• Patricia Francis

Perfect storm for a Black revolution.




The recent shootings by US police officers of thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, and the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright further aggravates those ongoing questions regarding the perceived value of Black lives. In many respects these latest shootings bring into sharp focus images we are too familiar with; the hunting down and killing, or hanging, of Black Americans during slavery through to the Civil Rights movement (and beyond); and as Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ rings in my ears it is evident that Black lives continue to have little value as we and our children continue to be chased and gunned down in similar inhumane ways.


What is equally upsetting is the nature of these deaths and the apparent ease with which these lives are taken - no hesitation; and the familiarity of the formal processes following the killings, as efforts to both prosecute and defend these fatal actions haunt arguments and counterarguments in court. The cold harsh reality is that, yet another Black life has boldly been taken in familiar circumstances, another Black person has been killed by the gun and another Black family has been traumatised. ‘Strange Fruit’ is just as relevant today. The frequency of Black lives lost seems increasingly contingent on a white extremist perception that Black lives do not matter, has no value and is ultimately game.


I am a post-graduate researcher and filmmaker analysing female dissenting voices in documentary film. Voice is very important to my research where it is not just the sonic or signed mechanisms we use to convey communication - our thoughts and emotions, but is also how our social selves and the social and political space we occupy refine and define who we are. In Welcome to the Jungle (1994), Kobena Mercer quotes Mikail Bakhtin who argued for a reclamation of the spoken language in order to create new meaning; ‘The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when… the speaker appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation the word does not exist in a neutral or impersonal language … but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, serving other people’s intentions.’ [1] Bahktin perhaps acknowledges here a power in ‘voice’ and its ability to convey messages and meaning and to construct hegemony.


As a filmmaker much of my work involves highlighting instances of marginalisation and injustice. I am aware of the liberation that is experienced when I offer a platform through my films to individuals and groups to tell their stories, subsequently allowing their previously muted voices to ‘be heard’. In essence there is innate power in perceiving a freedom to express emotion and to speak out, as well as a strong sense of self. Freedom of expression is a human right, one we all should enjoy. Being silenced is undermining and provokes disquiet. Indeed, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin found guilty of three charges in the killing of George Floyd, took the decision that he would not testify in the trial.[2] The power of that decision lay with him as his defence lawyer and the judge were both at pains to demonstrate and ensure there was an absence of coercion in his choice to remain silent.


But the choice to speak or not to speak is not yet enjoyed by us all. Whilst protests continue on the streets of the US in defiance of recent shootings, in the UK there is an edginess. Despite unified voices over the summer of 2020 declaring 'Black Lives Matter' after the killing of George Floyd, and a shift in awareness of the lived experience of racialised groups in Britain, an unease is growing as policies and rhetoric appear to undermine that declaration and the conversations that followed, in attempts to bring social parity. A loud and angry defiance is spilling over from the breakfast table into media outlets as those 'difficult conversations about race' are being had. But these must be considered as more than just ‘heated discussions’ when a television presenter storms off set (and later resigns) and when a Black MP is told he cannot be African-Caribbean and British. The mood is changing in Britain and racialised groups in the UK are sensing an intolerance of them and their right to reside. Their voices are being muted. The hypocrisy of the Windrush scandal where people from the colonies were invited to England to help reconstruct the country after World War II, and then denied their rightful place as British citizens; the blatant disparity relating to the police and media coverage of the killing of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibbaa Henry compared with that given to Sarah Everard, and a pandemic that is disproportionately taking the lives of people from marginalised groups. A cultural and social divide is markedly evident and speaks of a deep mistrust of governments who persistently introduce systems and policies that undermine and undervalue its non-white citizens. It should therefore not come as a surprise that those same citizens are failing to show up to be vaccinated when they read and hear how the pandemic is disproportionately impacting them. Vaccine hesitancy is born out of a deep concern and ‘…real fear, not defiance.’[3] Similarly a recent Resolution Foundation report looked at the changes in the labour market for 16-24-year-olds and found that ‘ by Q2-Q4 2020, the unemployment rate rose to 34 per cent (a 9 percentage point increase) among Black young people and to 13 per cent (a 2 point rise) among White young people.’[4] The inequity is evident yet recent State intervention has demonstrated the extent to which is it prepared to go in its attempts to abrogate this reality.


Racial inequity continues and is without doubt the reason why The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report has been so widely disparaged. Nine Commissioners, and two co-opted members were asked to look at ‘race and ethnic disparities in education, employment, crime and policing and health…’ [5] In an interview with the BBC in June 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that he wanted to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination… we stamp out racism and we start to have a real sense of expectation of successes.’ [6] From a Black perspective, despite the injustices and inequity we experience, we are full of expectation, hope, ambition and resilience, therefore what hidden message was Boris Johnson delivering when stating his desire to ‘change the narrative’? If it was to concoct a narrative and construct a social consciousness founded on a composed notion of a society that is not racist, that racialised people are not victimised and of one that is fair and just, then it has has failed. This was an example in action of Bahktin’s ‘the word does not exist in a neutral or impersonal language … but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, serving other people’s intentions’. Johnson’s attempt to belie the systemic and enduring racism that is a lived experience for so many due to their race shows a ruthless wish to sustain a bi-partite system. The report did not, as was perhaps ill-advisedly thought, offer credibility but instead demonstrated the white hands of the ventriloquist in action.


On BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, Evan Davis' astute questions highlighted the limitations of the research and the not so ‘independent’ nature of the report. The research data was provided to the Commission by the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit, who 'accumulated all the important data on race and ethnicity, in one database.’ [7] The report was written by a secretariat who supported the Commission that met via conferencing portal ‘Zoom’. Questions must surely be asked regarding the data that was selected and perhaps more importantly an exploration made into the information that was omitted. Guardian writer Aditiya Chakrabortty carried out his own investigation and in his article The UK government’s race report is so shoddy, it falls to pieces under scrutiny, [8] Chakrabortty argues that the report is ‘full of mistakes and distorted facts’ and that it undermines a number of elements within it.


For the Commission to state that they 'no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism...' [9] is to devalue the lived experiences of racialised groups in the country who, for example, have to change their names in an attempt to get through a first sift for a job interview; is to disrespect Wilhelmina Smallman who was informed that two policemen took selfies with her two daughters’ dead bodies, and to turn a blind eye to the everyday racist practices that leads to a lack of diversity within companies and institutions and that enables an enduring social inequity experienced by marginalised groups. To suggest that ‘family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism,’ [10] is to blame racialised groups for their marginalised and disadvantaged status and to not acknowledge a powerful self-perpetuating, neo-colonial and capitalist system that is racist, sexist and classist in its very structure. In addition to this, such statements ignore the overwhelming evidence – reviews, reports and first-hand accounts that reveal systems and processes that facilitates systemic and institutionalised racist behaviour.


The argument that white-working class boys are socially disadvantaged often follows these debates and is not a matter for this or similar discussions. The issues regarding their disadvantage, like issues regarding gender or disability inequality, deserves to be addressed within their own right. Converging these arguments is a discourteous distraction that is deliberately divisive.


The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report was a blatant attempt to quell the ‘noise’ from disadvantaged voices. It was not commissioned with a desire to address pervading issues, but rather to ‘silence a rabble’ that will not be satiated. Silenced voices have a habit of dissenting, we saw it in the late 1950s, in the 1980s and in 2011. History is more than a repository for the past. For those wise enough to learn from previous events such wisdom can feed the present and nourish the future. Plastering over old cracks can only conceal the damage for a limited time and delay the repair. The racial issues facing the US may be perceived as only existing there, but the UK has both a guilty past and a pernicious present when it comes to race relations. Incidences such as the recent case of Carl Abrahams being attacked by a UK policeman in front of his children after visiting his partner’s grave, offer clear evidence. The judge said PC Charlie Harrison targeted Abrahams because of his race and then assaulted him.[11] After decades of government reports and ‘tweaks’ to the Race Relations Act, race relations in this country are far from healed.


The manner in which The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report was compiled demonstrates the manipulative lengths this government is prepared to go in order to undermine the very real issues relating to racial inequity racialised groups in this county experience. But as the voices of Black and white people continue to unite in recognition of the social and political constructs that enable racism to persist, efforts to divide the nation, to avoid addressing the legacy of colonialism and to prevent a social order that is fair and just can only lead to an empowering of the masses. A revolutionary response that demands social equity for all must now follow as those same voices proclaiming ‘Black Lives Matter’ rise up together to instigate the change they all want to see.


The UK has a brutal history of slavery - the forced removal of people from their country and the consequential severing of those people from their heritage. Those difficult conversations about race must continue to be had, voices need to be heard and the government must stop white-washing facts in its attempt to erase guilty hands from a cruel past and injurious present. Racialised groups have a broken history, a lost legacy and are being heard. They have allies and will no longer be silenced.



[1] Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle new Positions in Black Cultural Studies (London: Routledge 1994), 64.

[2] George Floyd death: Ex-officer Chauvin will not take the stand, BBC, 15 April 2021, online video recording, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56763599. [accessed 16 April 2021].

[3] Sistah Space, Vaccine hesitation [Twitter]. 14 April 2021/ I can't judge those who are genuinely worried about the vaccine jab based on historical experiences. I don't have a view on people taking the vaccine or not, I think people should reach that conclusion without being pressured. I see real fear not defiance. Available at https://twitter.com/Sistah_Space/with_replies [accessed 17 April 2021].

[4] Kathleen Henehan, ‘Uneven Steps Changes in youth unemployment and study since the onset of Covid-19’, 14 April 2021, available on the Resolution Foundation website at https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/uneven-steps/ (viewed 16 April 2021).

[5] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (London: Race Disparity Unit 202), 6.

[6] Black Live Matter: ‘Much more that we need to do’ to tackle racism – PM, 15 June 2020, online video recording, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53045349. [accessed 16 April 2021].

[7] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (London: Race Disparity Unit 202), 6.

[8] Aditiya Chakrabortty, ‘The UK government’s race report is so shoddy, it falls to pieces under scrutiny’, The Guardian, 16 April 2021.

[9] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (London: Race Disparity Unit 202), 8.

[10] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (London: Race Disparity Unit 202), 8.

[11] Vikram Rodd, ‘Met officer faces dismissal after ‘clear case of racial profiling’’, The Guardian, 13 April 2021.

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