Modern-day Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas

The 10 commissioners who wrote the Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities appear to be modern-day Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas. As they were tasked to look into racial disparities in Britain in light of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, it is contemptible that they did not think to directly consult Black and Asian communities on what these communities consider to be the problems and solutions to racial disparities in present-day Britain.  Instead, they massively downplayed the role of institutional racism and relegated it as a catch-all meaningless term. In their words, they argue that, “The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.” Can anyone of these commissioners say to members of the United Friends and Family Campaign who have had loved ones die in police custody or in a hospital for mental illness, that racism was not the central cause or played a major role in the death of their loved one?

How is it possible that with the recent rise of racist incidents in football that racism is not endemic within football? Did the Society of Editors (the organisation representing British newspaper editors) not think that its black journalists would disagree with the statement that there is no racist bigotry in parts of the British press, after Prince Harry alluded that there certainly was? There is also the case of the misogynist, racist, bigoted narcissist Piers Morgan who would rant and shout down guests. He walked off stage when challenged, yet when Naga Munchetty was asked her opinions on President Trump’s racist slurs towards American congresswomen, Munchetty was subjected to vitriol attacks for expressing her views. Why is there one rule for Piers and another for Munchetty?  Then there is the racism the residents living in the Grenfell Tower block were subjected to for years as they voiced concerns about health and safety regulations at tenant association meetings and were ignored. Perhaps the commissioners will also deny that institutional racism in the Home Office had no role to play in the unfolding of the Windrush scandal and the continued mistreatment of those seeking compensation and the right to British citizenship. In short, institutional racism – that is, the unconscious and conscious bias, beliefs, attitudes, practices and behaviours that marginalise and devalue Black/Asian and minority people within institutions are real and impact adversely on these communities and individuals.

I do not subscribe to the view of the commissioners that any of the above mentioned examples are aberrations or can be attributed to a few bad racist apples i.e. individual mistakes.  They represent a racist pattern of ingrained normative behaviour and beliefs in such institutions, which is a reflection of the structural racism in the wider British society, whose historic roots lie in slavery, colonialism and empire.  

Undoubtedly, racism today is often so subtle, covert and hidden it is hard to identify, but it is here and it is real. Whilst the commissioners pointed out that nuance is important, they failed abysmally to recognise that racism can exist when a white junior employee is “uncomfortable,” with the fact that he or she is managed by a Black/Asian or minority person and will resort to micro-aggressions to undermine the Black or Asian manager. To put it differently, racism is often manifested in the fact that some white people (and I stress some and not all), cannot accept the fact that a Black/Asian person is their boss because the white person believes they are superior to the Black/Asian or minority person. 

As the report has been coincidentally released during the opening trial of Derek Chauvin for the lynching of George Floyd, the report grossly sanitises and distorts the racial situation in the UK. It allows the BoJo government to continue to smugly boast that the racial situation in the UK is better than in the US and provides a model for Europe. Whilst the report lists 24 recommendations, among them should have been further strategies to dismantle institutional racism and structural racism in British society. It’s critical that in diagnosing solutions to problems we first correctly name what the problem is.

One way to tackle institutional racism is for an audit of all public institutions in our society i.e. the police, ambulance service, universities, NHS, schools, prison service, etc, to make public the positions, numbers and gender of Black/Asian minority people at all levels of such public bodies (as well as private institutions), on a periodic basis.  Another policy is for affirmative action or quotas to be introduced in such institutions. I do not believe that in this day and age there are no Black/Asian minority people who are fully qualified to take up these posts. It is more than likely that they will be overqualified, by which I mean, they are more than capable and qualified to do the job and to be appropriately remunerated.

As Doreen Lawrence has pointed out, this report has set Britain back 20 years and given a green light to racists, in a similar way that the Brexit vote legitimised xenophobic attacks on East European people. Whilst some may celebrate that an establishment or government has Black/Asian faces in it, we need to ask ourselves, whose interests are those Black/Asian and minority faces serving? Let me speak for myself and say: Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas do not represent me nor my interests.

Dr Ama Biney
Dr Ama Biney

Dr Ama Biney is a historian and political scientist based in London.

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