'Black Lives Matter does not want white people to be hunted, shamed, made to feel guilty and diminished'
Sam Jabbi is a black barrister who lives in Bishop's Stortford with his wife and three children...
Tom Clements’ very well articulated thoughts neatly illustrate why white fragility and white privilege make the fight for racial justice so difficult ("Black Lives Matter: Does opposing the movement really render one a racist?”, Stortford Indie).
He reveals himself as a reasonable, well-intentioned individual and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity.
As for me, I am a UK-born male of African descent. I have lived in Italy and France and visited other European countries and the USA. I have taught UK and US constitutional law and politics to American undergraduates. I have worked in the UK as a barrister for over 25 years and experienced at first hand the effects of systemic racism against black people in every majority white country that I have ever visited.
Tom makes numerous statements in his article that are simply wrong.
First, the claim that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has a “desire to dismantle global capitalism” is without substance.
BLM arose in the aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy shot by a neighbourhood watch officer in 2012.
It can only be seen as a continuum of a struggle for justice in the context of 400 years of the forcible removal of black people from the African space; their African names, languages, cultures obliterated by their white slave masters. Trayvon Martin and George Floyd are not the African names of those African “bodies".
Those who wish to genuinely contribute to the discussion must, at the very least, educate themselves in the easily available historical and jurisprudential accounts of racism: lynchings of black people, the massacre of 300 black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921), Jim Crow Laws, Brown v Board of Education (de-segregation of education in 1954), Loving v Virginia (laws banning inter-racial marriage struck down in 1967). I mention Emmett Till and Rodney King as bywords for recent atrocities committed against black people with impunity.
Lest we congratulate ourselves on being somehow different from white Americans, the story of colonial domination of African bodies by European powers is ever present and no less brutal.
Britain was for a significant period the global force in the slave trade. As part of the price of abolishing the trade, the British Government paid out 40% of its budget (£17bn in today’s money) to slave owners. The loan taken out for this purpose by the Government was finally repaid in 2015.
The enormity of this slap in the face for British taxpayers – including black British taxpayers like me and my parents – should not be underestimated. Unbeknownst to me, I have paid slave owners to stop them trading black bodies as compensation for their “loss of property”. The families of several Prime Ministers, including David Cameron, received payments. Not a penny was paid to those who were enslaved. I am not aware that David Cameron has yet apologised for Britain’s role in the debauchery perpetrated on black bodies.
So BLM on its website says this:
“Our continued commitment to liberation for all black people means we are continuing the work of our ancestors and fighting for our collective freedom because it is our duty.
"We acknowledge, respect and celebrate differences and commonalities.
"We work vigorously for freedom and justice for black people and, by extension, all people.
"We are unapologetically black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a prerequisite for wanting the same for others.”
Second, no reasonable reading of the aims of BLM “amounts to a desire to... disrupt the traditional Western-centric family structure”.
The European Convention of Human Rights was written by white English lawyers with the aim of spelling out fundamental human rights to prevent the Holocaust from ever recurring. This was an explicit recognition that people with racial difference have equal worth as human beings.
Since then, the concepts of discrimination encapsulated by that and other documents have been expanded. For example, in 2004 the British Parliament recognised civil partnerships. Same-sex couples can now marry in the full legal sense in 16 EU countries. Transgender rights are infusing our society in ways thought impossible only a decade ago.
None of these movements has been fuelled by BLM. Instead, significant progress has been made by a minority of white activists who have been able to persuade politicians of the need for radical reform. BLM simply acknowledges that it supports other movements which fight against discrimination. It would be surprising if the position were otherwise.
Third, Tom suggests BLM aims to “defund” the police.
The term “defunding of police” is a bogeyman phrase which has caught the feverish imagination of Trump supporters who claim conspiratorially that Democrats are Communists who wish to bring anarchy to the USA. Those who cry foul rarely take the time to discover that law enforcement in the USA started as a slave patrol – a team of vigilantes hired to recapture escaped slaves.
Properly understood, the term "defund the police” refers to the over-policing and targeted criminalisation of black communities. It is a reimagining of what public safety looks like – shifting resources away from law enforcement toward community resources and engaging in positive ways.
Patricia Cullors, a co-founder of BLM, is quoted as saying: “It's about reinvesting those dollars into black communities, communities that have been deeply divested from. Those dollars can be put back into social services for mental health, domestic violence and homelessness, among others. Police are often the first responders to all three. Those dollars can be used to fund schools, hospitals, housing and food in those communities, too – all of the things we know increase safety.”
There are many, many unseen and unheralded volunteers and organisations within the black communities who have worked against seemingly insurmountable odds to support their community.
Fourth, I profoundly disagree with Tom that “evidence that the disproportionate number of black killings is purely due to racism is therefore decidedly lacking”.
It is a groundless blandishment designed to deflect from the reality of systemic racism and stereotyping. It is also the base narrative for those who want to victim-blame black people either as deserving inhumane treatment or that they have a “chip on their shoulder”.
The statistics in the US are damning. According to a study carried out between 2013 and 2019, black people accounted for 38% of people killed by the 100 largest police departments despite being only 21% of the population in their jurisdictions (https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/cities).
It is sobering to think that perceptions of hyper-aggressive black people result in the statistics that 47% of unarmed people killed by the 100 largest city police departments were black. These police departments killed unarmed black people at a rate four times higher than unarmed white people.
In the UK the figures are far from flattering. The 2017 Lammy review into criminal justice found that:
- Black people are six times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police
- BAME defendants were 240% more likely than white defendants to be give a prison sentence for a drug offence
- Black people make up 3% of the general population but make up 12% of the prisoners
- 21% of children in custody are black.
It is almost axiomatic that a police force which routinely discriminates against civilian people of colour would also discriminate against its black and Asian employees. In 2019 a Met study of wages found that white police officers on average received £1.80 an hour more than their black and Asian colleagues. In a 60-hour week that is equivalent to £108 a week less and £5,184 a year less than white police officers.
In the legal profession the treatment of black lawyers is troubling to say the least. In 2018 the Bar Standards Board was driven to concede that BAME barristers are more likely to be subject to a complaint, less likely to have a complaint closed without investigation and more likely to have a complaint referred to disciplinary action. To my knowledge, the reasons for this have never been explained. But what is clear is that the representation of black and brown faces is still grossly under-represented at the highest levels of the profession and in the judiciary.
Fifth, colour should not matter says Tom. We should all be colour-blind.
That, I am afraid, is to enter into the world of how things are supposed to be. In short, a parallel universe – a world of fantasy.
So when Tom staunchly declares that all lives matter, I do not disagree. Where we part company is that he fails to see that black lives have not mattered and still do not matter enough – and they should.
I don’t say Tom is a racist. Ultimately, the question he is asking is: what’s in it for him or other white people to rally to the cry?
His error may be that he fears that BLM is advocating that white people should be hunted, shamed, made to feel guilty and diminished economically or otherwise. That is the opposite of what BLM means.
Each human being is unique and has significance. If Tom accepts that as a given for him, he must confront head-on the history of European racism and its impact today.
Tom should be standing up against racism whenever he encounters it. Tom as a white person has a powerful platform. Tom as a sentient human being with intellect, love and emotions should be anti-racist.
Tom is invited to sit and listen in silence to the story of an educated open black African man who has for too long been silent, swallowing his pride, frightened of the repercussions of protesting too loudly and in the process accommodating systemic racism. Perhaps afterwards Tom will one day be an ally and an anti-racist friend.
I end with the words of Martin Luther King Jr...
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
* Sam Jabbi is a pseudonym of the author, who says: "Having been the victim of racial assault in the past, I am a little less ready to expose my family. It is an irony of course that I should feel this way in a 'free country'."