against one another based on skin colour. Colour is skin-deep. At school, I read about the oppression of African Americans (at that time dubbed Negroes), their emancipation in the civil war, thanks to the inspirational leadership of Abraham Lincoln, who paid for this with his life, and their continuing march to having similar opportunities to the whites, under the non-violent lead given by Martin Luther King. For years, the equal opportunities issue was a black and white one.

Now it is more nuanced.  The USA has always been a melting pot, more so today.  Since the 1960s, there has been an influx of foreigners, many of them illegal and mainly from Latin America.  The country is much more mixed and with the current leadership – mixed up.  The USA has made strides on the road to progress.  However, it does not appear to have travelled far enough.   The atavistic tweets of President Trump continue to fuel divisions that are tearing apart American society.

The June 2020 Floyd saga sparked demonstrations in Europe.  Bristol residents in England, bubbled over and dumped a slave-trader’s statue into the water.

(a)       Pulling down statues:  Symbol or Substance?

According to the writer and journalist, Ben Macintyre, “Pulling down a statue is a blunt statement, but so is erecting one. A statue is not an invitation to debate but an unarguable assertion of rectitude: as a benefactor of Bristol, Colston was commemorated, according to the inscription on his now-empty plinth, as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city”. Such statues are not works of art but public injunctions to admire, demanding respect — and therefore potent targets for disrespect.”

Colston, a slave trader who was also Bristol’s benefactor, was honoured with a statue. That is what a statue does – commemorate the works of what humankind at a time consider great and good.   Students in Oxford want also to give Cecil Rhodes – who donated vast sums to the University – similar treatment as Bristol resident did to Colston’s statue but, so far, have been stymied.

Times change and with that also how human beings view statues changes.   You remember what happened to the statue of Sadam Hussain.  His reputation fell with his defeat and both, he and his statues, were destroyed following the Iraq war of 2003.

However, is it desirable for people to destroy statues simply because the historical figures they stand for are viewed differently to what they did during their time?   And because of how we assess aspects of their characters and deeds as unsavoury is it the case that their “figures” be obliterated?

Admiral Nelson wrote in favour of the Jamaican slave trade.   Should we remove his statue from Trafalgar Square?  And what about the Parliament Square statue of Winston Churchill commemorating his resolution and courage in saving the world from the Nazis? Should that be removed because he referred to Hindus as “a foul race” who “breed like rabbits”?  And then there was Martin Luther King, America’s non-violent anti-racist hero, who disparaged homosexuals suggesting they seek help.   The great Mahatma Gandhi had a contempt for Black Africans.

One recalls the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony when reacting to the death of Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

No person is perfect.   I am reminded of the saying of Edgar Cayce, the psychic and clairvoyant: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us that it doesn’t behove any of us to speak evil of the rest of us.”

(b)       Anglican response and dealing with complexity

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, remarked in a Radio 4 programme in late June 2020 that representations of Jesus, especially that of colour, will need rethinking.  “The statues need to be put in context. Some will have to come down, some names will have to change,” he said. However, if you were to visit Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, there are monuments, everywhere. We are looking at all that and some will have to come down.”

It’s not easy to dismiss the archbishop’s concern as liberal.  Christianity owes much to Africans and Caribbeans. If we are all created in “the image of God” as expostulated by Christianity, some work will be needed to reshape the “Messiah” as “a fair-haired hippy with a halo”, explains McIntyre.

Graça Machel, the former wife of Samora Machel, the former Education Minister of Mozambique, joined the freedom movement in 1973.  Her husband died in a plane crash, by which time, the proportion of girls enrolled in Mozambique’s schools had risen from 40% to 75%.  Twelve years after Machel’s death she married Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s President.  Following his death, she became a figure much respected for her wisdom and authority.

In July 2020, Graça Machel, who started life as a teacher, chided the Black Lives Matter movement. She said that rather than bringing down statues, we should keep them up to “tell generations to come, this is how it started, and this is how it should never continue to be”. It made the protestors stand back and reflect on the value of forcing colonisers to confront the benefits they reaped from slavery and their guilt in oppressing those less fortunate than themselves.   According to Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, toppling monuments erases the memory of the evil of which we are all capable. “You remove the evidence; you remove the deed.”

And here, in Wembley, Katharine Birbalsingh, Headteacher of Michaela Community School, stated that decolonising the curriculum will not help students achieve later in life.  Ms Birbalsingh was born in New Zealand, the elder of two daughters of Norma, a nurse from Jamaica, and Frank Birbalsingh a teacher of Indo-Guyanese origin.  She moved to the UK having spent most of her first 15 years of life in Toronto, Canada. This was because her father was appointed visiting fellow at the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick, later securing the post of professor at York University.

During an online discussion about racism in Britain hosted by by The Eqiano Project, a forum seeking to promote free speech on issues of race, culture and politics, Ms Birbalsingh was scathing about schools prioritising Stormzy over Mozart, stating: “If you don’t know who Mozart is how are you meant to, later on in life, take your rich client out for dinner and hold a culturally literate conversation?…..Anyone who has ever overcome any obstacle in life knows that if you spend all your time worrying about how insurmountable it is, you will never overcome it.

“I am not going to spend my time begging the white man to undergo unconscious bias training; it’ll distract me from doing what does work, which is getting kids to learn their algebra, turn up on time and deliver. The problem with getting angry about racism is it’s distracting. It leaves you with less energy to help you succeed, like working hard, getting married and being a good parent.”

She was of the view that the study of black figures being made compulsory in history teaching “is a red herring and is only helping to divide us”.  She added: “Nothing in our schools is compulsory, apart from the Holocaust. In my opinion a big example of institutional racism is exactly what Black Lives Matter wants to encourage; they want schools to teach fewer dead white men like Dickens or Churchill and more black authors and historical figures.”

Meanwhile, Welby’s move to review white images of Christ in churches is a knee-jerk reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.  In 2018, Lancaster University showed, in a research paper, that while people of colour are keener than average to put their children in faith (especially Anglican) schools, they are far less likely to gain places than white pupils.

Anglican church commissioners recently pushed to promote environmental causes and set aside £9 billion from its investment fund to do so.  However, there is hardly any mention of promoting diversity.  For starters, Archbishop Welby could begin to diversify the choice of commissioners who are currently undiluted white.  This could concentrate minds and redress the admissions imbalance in Anglican schools and academies.

(c)       Issues are not binary

To add to the complexities of life, we should not view this matter as binary – in black and white terms.   Britain is a very multi-ethnic country with people dwelling in it who are shades of all colours.   Nelson Mandela stole the term “rainbow” when describing South Africa to make the country (at least during his time) truly inclusive.  We are no different.  Britain’s population is ethnically diverse, and their experiences vary.

India Knight, the Sunday Times columnist (who is of mixed race) remarked: “The Oxford-educated daughter of an Indian billionaire who lives in Kensington will encounter racism but it will not be comparable to the racism experienced daily, from birth, by a poor, black, British boy from Tower Hamlets, whose grandparents were Ghanaian, or by an Asian teenager from Newham, both in East London.”

Ethnicity is complex.  When I served as Assistant Education Officer in the London Borough of Brent several years ago, one of my closest colleagues with whom I had a splendid, professional relationship, came from Jamaica.   She felt strongly about the issue of racism.  She, herself, was related to one of the cabinet ministers in Jamaica.   One day, she flung the following question at me: “Are you black or white?”

I scratched my head and asked: “Pardon?”

She repeated her question.  My response was: “Neither.  I am brown!”

She was appalled. This sparked a heated debate about how we perceive ourselves.  I had to explain that my grandparents were from Iraq.  They fled to Burma because, as Jews, they sought a better life than they were living in the Middle East.   My parents were born in Burma (now Myanmar).  When their house in Rangoon was bombed by the Japanese (who were in the process of demolishing the British Empire in the Far East during the Second World War), they fled to India, where I was born.   Accordingly, I told her, I am an Indian Jew of Middle East descent and that was how I perceived myself.  She was having none of it.  I was either to perceive myself as white or black.

We were never going to resolve this matter, so I decided to leave it and asked her to do so too.

Fast forward to the turn of this century.   My daughter was studying for a Geography degree at Newcastle University.  One of her friends asked her about how she viewed herself.   She said: “I am half-Israeli, half Indian and fully British!”  (My wife is a sabra.)   Her friend was puzzled, but my daughter left it at that.

It is time that we embrace complexity.   It is so easy to engage in slogans (i.e. the //MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter), which then unsavoury people dismiss as being of no consequence.   There is no question that both movements began with the best of intentions – to promote equality of opportunity for women and black people.   However, if our children are to grow up in a truly equal society, it is now time to stress that all of us are of equal worth.  Change the //MeToo to //UsToo and Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter.

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