The wave that never was: (anti)racism in 2020

Everyone will be happy to see the back of 2020, with Covid-19 laying waste to not only lives but whole ways of living. The impact will be felt for a generation and the year will be one that will forever be marked in history. But it was also the year that campaigns for racial justice got mainstreamed with the protests that broke out across the world following the police killing of George Floyd. There was been an unprecedented wave of attention on structural racism but the question we should ask as we move into the new year is whether it has already crashed.

There was something different about the discussion of racism in July. There was a run on books about racism, in what must have been the biggest selling month for Black authors in history. There seemed like a legitimate thirst for knowledge and during Black employment History Month, companies reached out for sessions on the roots of racism. I found it both amusing and discomforting to be on the same side as Piers Morgan in debates on Good Morning Britain. We saw calls to ‘defund the police’ were genuinely discussed on mainstream TV and no one batted an eyelid when protests in the US turned violent. Even terrible companies like Lloyds of London at least acknowledged that they had owed a debt for enriching themselves on slavery. There is an optimism that we may have turned a corner, with organisations like Black Lives Matter receiving levels of financial support that offer the opportunity to build sustainable change. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It didn’t take long for the media to fall back into the old routine of hyperventilating there way through the culture wars. Discussions of institutional racism gave way to defending racist propaganda like Rule Britannia and giving platforms to those whose only credentials are that they are mediocre, White, male and happy to say anything that keeps their names in the Twittersphere. The Black Lives Matter summer was followed by record levels of complaints about Diversity’s dance performance and people losing their minds because Sainsbury’s featured a Black family in a festive advert (I guess we really are supposed to dream of a White Christmas). We have already covered the Black and White ministerial show that represents the government’s attempts to solidify racial oppression. None of this should have been a surprise. That’s the thing about waves they rise, and we can ride then for a moment before they crash bringing us all back down to earth.

Wave is probably the wrong metaphor given the nature of the moment because it suggests there was some disruption. Companies posting black squares, releasing BLM statements and commitments to ‘reparations’ through diversity schemes were PR exercises, not upheavals. L’Oreal and Unilever removing the word ‘fair’ from their skin lightening products shows the whole thing was a mirage, full of nothing but hot air that has now long since evaporated.

With Brexit on the horizon and the aftermath of the Covid lockdowns looming we should be so quick to welcome in the new year. Furlough is masking the destruction done to the economy and people’s livelihoods. As bad as it will be in the West spare a thought for those in the underdeveloped world, where the knock-on effects of poverty will be a matter of life and death. If the commitments to racial justice were shallow before, they will completely disappear in the face of economic collapse.

If the year has taught us anything it should be the nature of the problems we face. Covid laid bare the racism that inflicts our existence, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were the straws that broke the camel’s back. One thing is for certain, if we are expecting a second wave of attention to carry us to the shore of racial justice we will drown in the reality of racism that surrounds us. We need to move into the new year with a clear vision and focus on the scale of change we need to make Black Lives Matter. We should be able to see through the token gestures and empty promises from a system that is not broken. Let’s not keep making the same mistake over again trying to fix a system that is not broken and use the lessons from this year to ensure that 20/20 is hindsight.

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