After the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 at the hands of a white police officer, protests against police brutality and institutional racism erupted in the US and around the world. The US now finds itself in a period of political unrest and upheaval not unlike after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. In the UK, George Floyd’s death resonated with many, mobilising thousands in London, Manchester and Cardiff to march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a movement dedicated to ending violence and systemic racism towards black people.
Highlighting the racism and unfairness engrained in the American justice system is important, but it is easy to judge what happens abroad without looking inward. The reality is that Britain is not innocent when it comes to institutional racism or police brutality – far from.
When it comes to UK immigration, the dissonance between how white (Western) immigrants and immigrants of colour from the Global East and South are treated is painstakingly stark. The culmination of these double standards was the 2018 Windrush Scandal, which erupted after Theresa May introduced the hostile environment rules in 2012. Under the hostile environment, those who lack documents evidencing their lawful residence become subject to the hostile environment checks. They are no longer allowed to work, rent or even open a bank account in the UK.
Many people of colour who came to the UK in the 50s, 60s and 70s from Commonwealth countries were granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971 but when the hostile environment kicked in, thousands of them were not able to prove their status, and as a consequence, were wrongly told that they were in Britain illegally. Hundreds were detained, and some of them deported, despite living and working in the UK legally for decades.
Although Windrush victims are now able to apply for compensation under the Windrush Scheme, the number of applications has been remarkably low, and internal reviews confirmed that the government’s hostile environment immigration policies still have devastating impacts on the lives and families of black citizens in the UK. With the new Points-Based Immigration system, set to come into force in January 2021, that impact is set to worsen. Requirements like visa fees (UK fees are among the highest in the world), income thresholds (the minimum salary under the PBS is set at £25,600) and health surcharges (recent controversy on the NHS surcharge led the government to scrap it for migrant NHS staff) have been found to predominately affect those from the East or South, as they are less likely to be able to meet financial requirements. The new points-based system thus builds on existing discriminatory structures instead of breaking them down. That is not a coincidence.
Don’t be mistaken - Windrush was a direct result of an immigration system set up to discriminate against some but not others. It was not just a profound institutional failure or mistake of government. It was not a mistake at all, but rather simply the hostile environment rules put into practice. The points-based system is a continuation of that. It is institutional racism at its peak, rearing its ugly head yet again, here in the UK.
When the then Prime Minister Theresa May (yes, you read that right - the same person who introduced the hostile environment in the first place) apologized for the catastrophe of Windrush in April 2018, she insisted it was not her government’s intent to disproportionately affect people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds in the operation of her hostile environment policy. That statement shows exactly what the government fails, or refuses, to understand, namely that racism is much bigger than discrimination with intent, that it encompasses more than active and direct discrimination. It is about institutional neglect of certain parts of the population, certain neighbourhoods, and certain ethnic minorities, creating and feeding into more hardship for those groups compared to their white British counterparts. The public health crisis that we are currently dealing with is only the latest of an endless string of examples.
People of colour are 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts in the UK. For the black Caribbean and African population, that number goes up to three against one. This is partly because BAME communities are more exposed to the virus, as a third of all working age black Africans and black Carribeans work in key worker roles (that is 50% more than white British people), whilst Indian men are 150% more likely to work in health or social care roles than their white British counterparts. It is also because BAME communities are more economically vulnerable to the current crisis than white ethnic groups, and not enough is done to actively help them bridge that gap.
To make matters worse, people of colour are not only more likely to die of the virus once they get it, but they are also 54% more likely to get fined for violating lockdown rules than the white majority British population. More broadly, in our criminal justice system, Metropolitan Police officers are four times more likely to use force against black people compared with the white population.
It is true that the UK is not a nation of gun ownership like the US. It is true that British police officers do not carry weapons. And it is true that these things play a part in limiting violence and abuse of power. But we cannot trick ourselves into believing we are so much better, and that it could not happen here. The US might be a land of extremes, and the UK a country of covertness, but the foundational institutional challenges we face are the same.