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Expert comment - why Black Lives Matter is a UK issue as well as a US one

As Black Lives Matter campaigners including actor John Boyega gather in Hyde Park, Dr Simon Peplow, Senior Teaching Fellow in 20th Century British History, comments on Britain's history of racism.

"Following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, much attention has been focussed on the situation ‘across the pond’ and many have highlighted the long history of racism in the United States. However, there is a tendency when doing so of absolving Britain from such a history – a view steeped in British exceptionalism, suggesting that racist violence is something that happens ‘out there’, but not within these shores.

"In 2016, when Black Lives Matter UK protestors blocked access to London’s Heathrow Airport, many people questioned why demonstrations were occurring in Britain when this was ‘America’s problem’. But that just isn’t the case. In Britain, BAME people die disproportionately as a result of force or restraint by the police. Statistics for the year ending March 2019 show that black people are almost 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. The Black Cultural Archives recently used their Twitter account to highlight just some of the black people who have died at the hands of the police in Britain.

"Acknowledgement of slavery, racist violence, and often the very existence of black people is regularly omitted or downplayed in histories of Britain. While blame is frequently attributed to schools – although this should be mostly directed against those setting self-congratulatory curriculums (most infamously Michael Gove), rather than teachers – such absences are deeply ingrained throughout British society and culture.

"For instance, we are often reminded about Britain’s ‘heroic’ abolition of the slave trade, but not about Britain’s role in perpetuating slavery – or how the resistance of enslaved people motivated abolitionist movements in Britain, and groups like the Sons of Africa.

"The events and names of U.S. civil rights’ activists, such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks are immediately recognisable to most – but how many in Britain know about the Bristol Bus Boycott or the 1958 racist riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill? Or of the importance of figures like Claudia Jones or the Mangrove Nine?

"Would remembering Britain’s civil rights pioneers also mean having to acknowledge, on a national level, Britain’s long history of racism that such figures were protesting?

"Many social media users in recent days – particularly for ‘Blackout Tuesday’ on 2 June – have posted temporary black squares on their accounts in an apparent show of solidarity. However, as groups such as UK Black Pride have pointed out, this energy could be better directed by sharing useful and empowering information to further the #BlackLivesMatter cause; to some, such black squares rather seem to highlight an absence of action."

3 June 2020

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