Black Lives and Books

By Mira Mansfield

On the 6th of January 2021, a coup was staged at the United States Capitol in Washington DC. Extraordinary numbers of pro-Trump supporters, including groups of white supremacists such as the Proud Boys, stormed the building, where Joe Biden’s recent electoral victory was being confirmed. In reaction to this violent attack on democracy, the US police force demonstrated an outstandingly weak response. At the time of writing, just 52 of the rioters, who have decimated parts of this centuries-old institution and violated the basic democratic rights of so many Americans, have been arrested.

Following the siege, social media has justifiably erupted, with voices from all over the world calling out the undisputable display of structural racism exhibited by the US police force. Despite the fact that, on the 19th of December 2020, the US President promised a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th” in a tweet that ended “Be there, will be wild!”, it is clear that neither Trump nor his supporters were seen as a particular threat to national security. Yet, in this same city, in the very same spot, on 2nd of June 2020, when a peaceful protest against police brutality was held following the murder of George Floyd, the armed National Guard were deployed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At this demonstration, protesters were met with tear gas, violence and countless arrests.

The assumed aggression that pre-emptively labelled the Black Lives Matter campaigners in the summer, compared with the denial that pro-Trump mutineers posed any kind of threat, is nothing but an example of stereotypical racial profiling. This is structural racism, and this is white privilege. As concisely put by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be an Anti-racist (2019), in a tweet that has since gone viral; “If these people were Black… well, we all know what would be happening right now to them”. Furthermore, had the majority of the pro-Trump and anti-democracy ‘protesters’ been people of colour or ethnic minority, there would have been no hesitation in the media in rightfully naming them as terrorists.

As citizens of the United Kingdom, we are all too quick to remind ourselves that these events have happened across the pond. We confidently reassure ourselves that something like the state-sanctioned demonstration of white privilege displayed on the 6th of January, or the racialised police brutality that caused George Floyd’s death would never happen here. But it has. So many times.

Unlike the recent events in America, incidents resembling Floyd’s appalling murder in Britain did not spark global political movements geared towards ending racism. They barely even made the national news.

An example of such that was brought to my attention recently – though not in international news headlines – in the book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, by journalist Afua Hirsch (2018). In her sixth chapter, ‘Class’, Hirsch recounts the story of Mzee Mohammed-Daley, a black teenager who died in police custody in Liverpool in 2016. Mzee was 18 years old, and had suffered with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and ADHD throughout his life. Though he usually handled his conditions well, deteriorations in his mental state were commonly triggered by large groups of people, such as those found in crowded shopping centres. On the 13th of July 2016, Mzee ended up in the Liverpool One shopping centre. In what the Liverpool Echo described as a “psychotic episode”, the teen ran around the centre in considerable distress. Following a claim that Mzee had been threatening people with a 12-inch blade, the building’s security were called and quickly apprehended the boy. The security guards promptly called the police, including in the call the unconfirmed account from a member of the public that described the Mzee as a “big black male with dreads running around barefoot with a knife” (Hirsch p240).

Upon hearing that there was a teenager who had already been apprehended and detained by security officials, who was no longer armed and, as it transpired, was being held on the ground in handcuffs, the Liverpool Police Force responded inexplicably. In addition to the eight security guards already there, the forces thought it necessary to send to the scene “18 police officers, a police dog and a helicopter… All for one lad who was already handcuffed and on the ground.”1

At some point while Mzee was being held under the weight of the officers swarming him, it became apparent that he was experiencing some sort of “medical episode”. An ambulance was eventually called, and, an hour and a half after the incident, Mzee Mohammed-Daley was pronounced dead. In 2019, a closed inquest was made into Mzee’s death, confirming that his death was not a result of his holding in police custody, but was the result of conspicuously vague “natural causes”.2

Had it not been for Hirsch picking up on Mzee’s story and writing it up for The Guardian and then using it in her book, anyone who was not an avid reader of the Liverpool Echo would not have known it.

Why is it that neither this, nor any of the countless other stories of police brutality against people of ethnic minorities in the UK, are never the stories that make the front-page news?

In the summer of 2020, following the global keening for George Floyd, some such stories of deaths of people of colour at the hands of white police officers, were finally told in the mainstream media. Not only this, but books like Brit(ish) that detail these stories and endeavour to explain race relations in the UK gained huge popularity too. In 2017, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge published her book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. In June 2020 Eddo-Lodge became the first black British author to take the overall No 1 spot in the UK’s official book charts with this title. In response to her book’s newfound success, Eddo-Lodge said in an interview with The Guardian that she “[couldn’t] help but be dismayed by […] the tragic circumstances in which this achievement came about,”. In the same breath, she incredulously exclaims: “The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first [black author to have no.1 spot in UK bestsellers list]”. It seems to be the case that Eddo-Lodge’s success had not flourished to this extent in the past not because of a lack of need for her detailed insight into British racial discrimination, but because of the absence of a willing readership.

Something that both these inspiring women, Hirsch and Eddo-Lodge, cover in their books (Brit(ish) and Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race respectively) is racial “colour-blindness” in the UK. This is the idea that in Britain today, we, collectively, choose to ignore the existence of racism. While the claim that “I simply don’t see skin colour” seems, on the surface, to be rather astute, it is in fact a collective denial and dismissal of the very real structural racism that people of colour and ethnic minorities in Britain experience today, and of all of the history that crafted it.

In her book, Eddo-Lodge deems ‘Colour-blindness’ to be “a childish, stunted analysis of racism” that “starts and ends at “discriminating against a person because of the colour of their skin is bad”, without any accounting for the ways in which structural power manifests in these exchanges.” She continues:

“With an analysis so immature, this definition of racism is often used to silence people of colour attempting to articulate the racism we face. When people of colour point this out, they’re accused of being racist against white people, and the accountability avoidance continues. Colour-blindness does not accept the legitimacy of structural racism or a history of white racial dominance.”3

This legitimacy of structural racism is something that Hirsch examines throughout her book too, in a careful examination of our country’s past, so entrenched in colonialism. It is thus established by both authors that our British cultural identity is inextricably linked with the fact that our country was built on racial oppression. Hence, Eddo-Lodge’s reasons for ‘no longer talking to white people about race’ are justified by her claim that the vast majority of white people in the UK refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms, and, in doing so, display a total emotional disconnect when a person of colour articulates their experience. This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the ‘norm’ and all others deviate from it. As Afua Hirsch so aptly puts it; “discussing race in Britain is still a radical act”. It is because of this that the stories of Mzee Mohammed-Daley or any of the other Black people that make up 8% of deaths in police custody in the UK, despite representing just 3% of the British population, have not been given the recognition, nor the justice, that they deserve.

After the heart-breaking news of George Floyd’s killing was splashed across international news headlines, the world’s social media collectively grieved. Swathes of social media users supported Floyd’s family by donating to their GoFundMe page, and showed their solidarity with Black Lives Matter by sharing informative posts on Instagram or tweeting messages of condolence – along with a million black screens posted as gestures of support. While it is certainly promising to have seen so many British people supporting the movement, there was a definite subtext to almost all the posts, that this was an American problem. The names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner were repeated by the British on social media, with the rightful shaming of the white American police officers that killed them. However, for the most part, there lacked any recognition of the painfully ironic ignorance that came hand-in-hand with the collective disgust at the American police force.

When I started writing, this article was going to be a glowing review of certain books and documents I encountered in 2020 that expertly explained the complexities and influence of structural racism in Britain. Following the events of the past few days in Washington DC, my aim has changed. Instead, this article is now a plea to anyone who reads it. It is no longer simply an option to educate yourself about structural racism, all the while congratulating yourself for being particularly ‘woke’. It is a necessity.

In the UK, we remain so deeply drowning in denial about the intrinsically racist foundations upon which our whole society is based. While this is our reality, no amount of sharing posts of solidarity with US citizens is going to make any difference to the struggles faced by people of colour and ethnic minorities in the UK every single day. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Endnotes

1 Afua Hirsch, Brit(Ish): On Race, Identity And Belonging (London: Vintage, 2018). Pp241

2 Ibid.

3 Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2017).

References

Eddo-Lodge, Reni, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2017)

Flood, Alison, “Reni Eddo-Lodge Becomes First Black British Author To Top UK Book Charts”, The Guardian, 2021 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/16/reni-eddo-lodge-first-black-british-author-top-uk-book-charts-why-i-m-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race> [Accessed 6 January 2021]

Hirsch, Afua, Brit(Ish): On Race, Identity And Belonging (London: Vintage, 2018)

Humphries, Jonathan, “Mzee Mohammed Daley Was An Innocent Victim Of Mental Illness”, Liverpool Echo, 2019 <https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/mzee-mohammed-daley-innocent-victim-17403776> [Accessed 5 January 2021]

Perraudin, Frances, “Mzee Mohammed Death: Liverpool Mayor Promises Transparent Inquiry”, The Guardian, 2021 <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/18/mzee-mohammed-death-liverpool-mayor-transparent-inquiry> [Accessed 6 January 2021]

Reality Check Team, “George Floyd Death: How Many Black People Die In Police Custody In England And Wales?”, BBC News, 2021 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/52890363> [Accessed 7 January 2021]

Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay, “Trump Summoned Supporters To “Wild” Protest, And Told Them To Fight. They Did”, U.S., 2021 <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-protests/trump-invited-supporters-to-wild-protest-and-told-them-to-fight-they-did-idUSKBN29B24S> [Accessed 8 January 2021]

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