With Brexit and the election of Trump, racists feel emboldened to sow hate in our communities – but we must not despair, we must resist, says ZITA HOLBOURNE
THIS year hasn’t been an easy one for those on the receiving end of and trying to fight racism.
It has been a struggle on multiple levels. While racism didn’t suddenly appear this year, several events have made it worse.
From the demonisation of refugees fleeing war, persecution, climate change and poverty; scapegoating of migrant communities; the disproportionate effect of austerity; deaths at the hands of the state; discrimination in the labour market; institutional racism; forced mass deportations; an increase in racist and xenophobic hate crime; to Brexit and Donald Trump — to mention just some of the issues. It hasn’t been easy.
The toxic racism and xenophobia of the Brexit campaign and the election of Trump following a campaign based on hatred and division have emboldened those who hold racist views to express them openly.
It’s bad enough facing discrimination in the labour market; being blocked and barred from promotion and progression when you are at work; treated like a second-class citizen because of policies and laws; being driven into deeper poverty because of a lack of secure permanent employment and low and unequal pay; discrimination in access to services; verbal and physical abuse while going about your daily business.
And all of that is distressing, soul-destroying and can lead to stress-related illness and a breakdown in mental health.
Often when we speak out about our experiences, we are told that we have a chip on our shoulder, we are imagining and exaggerating our experiences, we are playing the race card, we are targeted for online and physical abuse for campaigning against and standing up to racism. This is done in an attempt to silence us and intimidate us, so to stand up to racism you have to be brave, strong, determined.
In the wake of Brexit, we were told to pack our bags and go back to where we come from: this is my country, you don’t belong here. It’s reminiscent of the type of “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” era of the 1950s and ’60s.
People were not just verbally but physically attacked. During a by-election campaign I was involved in, an Asian Labour Party member who was canvassing with a group of others was attacked by a father and son who racially abused him verbally and then physically attacked him with a glass bottle. He had to be taken to hospital.
Race equality activists like myself have been inundated with requests for support, advice and assistance from people who experienced racist and xenophobic attacks.
In Liverpool during the week of Labour Party conference a taxi driver told me that he liked the far right and he liked Trump and — shockingly — that we needed someone like Hitler again.
While the police confirmed there was an increase in the reporting of hate crimes we know that the true extent is much higher because many people won’t or can’t go to the police. In addition, many of the organisations that supported victims of hate crime and racism in the past — such as race monitoring groups and advisory services — no longer exist because their funding has been cut and they were forced to shut their doors.
In the summer the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report setting out just how bad race discrimination, disadvantage and underrepresentation is.
It said what my organisation Barac UK and black trade unionists have been saying for some time: that racism affects every aspect of life. While the EHRC made clear that there was a need for urgent action, the commission itself is facing huge cuts and members of my union PCS and of Unite have in recent weeks been on strike to oppose a proposed budget cut of 25 per cent on top of the 70 per cent cut already made since 2010.
Most the proposed job cuts affect the lowest paid and disproportionately black, disabled, older staff and will mean there are barely any caseworkers across the UK to support victims of race discrimination.
How can the organisation that is supposed to stand up for equality and human rights and ensure institutions, employers and service providers don’t discriminate by discriminating itself?
And our human rights and rights as workers have been attacked this year through the Trade Union Act which seeks to restrict our right to strike.
While all this is depressing we should celebrate our achievements and stand shoulder to shoulder with those who stand up to racism, especially the movements led by black people — often young black people.
Both in the US and in Britain, we have seen black-led social justice movements opposing racism and attacks on migrant communities. Some of the campaigns they have led have included opposing charter flights and forced deportations, standing up to racism in universities, opposing cuts and gentrification in our communities and seeking justice following deaths at the hands of the state. But there have been many more. They are movements that are growing and are often led by young black people and black women who refuse to stay silent in the face of racism and instead are organising, mobilising and taking action to ensure their voices are heard.
These are movements that trade unions and campaigners need to work with, to engage with and to support. We can all learn from each other and when we combine our skills, experiences and knowledge this can only make us stronger. It’s not the sole responsibility of those on the receiving end of racism to fight it but it is for us to lead that fight with the support of others. Silence can speak volumes and, as Martin Luther King said, “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Racism is deepening but this year we have also seen the election of the first black Muslim woman president of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia, and a record number of black representatives in the shadow cabinet under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, with Diane Abbott, Kate Osamor, Clive Lewis, Dawn Butler, Shami Chakrabarti all appointed to senior positions.
Everyone needs to check their own privilege, step up and stand up to racism when they witness it but also work to prevent it in the first place as we should not have to go through our lives defending ourselves and reacting to racism — we need a strategy that takes us forward towards race equality.
At The World Transformed, Barac launched our strategy for race equality by 2025. We invite readers to start 2017 as they mean to go on and attend our parliamentary launch of the strategy and round-table event which will be hosted by shadow chancellor John McDonnell MP on Martin Luther King Day in January and to join us in working to make it a reality.
This will be on January 17 in the Wilson Room, Houses of Parliament.
The strategy paper and details of how to register to attend can be found at mstar.link/barac-strategy.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank readers who have supported Barac’s solidarity and humanitarian aid work.
We welcome your donations of essential items, which can be dropped off or sent to PCS HQ, C/O BARAC or financial donations which allow us to purchase fresh food and the items most needed from one distribution to another. You can make donations and access reports and videos at mstar.link/barac-funds.
I would also like to encourage you to attend a conference which I have been working with others to organise: Climate Refugees, the Climate Crisis and Population Displacement — Building a Trade Union and Civil Society Response, which takes place on February 11 at the NUT headquarters. Details at mstar.link/climate-refugees-conference.
“Human progress is neither inevitable or automatic. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals” — Martin Luther King.
Zita Holbourne is acting vice-president of PCS, elected to the TUC race relations committee and Initiative for Equality board of advisers (a global organisation working to build more equal societies), co-founder and national co-chair of Barac UK, an author, poet, artist and curator.