At one point during the pandemic, I was questioning why I was still in England, in spite of a) being born in England b) having lived here my entire life. I was looking at the figures of COVID19 deaths in Newham where I was born and brought up. My family who left for different parts of Europe, years ago told me, Erinma, ‘don’t go there‘. The enduring motto in my own head, was also the enduring motto of little England ‘go back to where you came from, you don’t belong here…’ and these thoughts bear the double consciousness of knowing, that if I had to go to hospital, there is a heightened possibility that this is where I would die. And therein lies the double trouble of institutionalised racism in the UK. You are often stressing over how to stay alive, because in spite of the protests for black lives matter, you know, the institutions of empire, in health, education and technology, are structurally organised against your survival.
Early in the COVID19 pandemic when a neighbour almost fell over backwards on encountering me in the corridor of a shared passageway, my mind could have been transported to circa 1980, and white families literally dragging their children by the arm, to lift them out of the swimming pool as we prepared to enter it. I decided not go there, because revisiting the personal lived experience of racism, can become a distraction from the structural and systemic problems that imperialism sustains, like the injustice of the Grenfell Tower residents, and the disproportionate policing of black and asian people during the pandemic, the disproportionate job losses during the pandemic, or the disproportionate deaths in police custody or of black women in pregnancy of childbirth compared to white people in the UK. These deaths point, not only to the institutions that produced them, but to the hostilities that have to be continually navigated on encountering them.
“In these climates, one always has to internalize a geography because there may be, depending on where one is located, no external marker that says this is a hazardous place for Black people, or this is a ‘safer’ zone, it is a completely embodied experience in that sense. So, we move through these atmospheres quite differently depending on how the body is read, depending on what we know.” Christina Sharpe
These kinds of questions and the way we navigate them are rooted in the effectiveness of imperialism, and the binary architectures produced by imperial British education and the particular way that plays out as structural racism, patriarchy and ableism. This framework has operated pervasively for centuries. In a similar way, the 2021 Sewell report is evidence of the effectiveness of British institutionalised imperialism, such that the proponents of the report, all but one of whom are non-white, could come to ridiculous conclusions, that the UK is not institutionally racist (as defined by Macpherson in his inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, below).
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping
which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” Macpherson
The ridicule begins with early remarks introducing the report from Dr Sewell himself…
‘We were impressed by the ‘immigrant optimism’ of some of the new African communities. They are among the new high achievers in our education system. As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classrooms, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement... we acknowledge the work that has been done on anti-Muslim prejudice and antisemitism even though it is beyond the scope of this report... we have spoken in this report about how the UK is open to all its communities. But we are acutely aware that the door may be only half open to some, including the White working class. In this regard we have pointed out how in education, employment, health and crime and policing the UK can be a more inclusive and fairer landscape“
You don’t need to read the rest of the report, to understand that the report is being undertaken with an imperialist mindset, albeit penned by the black skins of white imperial masters. To not understand the production of race, class and faith based separatism by imperialism, means that fundamentally, those producing this report are not qualified to have undertaken it and that is why they were picked. I found it incredulous to read a statement like this, with the global as well as national evidence on COVID19 death rates by ethnicity available and reported repeatedly in the media:
“The work of the Commission has been carried out under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the evidence that some ethnic minority groups have faced a disproportionate impact from the virus. As the analysis of why this is the case has emerged, the significance of a wide range of interlocking factors (including geography, occupation, deprivation and pre-existing health conditions) has become clear. However, when examining the overall health of the UK population, it is also evident that there is more than one story to tell. As we report in the Health chapter, life expectancy or overall mortality, shows that ethnic minorities do better overall than the White population and actually have better outcomes for many of the 25 leading causes of death.” Sewell report, p11.
Close to the beginning of the pandemic, the death data of the Office of National Statistics, and echoed in updated figures of July 2020, indicate that…
‘males and females of Black and South Asian ethnic background were shown to have increased risks of death involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) compared with those of White ethnic background; this is similar to our previous findings for deaths up to 15 May 2020.’
And further, that…
‘Taking into account geography, socio-economic characteristics and health measures, including pre-existing conditions, males of Black African background retained a 2.5 times higher rate than those of White background, while for females a 2.1 times greater risk remained.’
The statisticians commented that…
‘[the] report confirms that when adjusting for age, rates of death involving COVID-19 remain greater for most ethnic minority groups, and most notably so for people of Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic background.’
Again, imperialist mindsets can interpret these figures, in one way – ‘what is wrong with these people?’. For me I looked at these figures and saw the high price paid by my parents generation and those of my Bangladeshi and Pakistani friends parents to attempt to live here and be treated with decency and respect. But further, that COVID19 data is another dataset to add to the government’s own ethnicity datasets, spanning housing, health, education and employment, that point to structural and institutional racism. I am in agreement with colleagues writing in a recent BMJ blog, this report is more akin to a political manifesto.
If we are to take Professor Ruth Gilmore’s definition of racism:
“Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
Comparisons of prison deaths to COVID19 deaths show us, whether in the US or in the UK, black people die disproportionately. How does this happen?
“Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it” Ruth Gilmore
She talks about ‘organised abandonment’ by the state and by capital, of racialised populations – this includes in housing, by tourism, by employment. Instead of being supported, punishment is deployed, in the form of the police, for example to move homeless people on. Rather than keeping people safe and dealing with the root cause of crime, the state and capital work together to raise the barriers for some people compared to others. Gilmore’s work spells out the role that criminalisation plays in reproducing which lives are valued, connected to slavery’s historical legacy and the perpetuation of a racial hierarchy. She also outlines how this plays our geographically, in the geographies of racial capitalism.
And perhaps my initial questions about why I am still here, are worth considering in a broader political and geographic sense. The purpose of surviving the system, being a recipient of its ‘success’ economically, is part of the plan. A few of us will make it and be invited to the table as models of success, and critically, we must ask, to what end and how did we indeed survive the system? Slaves and slave labour produced the products for mass consumer markets: sugar, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and cotton. Slavery was integral to the multinational systems of credit and trade arising in the 15th and 16th centuries. The African slave trade generated European shipping, manufacturing, and weapons.
The empire is preparing to strike back, and it needs colonial subjects to be complicit in its new trade, land grab and immigration moves. Needless to say, a British passport, a British education and the ‘right to settle’ in this country come at a high price. Those neocolonial subjects aligned with sovereign power have a job to do, particularly as the empire attempts to make its new moves.
The Sewell report uses the language of ‘fairness’ and ‘inclusion’ and pushes the possibility of achievement, onto individuals. It comes ahead of a possible COVID19 inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis. A people’s inquiry into COVID19 has already been launched by those against the selling off of the NHS. The coronavirus pandemic opened the door to big data and technology surveillance progressed by state dismantling of health care systems.
Looking again at the report, this sentence is perhaps most telling…
‘We have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage.‘
Nationalism, as we know, is a dangerous game and begs the question, which will one day keep the authors’ of the report, awake at night, at what cost, and to whom? As we have seen, to be a British Black or Asian protected child, as COVID19 figures reveal, only gets you so far in life.
More qualified academics have been quick to respond; Professor Kalwant Bhopal outlines the way the report trivialises ‘the very real role that racism plays in shaping the life chances of Black and ethnic minority children in the UK’.
David Lammy, John Amaechi and Doreen Lawrence spell out the dangers of the report, which undermines her call (and Lammy’s) to end structural racism through the Lawrence review of the disproportionate impacts of COVID19 on some British subjects compared to others. Professor Kehinde Andrews calls out the authors as modern day ‘Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas‘. The foreword of the report, written by Sewell iterates this claim when Sewell speaks of the need for a new story to be produced from the slave period “culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain”. Historian, Professor David Olusoga compares the Sewell report to the British version of the 1776 report of the Trump administration, with a similar political agenda to shift the blame of racial disparities away from the legacy of colonialism.
To understand how our histories map onto geographies that produce different life outcomes, the Sewell report, is of limited use. It is a distraction from the very real structural problems faced, from access to housing, to jobs, education and health. A critical understanding of global history, is required in the production of what it is to become British. But also in understanding what new wretchedness will be brought on through territorialisation of the earth.
Let’s not be fooled, the Sewell report is part and parcel of imperial complicity. The big question is what kind of structural issues does it attempt to sweep under the Brexit carpet, in the advancement of the neoliberal agenda? What kinds of divisions does it introduce through the language of economics and what kind of solidaritous actions must be upheld across the intersections of race, class, gender and disability, to tackle injustice brought on by abuses of power and privilege?
We can of course look to the players who penned the report, but critically, we must look to those inviting neocolonial black and brown subjects to have a seat at the neoimperial table. The Sewell report is a product of a desperate attempt at holding onto and abusing power, and exporting it around the world.
“To the newly won over segments of the white and propertied voting base, the message was: do not worry about the scenes of civil unrest you see on your television, we have got your back. To the young, precarious black and brown led movements burgeoning in the streets (also taking into account the Policing and Crime Bill) say: this path you are starting down will not have a pretty end, so stop now while you still can.”
Operation Black Vote, launched a petition to denounce the report, education researchers express their concern in an open letter at the political ‘misuse of education research‘. Stuart Hall and Angela Davis, as ever, call on us to critically consider, what forces led us to this moment, and to work out how to battle our way out. From Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to the Casey review on integration, to the Sewell Report, the myth of the working class as ‘a Whitened victim‘ is a nationalist project and a dangerous game.
‘There is work for critical intellectuals to do…‘ Stuart Hall
And I would argue, for publics too. To begin, requires us, to unpick the imperial myth, the foundations of which, the Sewell reports’ proponents build their arguments. There are several ways to do this. One is to dig deeper into discourse and debate of anti-colonial resistance, and what kinds of ideas, thinking and structures for living life and resisting oppression were and are possible. Another, and this returns to the idea of emergent knowledge frameworks produced beyond binary categories of the human, the animal, the man, the woman ad infinitum.
Unleashing our thinking beyond national borders, and finding solidarity with those who escaped the plantation and refused to become wage slaves and also taking a planetary leap to reimagine the possibilities of life, free from the binary nature of imperialist myths, is a world making, pluriversal (rather than a universal) project.
It requires us to go far within the realms of our collective imagination and to consider reconfiguring and criss-crossing our thinking, language and expression beyond failed disciplinary expertise that when aligned with sovereign power is co-opted to extreme right political agendas or the impoverished language of equality, diversity and inclusion, which, as we have seen with coronavirus, did very little, if anything, to protect minoritised subjects. The closed, complicit British institutions paid for by sugar profits, land grabs and stolen heritage collections – who push the ideas, books and language of colonial-patriarchal oppression – are considering their decolonial moves whilst staying complicit. If these moves begin from within the colonial box, they can’t do it, in the same way the Sewell report can’t do it. The argument will go back and forth forever upholding and reflecting back the impossible (undesirable) standard of the white male subject.
The interviews and articles below offer insights into a historical understanding of colonial structures, their extractive processes, how they persist in everyday life, how we remain complicit and why, but also present different possibilities, which some live daily, because we already don’t fit, within the binary framework of patriarchal-colonial knowledge, which collapsed some time ago, we still live in its horrible ‘wake’. It’s harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes, as the Kill the Bill protests in London and Bristol attest.
‘It is also a question of crossing borders between philosophical genres; epistemological borders, between documentary, scientific, and fictional languages; the borders of gender, the borders between languages and nationalities, those that separate humanity from animality, the living from the dead, the borders between today and history.’ Paul. B. Preciado
They say ‘crisis’, we say planetary revolution. Wayward experiments are underway, as they always have been.
‘From the holding cell was it possible to see beyond the end of the world and to imagine living and breathing again?’ Sadiya Hartman
This is our time.
Akale on The UK and slavery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSMBLp41cSY
Noam Chomsky: on Modern-Day American Imperialism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PdJ9TAdTdA
Claire Cunningham: Crip time, finding your own rhythm: https://soundcloud.com/user-957146615/podcast-53-crip-time
Priyamvada Gopal: Insurgent Empire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKccB6rOadg
Paul Gilroy talking to Russell Brand on neocolonialism and consumer culture: https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/english/tag/there-aint-no-black-in-the-union-jack/
Ruth Gilmore: The Case for Prison Abolition: Ruth Wilson Gilmore on COVID-19, Racial Capitalism & Decarceration https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HWqYANmWLY
Ruth Gilmore: Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore – An Antipode Foundation film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CS627aKrJI
Stuart Hall on the relevance of Policing the Crisis: https://vimeo.com/53879491
Christina Sharpe: The Weather: https://thenewinquiry.com/the-weather/
Franz Fanon: a discussion on The Wretched of The Earth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnsj7ESbvfA
Sadiya Hartman: Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374531157
Paul B Preciado: An Apartment on Uranus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ1gvM7Hd5Q
Malcolm X on oppression and exploitation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_uYWDyYNUg