A report by Britain’s equality body notes a “worrying combination” of post-Brexit hate crimes and long-term, systemic race inequality. Samira Shackle reports from London.
Nikesh Shukla was 17 when he was knocked off his bike by a car near his home in north London. As he staggered to his feet, the woman driving the car shouted at him: “Didn’t you see me, you blind Paki?”
It was a momentary comment that had a lasting effect on Shukla, who is now in his 30s. “I was at a stage in my life where I was very impressionable, and that had a huge effect on my self worth and sense of identity,” he tells DW. “I spent years being ashamed.”
Shukla, a writer and editor of Rife magazine, has been disturbed to see the 57 percent spike in hate crimes and racist abuse following Britain’s vote to exit the European Union in June. “In the wake of Brexit there has been this idea that there are isolated incidents by idiots, like they’re acceptable bits of collateral damage, and it will all calm down. What happened to me was an isolated incident that had a knock on effect that caused a lot of anxiety and made me depressed.”
The Brexit vote did not create racism in the UK, but the negative language around migrants from mainstream politicians and newspapers does appear to have emboldened those holding racist views. “I sometimes miss the days of political correctness gone mad, as at least that was a plaster on a very overt racism,” says Shukla. “The referendum result seems to have unlocked this permission.”
The findings of the report came as no surprise to Zita Holbourne, co-founder and co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac), an anti-austerity campaign group founded in 2010 to counter the disproportionate impact of government cuts on ethnic minorities in Britain.
Holbourne, a long-time trade unionist, had dealt with cases of workplace discrimination for years. She explains why cuts have fallen hardest on ethnic minorities: “Because of the discrimination that black people already face in society, they’re more likely to live in the poorest and most deprived areas, including in social housing. Those are the areas that have the deepest cuts to budgets, so more services have gone. There’s a whole host of reasons but behind all of that is the fact that poverty and racism already affected black people. Austerity has amplified it.”
The public sector, which has faced swingeing cuts, was one of the largest employers of ethnic minority people in Britain. Holbourne notes that in London, where black people made up 5 percent of the workforce, they made up 28 percent of redundancies. “You can see the clear disproportionate impact there,” Holbourne told DW.
The EHRC report notes that over the last five years, there has been a 49 percent increase in long-term youth unemployment for ethnic minorities, compared with a 2 percent fall in white youth unemployment. It also found that black and Asian workers are more than twice as likely to be in the insecure workforce (with part-time or zero hours contracts) as white workers. “There’s a lot of focus on the gender pay gap but there needs to be a focus on the race pay gap too,” says Holbourne.
“I lost count of how many job applications I sent out without even getting an interview,” says Tolu Adefope, a recent graduate from a London university. “Eventually you start to wonder if it would be different if you had a more traditionally English sounding name.”
Stop and search
Police discrimination against black people is currently a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. British activists recently launched a British branch of the American protest movement Black Lives Matters in response to police violence. More than 15 years since the publication of the Macpherson report in 1999, which dealt with institutional racism in the police, campaigners argue little has changed. “At every level, once young people from black and minority ethnic communities enter the criminal justice system, they are failed,” Liz Fekete, head of the Institute for Race Relations, told DW.
Figures released last year found that in some parts of the country, black people are up to 17.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched. “I have never committed a criminal offence, never had any reason to be brought to police attention, but I have been stopped now more than 20 times,” says David Paul (name has been changed), a 27-year old from London. “It’s exhausting. You don’t know when it’ll happen. None of my white friends have to deal with this low level harassment. And there is very little I can do about it. Get angry and you confirm their suspicions.”
Clearly, this is a complex situation to address. In addition to the short-term spike in hate crimes and the medium-term impact of austerity is the underlying long-term issue of systemic discrimination. “The conversation around racism is this weird binary thing where people don’t think that it’s real unless there’s violence,” says Shukla. “People don’t think institutional racism, or calling someone a name on Twitter, is a problem.”
Ironically, cuts have also impacted the very bodies that enforce and monitor racial equality – including the EHRC itself. “We need commitment across the board,” says Holbourne. “We also need political parties to stop pandering to the far right, to stand up and speak out, and we need the media to spread truth and not lies.”