Black lives matter

Will McMahon highlights the embedded nature of racism. Reflecting on the US 'black lives matter' social movement, he argues the UK is yet to come to terms with the aftermath of colonialism.

By: 
Will McMahon
Date: 
Tuesday, 29 September, 2015

In the last year, the USA has been shaken by the deaths of a number of black people at the hands of local police forces. A social movement has grown up around these deaths that has adopted the slogan 'black lives matter’. 

In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn details the history of a nation founded upon one of the greatest genocides of modern history, that of the aboriginal North American population. Having almost liquidated the original inhabitants, the colonial occupiers then developed a slave trade to exploit the land they had stolen – millions of Africans lived and died as slaves, either in transit or through physical exploitation.

The linkages between slavery in the plantations and the ongoing contemporary campaigns for equality in the face of racism embedded in police forces and other institutions, seem clear enough from a vantage point across the North Atlantic.

Meanwhile in the UK, it is not so long ago that hot-house think tankery led some to suggest that, the UK was a ‘post-racial' society and now a land of multi-cultural milk and honey, where chicken tikka masala was the favourite dish, rap music the most popular of popular music and couples from different ethnic backgrounds could walk the streets without a second glance. One implication being that whatever the configuration of the UK's racial politics, there are few similarities with the USA

Yet according to the recent report from the Young Review, Improving outcomes for young black and/or Muslim men in the Criminal Justice System, there is greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than in the United States. Data recently published in The Guardian show the proportion of black and ethnic minority children and young people held, in a thankfully much diminished youth justice system, has risen by 66 per cent since 2005/2006 with the Asian proportion having risen by over 75 per cent. The proportion of young white prisoners has fallen by approximately 20 per cent in the same period. Today one in fifteen young prisoners are now Asian, and one in five are black. This should give pause for thought.

The UK did not have slave plantations in its green and pleasant land, but instead out of sight in the colonies, hundreds of millions of people, had their ancestral lands stolen by brute force, and were forced to work for food or a pittance or shipped off to the slavery in the ‘new world'. Murder, massacre, rape and pillage of black populations was the modus operandi of the Empire. The migration of black populations to the metropolitan centre is generations long. They came to live in British cities whose streets were lined with buildings of Victorian grandeur paid for by the systematic looting disguised as the integration of ‘backward' colonies in to the world capitalist system.

Historian David Olusoga has recently uncovered the records of the thousands of slave owners who were not just the super-rich, but widows, clergymen and shopkeepers, ordinary members of the middle-classes, many of who never met a slave but had lived off their exploitation. By the time of the formal abolition of slavery, the benefits that sustained the colonial economy had seeped into every corner of domestic society as had the ideologies that sustained it; ‘compensation' of over £17 billion in today's money being paid to the slave owners with the former slaves being paid nothing.

Is it possible that, as in the United States, the UK has still to come to terms with embedded racism born of hundreds of years of colonialism and that this is the source of the self-evident ethnic penalty that many in the BAME communities face as they make their way through life?

Will McMahon is Deputy Director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.


This comment piece is an edited version of a longer article published in the September issue of Criminal Justice Matters magazine on the topic of #BlackLivesMatter. All articles are available to free to view via our website.