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‘Being Black is a crime’ – words that are still too true in Britain

Black lives matter

‘Being Black is a crime’ – words that are still too true in Britain

Despite BLM protests, recent incidents in the UK show that racial prejudice still persists among the country’s police. Clayton Goodwin, who is White, brings his own experience of encountering racism to bear on how this long-outdated attitude can be exorcised

The police officers who stopped and handcuffed medal-winning athlete Bianca Williams, travelling with her three-month-old son and her partner Ricardo dos Santos, early in July, would not have realised what trouble they were getting themselves into.

Probably they thought that this was a routine day’s work. Except Bianca proved as determined and eloquent here as she is fleet of foot on the track. Just as the concept Black Lives Matter has been captured in a single sentence – “I can’t breathe” – so Bianca tapped a history of fraught relations between the police, especially the London Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’), and the Black community into the phrase “Being Black is a crime”.

From too many personal experiences I would suggest that it is true. Let me cite a couple of examples. My wife, who was born in Jamaica, was given ‘the full works’ of search and passport-scrutiny by a customs official at the Waterloo Eurostar terminal on returning from holiday in the Black Forest, Germany.

I demanded that in the interests of equality, the officer should afford me the same treatment (I am White) but she refused. Later an anonymous, unattributable spokesperson told us that they had “received information that criminals were using older Black women to smuggle drugs from Amsterdam and my wife had answered that description”. Apart from anything else, our travel tickets showed she had been nowhere near Amsterdam.

When he was a teenager, our mixed-race son was beaten up badly by a racist gang. Although his clothes were torn, his face bruised and bleeding, and his eye seemed to be hanging from the socket, the policeman who came to our house tried to blame him for starting the incident and refused to receive the calls of witnesses phoning with details of the incident.

A few days later, on realising that I was a journalist, another officer dropped in to “assure” us that it had all been a misunderstanding and his colleague had really sympathised with our son – but they still did nothing to find the miscreants. Later still, the local police station inspector quit the force and fought a general election as a candidate for the racist British National Party.

Detrimental images of Black people

My cousin/godson has recently retired as a police inspector. He is honest, a devout Christian, and couldn’t do anything ignoble or mendacious. Yet he maintains that he never once saw any racially motivated action at any time during his long service. How can such contrasting attitudes be accommodated? Quite simply – both are correct.

As police officers represent the society from which they come, they reflect all that is in that society – the good, the bad and the ugly – which will not change until society itself is changed. Unfortunately, too many officers, including those who may not realise that they do so, harbour detrimental images of Black people because that is the picture they have been given throughout their lives.

The blame lies with the entertainment they watch, the education they receive, and the media reports they read and see. Plus, of course, the social structure they observe all around them. From the monarch down, this is a White country with Black people relegated to the lower social roles – and the lowly are often stigmatised by vocabulary as being unworthy.

It has always been so. The word ‘villain’, for instance, initially meant a labourer on the land of a country villa, and ‘knave’ was a ‘boy’ whether in the sense of a juvenile or a houseboy. Even in the Roman Empire, with which the British Empire is often (and wrongly) compared, Africans, Arabians, Spanish and other nationalities sat on the imperial throne. Society is less flexible today.

Skewed perceptions

British history is notoriously amiss in what is portrayed. In none of my time at school was I taught anything of the slave trade, and learned about it only from reading the biographies of sportsmen and entertainers.

Police officers would have shared the same childhood experience and ignorance. Many English people still do not know how Black people got to the Americas, assuming that they were indigenous there, as were Native Americans.

In learning ancient history, they are not told that the Egyptians, creators of the pyramids, were African, and know nothing of the African empires of yesteryear. No wonder police officers as individuals consider Africans as being of little worth or culture.

In film and on television, Africans are rarely seen as more than criminal or comic. When my (Black) wife was recuperating from a serious operation, my (White) mother, while expressing sympathy, added that she did not know why I was worried for her because “Black people don’t feel pain”.

In her younger days, she had watched programmes such as The Black and White Minstrel Show and films like Gone with the Wind, in which however badly slaves / Black people were treated they bounced back dancing, smiling and singing. Even 20 years of a loving relationship with her Jamaican daughter-in-law could not erase that early impression. Police officers seeing the same shows – with nothing else to contradict them – are influenced similarly.

An editor on a television news programme once offered me the job of a ‘stringer’, requiring me to inform him of forthcoming events in the West Indian community. On receiving my schedule of varied activities he said: “Don’t you understand? I want advance warning of riots. That’s all that interests our viewers”. “Maybe,” I replied, “it’s what interests them because they haven’t been given anything else that might interest them.” The editor concluded, not unreasonably, that the position being offered was incompatible with my attitude.

Black television guests are often chosen to amuse or to threaten, and characters in drama to be patronised or feared. Some actors are encouraged to adopt an “authentic Black” accent that is anything but authentic. One specialist presenter, to my knowledge, was required to appear regularly with unkempt hair and shaggy appearance because “that is how our viewers expect a Jamaican to look”.

With a few exceptions, which, thankfully, are increasing, though not quickly enough, the picture given to the wider public is that Black people are scruffy, poor, criminal and generally ‘other’ to their neighbours.

If they are rich or enjoy ostentatious possessions, it must be because they steal; if they are erudite and exhibit sound knowledge, they must be arrogant. Doreen and Neville Lawrence, parents of the murdered schoolboy Stephen, achieved widespread sympathy because they were able to convince the people around them just how much like them their son was.

It is natural for people to fear or distrust those who are different – in my youth in the countryside, we were wary of those from the next village and Anglicans took years to realise that Roman Catholics were human beings just like themselves.

It is natural to fear, but that does not make it right. That is why people turn to their leaders for guidance. Instead of providing trust and reassurance, however, many frontline politicians, both past and present, have tossed firebrands onto the oil of suspicion. That is especially true in the ‘hostile environment’ ambience of today.

To put the police right, we must put society right

If, indeed, they do reflect society, the forces of law and order should be careful as to which sectors of society they choose to reflect. Enlistment should require more than mere physical qualifications. Character, attitude and a relevant education should be as important. It is disgraceful that officers guilty of a racially motivated misdemeanour should be sent for a course in cultural awareness. Why? Officers should not be accepted into the force unless they are already aware, or, are prepared to undergo the course before joining.

Forget for a moment the incorrigible racists who should not have been in the uniform anyway. When confronted by a Black person the average police officers see – inevitably, from all that they have been told – somebody inferior who is a potential threat to themselves and to society, criminal in propensity if not in actuality.

Or, if being richer and perceived ‘inferior’ to themselves, somebody of whom to be jealous …. as the song puts it, they feel “the underground fear we wouldn’t face / the menacing Black man who invaded / the subway of our souls at four in the morning”.

Strange as it may seem, police officers are often more afraid of their victim than the latter is of them. Fear is often their motive. That is why even an otherwise more modest stop-and-search may be accompanied by unnecessary violence. Do you remember the baton raised to Bianca Williams and the handcuffs? Who, in or out of their right mind, would raise a baton to a woman and her child?

The police and the law-and-order structure cannot be put ‘right’ until society, itself, is put ‘right’. That starts with education, entertainment and the media, and accepting that the other person is another human being.

“Being Black is a crime”. Is that so? Unfortunately, too often it is regarded as that, but the greater crime lies with those believing and enforcing as if it is.

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