Time to Shut Up! Racism, Royalty and the limitations of Britishness

By William Ackah, January 21, 2020, Birkbeck Comments

Meghan’s Blackness has lost its sparkle even quicker than I originally envisioned when I wrote an initial comment piece shortly after the royal wedding. As I alluded to at the time and reiterate here, the sparkle of Meghan’s Blackness could not last because at its core Britain is an institutionally racist country. From time to time the country wraps itself in multicultural garments of convenience like at the wedding, but as soon as Black people dare to question or challenge the multicultural facade, the garments come off and the nakedness of the faded empire’s racism is revealed.

The role of broadcast media has been pivotal in this regard. For the most part a multiracial cast of commentators have debated on various magazine and news programmes as to whether Meghan’s treatment has been racist. On the surface the debates seem fair, however a deeper dive reveals the deep-seated institutionalised racism of this form of broadcasting. Whether it is Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr, Robert Peston, Kay Burley, Victoria Derbyshire, Good Morning Britain, Politics Live, Newsnight, Question Time etc, etc all the permanent presenters, and regulators of the debates on these shows are White and the Black people that appear are temporary. White dominated media institutions make decisions about what is discussed, when it is discussed, how it is discussed and by who. Black people by contrast, have no control and are only invited to comment in highly contested spaces about our predicament. Even in these hostile spaces, in scenes straight out of Kafka, White males complain that they cannot speak about race and are victims of racism! This lets us know in no uncertain terms that there is very limited space to discuss on our own terms what it means to Black and British in this country.

As I have watched and read the debates surrounding the issue of royalty and race what has struck me is the stark difference between White British and Black British experience. White Britishness or to probably be more precise White Englishness exudes a sense of permanent entitlement within the fabric of British public life. Whereas Black Britishness even though it has a longer historical presence in Britain than whiteness (e.g. cheddar man) is seen as temporary. Black Britons have no permanent markers of presence in British institutional life, no public memory of our long- term citizenship. As in the current debate we appear and then disappear until the next episode of race and celebrity, race and violence, race and underachievement, race and music, race and sport, race and discrimination, race and culture generates enough controversy to merit a re-appearance. When we protest and insist that institutional racism in Britain is real and therefore Britain and its institutions need to change, then we are told once again to shut up and be grateful to live in the best multicultural society in the world. (thanks so much White people for reminding us we are so privileged!)

What the treatment of Meghan Markle (the tip of a huge underwater iceberg) exemplifies is that there are limitations to Black British citizenship. Ours is a transactional citizenship based on what we are perceived to contribute to the nation. That being the case I think it is time for the British State to be honest and to take appropriate action. In key areas where we are treated differently and adversely, we should be compensated, where the State provides us with a higher-level service than the wider community we should pay more. This should be the transactional basis of our citizenship until equality has been achieved.

For example, Black British citizens should pay a reduced TV license, as we don’t receive the same benefits from public broadcasting as does the wider society. We should pay less for university tuition, as it has been clearly demonstrated that universities provide a poorer service to Black students, so it stands to reason that we should pay less or receive compensation for services not rendered.

More broadly Black citizens should pay a reduced income tax. I can’t think of any institution in Britain that is maintained directly or indirectly by the taxes that Black British citizens pay that has provided a service to Black citizens that is equal to or better than what it provides to its White citizens.

Black British Citizens have cleaned your bums, manned your transport and done the jobs you did not want to do. In response we take abuse and experience racism from the terraces to the boardrooms to the classrooms. Living in an institutionally racist society has been and is a material and existential threat to our positive well-being in this society. So please no more TV debates framed by White privilege, shut up and pay up until genuine equality is achieved.

William Ackah is Lecturer in Department of Geography, Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race .FacebookTwitter

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‘Until We Are All Free’: Learning from Tubman, King, and Stevenson

By R. Drew Smith, January 15, 2020, Sojourners Magazine

In 2020, January remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr. are occurring against the backdrop of two high-profile films emphasizing sacrificial servant leadership.

First, the film Harriet provided a renewed focus on celebrated abolitionist Harriet Tubman. This biopic chronicles her mid-19th century enslavement in Maryland, her daring escape to a hard-won freedom in Philadelphia, and her selfless decision to return to the South multiple times to lead others on the treacherous journey from slavery to northern freedom.

Harriet effectively captures the alarm among Tubman’s abolitionist hosts in Philadelphia at the idea of her returning South on these perilous missions. But Tubman’s actions were guided by deeply held convictions, as conveyed through her own published words, and in revised form within the film:

I had crossed de line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but . . . my home after all was down in de old cabin quarter, wid de ole folks, and my brudders and sisters. [And] to dis solemn resolution I came; I was free, and dey should be free also.

For Tubman, freedom could never be understood as singular. She could not live fully into her own freedom, conscious of the continuously shackled existence of those she left behind.

This month also saw the release of the film Just Mercy, which tells the story of attorney Bryan Stevenson’s relentless pursuits of due process for Alabama death row inmates. Born and raised in Delaware, Stevenson’s exposure as a Harvard Law School student to legally flawed convictions of death row inmates, particularly in the South, became for him a matter warranting urgent attention.

Upon graduating, Stevenson decided, counter to all expectations about his career trajectory and despite personal dangers he might face, to return to the South to provide legal counsel to persons condemned to death. He went on to found Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based organization that has “won reversals, relief, or release” for hundreds of “wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced” prisoners, including 135 death row prisoners.

Stevenson would have us know, as stated in the film: “We can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds. We need conviction in our hearts.”

These accounts parallel the familiar sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., who envisioned a path from his Boston University graduate studies to a career in the academy but returned to the South’s mid-20th century frontline struggle for racial justice, which led ultimately to his assassination.

As King would later say: “No one is free until we are all free.”

Today, although an ever-growing portion of African Americans press toward new social heights, a troublingly large portion of African Americans seem inescapably marginalized.

A persistent black marginalization has been masked by substantial social gains since the civil rights movement among a segment of African Americans that has achieved upward mobility, especially as a result of access to higher education.

The African American middle-class (defined in terms of persons working in non-manual, white collar jobs), was estimated by sociologist Bart Landry at 28 percent in 1970, 39 percent in 1980, 44 percent in 1990, and 51 percent in 2002.

Moreover, the percentage of African Americans with college degrees increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 19 percent (or 3.9 million persons) in 2011. Of that number, 1.6 million possessed advanced degrees (master’s, doctoral, or professional degrees) as compared with 677,000 blacks with advanced degrees in 1995.

Nevertheless, these social gains have occurred alongside a deepening and thickening of black poverty. Although the number of African Americans living below the poverty line in fact declined from 42 percent in 1966 to below 30 percent by 2008, several additional social indicators clarify the severity of black poverty and the reality of social isolation and marginalization evident among a large segment of blacks.

Particularly noteworthy has been the high unemployment rate among African-American youths age 16-19, which ranged between 23 percent and 48 percent from 1991-2010, and only recently declined to a low of 15 percent. Also of concern is a high school dropout rate among African Americans age 16-24, which has fluctuated between 10 and 15 percent throughout the 2000s (as compared to a rate of five percent or less among whites). Although by no means the only factor, high dropout rates contribute to the fact that roughly 80 percent of African Americans are without a college degree.

These economic and educational bifurcations among African Americans — and increasingly among Americans in general — raise nettlesome questions about possibilities for social mobility within the U.S.

Noted poverty analyst Douglas S. Massey makes a clear case against social mobility as a generalizable prospect within the American context. Massey details, instead, systematic impediments to social mobility deriving from America’s “allocation of people to social categories” and its “institutionalization of practices that allocate resources unequally across these categories.” The result, as Massey shows, is an “enduring” stratification tending to lock persons in place “across time and between generations,” and largely precluding upward mobility across class lines.

Urban slums are a contemporary spatial embodiment of this, as a growing percentage of blacks reside in neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the residents are below the poverty line. The percentage of African Americans living in concentrated poverty rose from 8 percent in 1970, to 16 percent in 1990, to 23 percent in 2011. Moreover, recent research has shown that “concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement.” As data confirm, there are virtually no poor school districts in the U.S. “where kids are performing at least at the national average.”

What also epitomizes concentrated black poverty and isolation is America’s outsized prisoner population. The amount of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails rose from roughly 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2017, and another 4.5 million persons were under supervised parole or probation by 2018. The vast majority of these persons are poor and are disproportionally persons of color.

In confronting American educational inequities, carceral culture, or other factors that have frustrated collective advancement, many African Americans in more fortuitous circumstances have mobilized intellectual, institutional, and financial resources in efforts to bridge persons out of socially marginalized confines.

As Tubman’s, King’s, and Stevenson’s examples make clear, expanding social promise for those at the social margins may require us circling back more directly to these confined spaces in order to personally point the way to a better future.

Such examples of sacrificial service provide a leadership standard deserving much greater emulation.

R. Drew Smith, Ph.D. is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. He can be followed on Twitter @RDrewSmith1

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