Home African Caribbean Suffering Inna Babylon  –  Time for Collective Action

Suffering Inna Babylon  –  Time for Collective Action

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Professor Gus John. Photo courtesy wikipedia

We are entering another year of suffering inna Babylon.

But already we as an African Diaspora are engaging with the society as if such suffering on account of systemic racism is inevitable.

At the same time that the home secretary Suella Braverman is reneging on government commitments to implement key recommendations of the Williams report on lessons to be learnt from the Windrush Scandal and pronouncing that as far as she is concerned Windrush is done, just like Brexit, and that it’s time to move on.  At the same time as the prime minister, the first black one in the UK, is actively appealing to the xenophobic and racist tendencies in the electorate as the Conservative government seeks to redeem itself in the run up to the next general election, just as those before him had done since the late 1950’s, the Windrush Foundation is asking the nation to focus upon the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush in London 75 years ago this June carrying 500 colonial subjects from countries that were still ruled by Britain. Unashamedly, the originators of the Windrush hype, clearly with no regard for the history of Africans in the Caribbean, or for the history of imperialism and colonialism, want us all to see the arrival of the Windrush as some Mayflower event.

One wonders whether Braverman and Sunak would have been equally zealous in their efforts to prove themselves even more capable of draconian and racist immigration control policies and practices than their predecessors, if those caught in the Home Office’s Windrush dragnet, or arriving in death traps called small boats were from the Indian subcontinent.

While those deluded colonial subjects and Mother Country loyalists with their colonial mindset plan celebrations and seek to write Windrush indelibly into the history of the black presence in Britain, we have more urgent matters with which to preoccupy ourselves.  Let me suggest two.

It’s about time that we build a National Federation of Black Staff /Members Networks.  It is also high time that we demand the creation of a Race Discrimination Offenders Register, similar to the Sex Offenders Register.

There is now a large and growing number of Black Staff/Black Members Networks around the country in practically every field of employment and especially in public facing organisations.  Most if not all of those networks operate officially in isolation from one another, save for the networking across organisations that individuals might choose to do.  A Federation would represent strength in unity and would have a focus on race and employment and ensure that networks have a role in the strategic management of their organisations, insisting that they comply with legislation and build and sustain a culture of equity. For decades, black staff have had to contend with racism within their own trade unions, especially when those discriminating against or relentlessly harassing them are members of the same union. A Federation would hopefully include the Society of Black Lawyers, the Black Solicitors Network and lawyers working in the public sector and build capacity to provide legal advocacy and representation as a core element of its work.

Black staff in every single one of those organisations are impacted by racism in other areas of society.  Their children are impacted by institutional and personalised manifestations of racism in schooling; by police Stop & Search practices both on the streets and increasingly in school; by structural unemployment; by discrimination in access to goods and services, etc.  There is no reason why a federation of networks should not speak with one voice on these inequities and seek to address them at a local or national level. Currently, Black Staff Networks are at best part of the optics of diversity and inclusion in most areas of employment where they exist.  In the higher education sector, for example, their existence is not even a lever for getting their university to address the issue of underrepresentation at managerial levels, let alone a guarantee that the university and its governing council will pay serious attention to the extent to which their members experience racism across the institution.  New generations of British-born young people are joining these institutions in growing numbers and the labour market is becoming more and more dependent upon them, especially after Brexit.  They should not have to brace themselves for similar if not worse experiences than the generations that went before them.

Last year, the Employment Tribunal awarded £473k to Catherine Burton-York for race discrimination and loss of employment at Douay Martyrs School in Ickenham, Greater London. The tribunal found that Mrs Burton-York, who is of Caribbean heritage, was the only staff member to fail a selection process she and four other middle managers had been put through as part of a restructure designed by the headteacher. Burton-York was replaced by a “less experienced and less qualified” white colleague, despite being known as an “excellent” and “outstanding” teacher by her peers. 

Schools and universities have largely failed to comply with the requirements of equality legislation since the 1976 Race Relations Act through to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2010.   Race discrimination legislation is intended to protect the rights of black folk.  Successive governments since 1976 have failed to make sure that public bodies provide evidence of compliance with legislation.  Despite the fact that a strong and well-resourced watchdog (which the Equality and Human Rights Commission is not even a pale shadow of) and a requirement that organisations produce verifiable evidence of legal compliance are long overdue, no government has taken race discrimination and the damage it does seriously enough to ensure that the fundamental rights of black folk are protected.

When race discrimination complaints are upheld, institutions take vicarious responsibility for the actions of their managers and pay up, but those managers are typically allowed to carry on with business as usual, often being given promotion, while the careers and invariably the wellness and mental health of the victims of their discrimination are severely impacted.  Racism, discrimination and structural inequities intersect with wellness and impact the mental health of people in the workplace, as well as that of their families. Some people never recover from the trauma of race discrimination, harassment or abuse.  In this sense, it robs individuals of their human dignity and affects their life chances arguably no less than sexual predation on girls and women, especially as black victims of sexual abuse could suffer on account of both race and sex. Given the wilfulness and the nonchalance with which black workers, students and parents are discriminated against, year on year, a race discrimination register will be a wakeup call to those discriminating and in my view is long overdue. After all, it is almost 55 years since the Race Relations Act 1968 outlawed racial discrimination in employment.

Imagine if the headteacher of Catherine Burton-York’s school knew that he would end up on such a register, thereby debarring him from any managerial function, or indeed any teaching or lecturing post. He would no doubt have thought twice about ruining that black teacher’s career.  

But it should not be necessary for a tribunal or court to find that a manager has discriminated before they are placed on the register.  In the meantime, until we succeed in getting government to establish such a register, my proposed Federation of Black Staff Networks would collect data and keep its own register.  Imagine what a wake-up call a Race Discrimination Register would be to employers and managers in the public sector.  For one thing, they would no longer have the luxury of reducing systemic, institutional and personal forms of racism to unconscious bias.
Article first published in Jamaica Gleaner.



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