As Black Lives Matter becomes the latest American franchise to establish a presence in the UK, it is worth asking the question, what is the product they are selling us?
Similar to the recently re-opened American fast food chains, this drive-through activism, unfamiliar to the ways of Britain and its immigrant communities, offers little that is healthy and risks poisoning our body politic.
Britain already has its own anti-racist tradition, which reflect the particular history of this country and is shaped by the kind of communities that have settled here — predominantly from the Caribbean, Nigeria and other African states, from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh along with Jews from Eastern Europe. Until recently the aim of campaigners against racism in Britain has been to unite all communities against discrimination and the racism of the extreme right.
It is unclear why, the contemporary American form of racial politics, drawn from a very different history and very different political culture, has suddenly appealed to activists on this side of the Atlantic, but it has, and the growth of identity politics on University campuses in particular, shows little sign of fading.
There is a problem with Black Lives Matter. No, the issue isn’t that they focus exclusively on black lives but rather their ideology, their lack of any solutions beyond sloganeering and the very selective way they approach which black lives matter?
The last time BLM captured global headlines was in 2015 during the Baltimore rioting in response to the death in custody of Freddie Gray. Previously the group had been active in the 2014 protests at the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr, in Ferguson, Missouri. The George Floyd case is part of a pattern of police brutality but also BLM activism.
These deaths, appalling as they are, are but a tiny fraction of the lives lost in annually in black communities across the United States and it does nothing to undermine the need to deal with police brutality to point that out.
In 2018, there were 14,123 murder victims in the United States. Black Americans, who make up only 13% of the population, were the highest group of victims with 7,407 deaths making up over half the horrendous total.
Those 7,407 black murder victims compare with 235 black people shot dead by police in the same year. Black people’s lives are cut short shockingly too early, too often, but overwhelmingly as a result of violent crime.
Yet BLM focuses almost exclusively on the deaths in police custody and has very little, if anything, to say about the 7,407 victims. Now the demand is coming forward to ‘defund the police’ — a most revealing proposal.
Anyone with even the slightest experience of, or acquaintance with, the United States, knows that the first obstacles to a better future for black Americans are the crime-ridden communities so many of them live in. Improving those communities is clearly a major, long-term and multi-faceted challenge but reducing crime, tackling the power of gangs and gang culture in those communities, making those urban areas safer for business, education and growth, are obviously key to any such project.
Overwhelmingly, these communities are controlled, and have been controlled, for decades by the Democratic Party. Their mayors are Democrats, their Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen, are overwhelmingly Democrats, and the same party runs the police and justice departments covering those communities. The left wants to defund its own police forces?
It is the American left that has been so sympathetic to the riots in those communities. The left-run cities, are being trashed by activists and rioters and the tragedy for the people who live in those communities, is that rioting, far from bringing about change, is almost always self-destructive. Not only do existing local businesses suffer, from having their properties attacked and looted, but there is strong evidence that the entire community pays the price.
Long after BLM and others have experienced their 15-minutes of fame, local people have to deal with the impact. Crime often rises after such disorder, as police back off from ‘difficult to police’ neighbourhoods. After the Baltimore riots in 2015, the city’s murder rate reached a record high, with the crime numbers in some neighborhoods tripling.
New gun control laws would, some argue, help reduce the levels of violent deaths across America and in black communities in particular. But good luck trying to pitch that policy after all those images of shopkeepers defending their livelihoods with arms.
Then, there is the cultural/psychology impact of the rioting and protests and the media repetition of the narrative that America suffers from systemic racism or a system of ‘white supremacy’.
Put yourself in the place of the 14-year-old boy or girl in a struggling black community, who has been following his family’s guidance to study hard, stay out of trouble and focus on getting to college and becoming a doctor or a lawyer. How does that teenager respond to the message that society is emphatically against him? That all the public institutions (despite ample evidence to the contrary) are set-up to frustrate his dreams and will discriminate against him? How does he react to seeing criminals glorified, just because they were victims of police brutality?
Are his family right about the dangers of falling into a life of gangs and crime? Or are the liberals right that such a lifestyle is an inevitable or understandable response to a system loaded against black people?
Do the activists who have taken to the streets, whether it be the violent white thugs of antifa, the identitarians of BLM or the various left-wing groups, care about that kid? Do they show any interest in reducing crime and boosting the economies in black communities? There is little evidence to suggest they do. There is a place for symbolic action in politics but it can never be a substitute for practical policies.
There are of course many black voices in America, who do care about those communities, about crime, about lifting people out of poverty and who do not believe that the key to change lays in rioting and culture war politics. But the media is rarely interested in talking to those people.
We don’t hear much on television from the mothers working against gangs, from church groups who promote a different value system than gangster rap, from black cops who put in the hard hours trying to wean kids away from a life of crime or from the poorly paid teachers in urban schools trying to help black kids get a brighter future. Nor do we hear from the families of the 7, 407 dead.
We mainly hear from the approved liberal and left-wing voices of black America. Yet, in all black communities, there are a wide-range of opinions about all these issues — as you would expect.
There are black conservatives, black libertarians, black Christians and Muslims and black people who subscribe to all manner of political ideologies, of the left and right. If you search around social media, you can, of course, find those voices, ignored or rejected by the mainstream because they don’t fit easily into the pre-defined narrative that dominates the pages of the New York Times or the airtime of CNN.
Pretending there is only one viewpoint in black America, is not only inaccurate, it is insultingly patronising to that community. There is no single viewpoint in white America or Hispanic America or Asian America, so why should black America be any different? This is ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ in play again.
That is a familiar situation for those who have followed the issues around British Muslims where for too long, moderate and mainstream or liberal Muslims, conservative but non-Islamist Muslims and feminist Muslims, have been sidelined by a media which prefers what it imagines to be the more ‘authentic’ voice of the political Islamist, the angry radical, who also happens to be more willing to provide an inflammatory soundbite which fits the narrative of an ‘Islamophobic Britain’.
There is another, ideological problem with BLM’s politics. They push a narrative of the United States and Britain being ‘systematically racist’ or dominated by an ideology of ‘white supremacy’. It is a notion doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.
Of course, racists and racism exists but in every area of life there has been huge progress since the 1970’s. If America is a ‘system of white supremacy’, how has it managed to have three black Attorney Generals, two black Secretary of States and a two-term black president? How do you explain affirmative action programmes, of which many things can be said but which are hardly suggestive of white supremacy?
The same can be said of the United Kingdom. Those who are seeking to import and replicate BLM’s politics into this country, attack the gates of number ten Downing Street , as if it is some sort of symbol of racism, appearing oblivious to the fact that a person of colour occupies the residency next door, at number 11, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is in charge of the entire economy.
He is by no means the only member of an ethnic minority in the British government. The Home Secretary Priti Patel, is the daughter of Ugandan-Indian immigrants. The Secretary of State for Business is Alok Sharma, an immigrant from India whose under-secretary of state is Nadhim Zahawi, who is of Iraqi Kurdish heritage. The Attorney General, Suella Braverman, is the daughter of ethnic Indian parents from Kenya and Mauritius. The equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, is of Nigerian parentage. All are members of a supposedly ‘racist Tory party’ which is chaired by James Cleverly, whose mother is from Sierra Leone.
The Tory party of today is not the party of the 70’s and 80’s. And likewise the modern left is not the left of years gone by. The old left used to use slogans such as ‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’, it used to see the labour movement and workplace organisation as the arena for bringing people of different races together to improve their lot — not demand that white workers apologise for their supposed privilege. Now it adopts the postures of bourgeois identity politics, emphasises differences and focuses on what divides, rather than what unites.
A worldview which is focused on ‘white privilege’ and mostly imagined racist ‘systems’, has the effect of spreading the counter-productive attitude that there is no point in working on concrete issues to improve communities and lives. No point in ‘white investment’ in communities, no point in studying to be part of a ‘racist education system’, no point in engaging in a political structure designed to maintain ‘white supremacy’.
Drive-by activism is not a victimless crime. It marginalises real, alternative voices of change, it leaves low-income communities more prone to crime and economic decline and it works against hope and progress in pursuit of a barely defined but always distant ‘revolution’ that in reality changes little but the curricula of University courses. It is the last thing Britain’s BAME communities need.
Perhaps we need to return to that forgotten language: black and white really do need to unite and fight, above all, against this damaging, dangerous, nihilism that offers only a cul-de-sac of despair.