I Can't Breathe!
It was always going to take something big to dislodge coronavirus from the top of the news agenda. This week we got it – and Dominic Cummings must be clapping his hands!
On May 25 in Minneapolis, Black American George Floyd was murdered – that’s now the official charge – by a white policeman. Several colleagues stood and watched and someone filming the event enabled us all to see the policeman putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for some of the eight minutes and 46 seconds. The dying man’s last strangled words – now splashed on tee-shirts around the world - were ‘I can’t breathe’. This week has once again seen an outcry against racism both institutional and personal in our societies. As summer temperatures rise so may the levels of anger.
The backstory to the case is slowly emerging. The violent policeman, Derek Chauvin, had been cautioned before for over-reacting to difficult situations. Floyd was initially stopped for some petty crime. It will take time to get to the whole truth.
This story sits uncomfortably beside reports in the UK that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected the BME(Black and Minority Ethnic) population here. The reasons for that are obviously complex. They may have to do with accommodation patterns or the risks of occupations that the BME population may be more likely to take . But the reasons for the statistics are mostly unexplored by research. Such research needs to be funded. And how much support from a majority white population for a majority white government would there be for such funding? Changes in racist attitudes come slowly - especially in institutions.
Most of us may well feel that the behaviour of institutions is not really our problem. But triggers for the kind of outrage shown in the George Floyd case do not exist in a vacuum. They depend somewhat on the ammunition supplied by public opinion which we all help to shape.
So, if we set any store by the words of Martin Luther King that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere’ or if we want to care at all seriously about the future of humankind’s cohabitation, it is (always) time to ask our white selves some uncomfortable questions. These are the most difficult questions because they’re questions not just about our explicit attitudes but about ‘slippery racism’.[i]
Here are a few questions that have served us well in thinking about this. Though we'd like to emphasise that we make absolutely no claims to having all the right answers. How seriously have we owned up to our sense of entitlement in our society? How much time have we spent listening, really listening, to BME people talking about their experience of being ‘visibly marked out as different for their entire lives’?[ii] How do we respond to jokes about black people? Do we get ourselves off the hook by claiming to have ‘black friends’? What is our level of real contact with BME people who aren’t serving us in some way? Do we too readily describe a black person vigorously stating a point of view as ‘ranting’? How do we respond to the gradual ‘browning’ of any organisation? Difficult questions for private consideration without defensiveness.
Racism is a like a virus. It lurks undetected. It lives a long time on hard surfaces. We are very adept at social distancing. We can be carriers without knowing. Its effects can be devastating. It will take many ‘hand-washings’ to free ourselves of infection.
The virus of racism will still flourish when coronavirus is just a distant memory. Time for some serious white self-examination.