by Dr Grace Mansah Owusu.
Following the recent death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who died on 25th May 2020, after an arrest was made, there have been global mass protests and a reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement. George Floyd’s arrest was made after he produced an alleged counterfeit $20 note when paying for goods at a shop. What resulted, was a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes. Gasping for breath, telling them he couldn’t breathe, no one listened and Floyd died later on that day. The footage was captured by a passer-by on video and the video subsequently went viral, leading to the current protests that have spread to other cities across America including Washington DC, New York, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. There have also been protests in the UK, Australia, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Italy and Canada.
This killing has generated a lot of anger, sadness, confusion, primarily across the black community; not just in America but across the globe. According to an article by Aljazeera.com black Americans are two and a half times times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by the police. In Utah, African Americans’ comprise just over 1% of the population but account for 10% of police killings over the last seven years. In Minnesota, where George Floyd resided, black Americans are nearly four-times as likely to be killed by law enforcement. They comprise 20% of those killed, despite making up only 5% of the population in that state (Hadid, 2020).
These numbers give a snapshot of what’s been going on for hundreds of years across the pond. Just this year, two other high-profile examples of excess force leading to deaths of innocent black people in America include Ahmaud Arbery aged 25, and Breonna Taylor aged 26. Ahmaud was murdered during his daily jog in early 2020, whilst Breonna was shot eight times, while she was asleep when officers entered her home in Louisville in March. Breonna’s killing turned out to be a case of mistaken identity and the person they wanted was in fact already in police custody at the time. These shocking and brutal events stick in the psyche of many black people across the globe.
Six years after the death of Michael Brown, a teenager who was shot dead by the police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, what has changed? In 2019, 1,999 people were killed by the police in America. Black people accounted for 24% of those killed that year, even though they represent 13% of the American population. Interestingly, 99% of killings by the US police from 2013-2019 have not resulted any officers being charged with a crime.
What about the UK?
In the UK the picture is also bleak. According to a Home Office report from 2016, in 2014/15 people who identified themselves as black/black British were three times more likely to be arrested for notifiable offences than those who identified as white. Over the last 10 years, 163 people have died in police custody according to the Office of Police Conduct. Of those, 140 were white, 13 were black and 10 were from other minority ethnic groups. When you compare these figures to the percentage of the population however, black people are more than twice as likely to die in police custody. According to the numbers from 2011 census, black people made up 3% of the population but account for 8% of the deaths in police custody. With high-profile and lesser known deaths of black people in police custody including Mark Duggan, Sarah Reed, Cherry Groce and Rashan Charles, this shows that the UK doesn’t have a clear record when it comes to black deaths in police custody.
This teamed with COVID-19 deaths, black people have another reason to think that their lives are at risk, either by those who are meant to protect or a deadly virus. The statistics around COVID-19 based on the Public Health England report 2020 show the impact on BAME communities has been vast. Black people are most likely to be diagnosed with the disease and those from a Bangladeshi background face the greatest risk of dying. Their risk of dying is double that of white British people. Deaths among black males were 3.9 times higher than expected between March and May 2020. With these recent events, black people have been bombarded with triggering images which further highlight that their lives do not matter.
Other statistics add to the feeling of disposability for black people in the UK. Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth according to a study by Mbrace UK (2018).
Unemployment rates from January to December 2019 was 3.6% for white people compared to 8% for black people according to government statistics. In comparison, black people have a university entry rate of 41% in comparison to white people having a 29% entry rate in 2018. This suggests that even with a University degree, black people are still discriminated against in the jobs market. Exclusion rates between 2017/2018 for black pupils is 0.13% compared to 0.10% for white students.
These statistics are overwhelmingly alarming and point to systemic differences that impact black people disproportionally in the UK. These are realities that black people either are consciously or subconsciously aware of. There are droves of people denying that these inequalities exist, that black people benefit from quotas (that are minimally used in the UK) and black people play the ‘race’ card. The evidence above speaks for itself. So, based on these inequalities, what can individuals and organisations do to ‘help’ fix these that plague black British people’s lives?
What can organisations do?
Don’t just pay lip service, post statements and use the #blacklivesmatter without being introspective. In your lives are you aware of how structural inequalities affect BAME, but especially black people? In your organisation what are your hiring practices and what assessment methods do you use? Do you only employ people from certain universities or is nepotism the way people rise to the top? Gestures that are there to show solidarity mean very little if they aren’t backed up by strategy and action. As they say, actions tend to speak louder than words.
Understand how race manifests in your own organisation. Having a smattering of minorities in your organisation doesn’t make you more diverse. It’s an example of tokenism, where one person is used as ‘proof’ of diversity. This is shallow diversity and can be burdensome for the small number of minorities. Where are all the black people in your organisation? How many non-white people sit around you or how many do you work with? What jobs do non-white people do? How many are in senior/managerial positions? How are BAME and especially black people treated in your organisation? Are their ideas blocked, achievements dampened or are other people taking credit for their hard work?
Another thing which would provide deeper analysis would be providing information on how ethnicity impacts pay and positions. By analysing how pay is distributed through your organisation based on ethnicity, just as the gender pay gap reporting has exposed inequalities for women in the work place; this action will really expose and help you to see how people are rewarded and treated in your organisation.
Do you have an active/thinking about a diversity and inclusion policy? Do you/have you thought about how structural inequalities can be alleviated in your organisation? Hire and engage with organisations who are experts in diversity and inclusion matters and they will help you form a strategy.
These strategies need to be constantly reviewed and monitored to ensure they remain fit for purpose and making a difference. You can think about strategies on attracting, developing and supporting black colleagues. You can consider developing affinity groups people can meet and discuss issues based on religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, amongst others. These create safe spaces for people to talk share and discuss.
Are there development programmes which specifically target groups? Organisations including Pearson, Harper Collins and The Civil Service have internships and programmes targeted at BME groups to try and tackle the poor levels of racial diversity within their organisations. However, before these things are introduced make sure you have embarked on thorough organisational wide training. Discussions and forums are essential in order to lay the foundations, so that your people understand what is behind these initiatives and what you are trying to achieve. Otherwise white colleagues will see these intiatives aren’t inclusive and omit.
Unconscious bias training is good, but it can be used as a quick fix. This training will not solve diversity problems, but it acts as the first step to understanding the complexities of race. Unconscious bias training is not a panacea.
The gender pay gap in the UK has received a lot of attention but there needs to be more attention paid to the ethnicity pay gap, and especially the effects of this pay gap on black males and females within your organisation.
Create mentoring and coaching relationships within organisations and cross organisations. Pairing black people specifically with black coaches and mentors can help employees feel heard, so they are more likely to be able to show their authentic selves at work.
What individuals can do?
Be aware of the effects on the physical and mental well-being of your black colleagues and friends by asking them to explain, educate you on racism. Talking about these things can be triggering for people and it is not a black person’s job to educate you on racism.
Do your own research, there are countless resources online in the form of books, training, webinars, films and documentaries. There are organisations that specialise in anti-racism work: use these as- well-as, Google LinkedIn and Twitter to find them.
Recognise your own privilege. Think about how you as a white person might benefit from how things are and then think about how people from other backgrounds might think or feel in their lived experience. Research and discover black peoples lived experiences through YouTube, books, films and podcasts. Or you can talk generally with those who have these lived experiences. The disclaimer here is black people hey might find it difficult to talk to you about these experiences it may be uncomfortable for them, so do your research first to understand. However, check yourself during these conversations that you aren’t on the defensive, as this makes it even more difficult for people to open-up.
Be culturally aware and don’t reiterate lazy, outdated and offensive stereotypes. It shows a large lack of awareness and is an example of a micro-aggression. Micro aggressions are defined as “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people [from marginalised groups face] in their daily interactions with people (Sue, 2010). Understanding, for instance that there are 54 countries in Africa, understand that the Caribbean doesn’t consist of only Jamaica. Understand that there are fourth and fifth generations of black people in the UK, as well as a rich history of blackness in the UK dating back to the 19th Century.
These are just some of the things you might want to think about if you really want to make a difference. These are just a start though, having a constant commitment to really changing the status quo, researching and understanding the trauma and feelings around these events can allow you to begin to understand how black people navigate overwhelmingly white structures and workspaces.
Sue, D, M (2010) Microagressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.