Tamsin Ssembajjo Quigley: ‘The racist legacies of the past are woven into the fabric of our present’

Protesters at the Justice For All march in Washington. Photograph: Lorie Shaull

In Canary Wharf on a summer evening, before coronavirus, you might have chosen to sit out and dine al fresco at one of the restaurants that line the water in West India Quay.

As you watched streams of dazzling sunlight falling on the water, you might have found yourself glancing back and considering the building façades behind you for a brief moment.

You would have noticed several columns of large wooden hatches patterned all the way down the row.

On the surface, this unusual architectural feature might have seemed peculiar but innocuous, nothing more than a carefully preserved antiquated original feature, as roof beams and fireplaces are in Georgian or Tudor houses.

The apparent quaintness, however, belies its role in a sickening network which underpinned Britain’s Atlantic slave trade.

The buildings in West India Quay were part of the triangular trade route between Africa, the Americas and Europe.

African slaves in the Caribbean manufactured sugar, tobacco and cotton which were transported across the Atlantic, up the twisting contours of the Thames and hoisted up through the hatches of buildings such as those at West India Quay. They were stored in these buildings and exchanged for other goods which were then taken to Africa and used to purchase slaves.

Although next door at the Docklands Museum there is a permanent exhibition entitled London, Sugar and Slavery, the enduring imprint of the slave trade on Britain’s architecture provides another illustration of how tightly the racist legacies of the past are woven into the fabric of our present.

Buildings linked to slavery are not unusual around the UK; in fact they are disquietingly ordinary. From Bristol to Glasgow, Britain is littered with buildings where impressive, opulent veneers conceal sinister foundations.

The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, the stately home Harewood House, and Queen’s Square in Bristol are just a few examples of buildings constructed from the proceeds of slavery.

African lives were disposable to the British state, whilst the fruits of their labour ultimately ensured Britain became one of the most prosperous countries in human history.

Many British buildings serve as architectural reminders of how the subjugation and dehumanisation of African slaves, as well as the colonisation of African countries, nurtured Britain’s wealth.

All too often, slavery and the colonisation of Africa are discussed through a historical lens, with British society reluctant to meaningfully engage with this chapter of its history and explore its enduring consequences for the modern era.

In public discourse it is rare to hear many politicians dissecting how this epoch continues to shape the distribution of wealth in our society, social attitudes and foreign policies.

Only a few years ago, it came to light that British taxpayers – including the descendants of slaves – were still paying off debts the government incurred when it paid compensation to slave owners after the abolition of slavery.

Attempts to publicly discuss racism in the UK are often countered with the assertion things are not as bad here as in the US. It would be considered preposterous to frame any other conversation about human experience in these terms.

Human experiences are not quantifiable entities which can easily be popped on a weighing scale to be measured and then contrasted with other people’s experiences to produce empirical data about which is ‘worse’.

So often we hear America needs to reckon with its past, but then so does Britain.

In the last two weeks we have witnessed protests erupting in Hackney and around the world in response to the brutal torture and murder of George Floyd at the hands of an American police officer, Derek Chauvin.

The police officer had assumed George Floyd’s life was disposable and worthless.

The police officer also assumed there would be no consequences for murdering George Floyd.

His thinking did not deviate from the predominant historical narrative in the West around race, which has held that black people are inferior.

It took four days for Derek Chauvin to be charged following protests from the people of Minneapolis.

George Floyd’s name has now been added to a shockingly familiar roll-call of black victims of police brutality.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK encompass a diverse range of people from different races, regions and generations, all bearing witness to the fact that racism is not a just a US problem but a British one too.

Many of the British protesters emphasise our country’s own long history of state violence against black people, which had its genesis in the slave trade and has continued ever since.

Yesterday, protesters in Bristol tore down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and disposed of it in the harbour, leading many on social media to highlight how the fate of the statue mirrored the plight of innumerable Africans thrown into the Atlantic without mercy on the journey to the Americas.

Back in 2017, David Lammy MP undertook a report into racial inequality in our criminal justice system and the findings were astounding.

It revealed that BAME people represent 14 per cent of the overall population but 25 per cent of the prison population. It also highlighted that BAME people constitute 40 per cent of young people in custody.

The report challenged preexisting notions about Britain being a more tolerant and inclusive society than its American counterpart, as it noted there is actually a higher disproportionality in the black prison population here than in the United States.

It has to be recognised that there are many individual police officers who do an incredible job of protecting the public, working in partnership with communities and who abhor the actions of people like Derek Chauvin.

However, the statistical disparities in the criminal justice system, along with a myriad of negative anecdotal experiences of many in the black community, indicate that, as a whole, the system needs to do more to address institutional racism.

Our government has been quick to attempt to distance Britain from events in the US, with health secretary Matt Hancock trumpeting ‘Black Lives Matter’ at a daily briefing last week.

For many of us in the black community, this statement felt incredibly hollow and disingenuous, coming from a government that has presided over the Windrush Scandal, Grenfell Tower, hostile environment immigration policies, and the disastrous national response to coronavirus which has seen a disproportionate amount of BAME people die.

In addition, the prime minister himself has demonstrated a woeful lack of knowledge about economic policies which overwhelmingly disadvantage BAME people.

At the Liaison Committee on 27 May, Boris Johnson was asked by Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham, whether his government would provide financial support for people with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).

Johnson appeared utterly bemused by the question – as he so often appears to be when challenged about everyday issues which impact normal people – and responded by asking why people with NRPF could not claim benefits.

The fact that our prime minister had no awareness of the intricacies of an economic policy which leaves migrants at far higher risk of being trapped in a cycle of poverty is a terrible indictment on our government.

The actions of Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson have served as key examples of the much discussed phenomena of performative allyship. They both assumed the role of earnest supporters of the black community; presenting the public with verbal gestures indicating that they were worried and concerned about racial injustice, whilst pursuing policies which further entrench inequality.

The announcement that there would be a review into the disproportionate BAME deaths from Covid-19 was welcomed, as we anticipated it would shed an urgent light on how racial inequality was a determinant of poor health outcomes.

News that the section of the report that dealt with structural disparities had inexplicably been withheld from the public crystallised many people’s belief that the British state is institutionally racist and our government does not have the political willpower to address it.

The pandemic has highlighted serious ongoing inequalities in all aspect of life for BAME people.

Public Health England found Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50 per cent higher risk of death when compared than White British people.

In May, my article for the Citizen on the Runnymede Trust’s ‘Colour of Money’ report explored how BAME communities have less economic capital, for reasons that include widespread discrimination in the job market and being concentrated in urban areas with higher living costs.

In our own community in Hackney, we have seen cleaners, porters and security staff at Homerton Hospital being forced to fight for adequate employment rights and protections, despite jeopardizing their lives on the frontline of the NHS during the pandemic.

As the journalist and sociology professor Gary Younge wrote in his article ‘We Can’t Breathe’ for the New Statesman: “Wherever there is a pile of deprivation, BAME people are over-represented at the bottom of it.”

In the last decade, many discussions about how to address racism in society have pivoted around increasing black representation in parliament, getting more black students into Oxbridge and awarding more Oscars to black actors.

Although any of these developments would be positive, it would be fanciful to believe these events by themselves will affect truly meaningful changes to the lives of millions of black people.

We need robust social policies which address disparities in housing, employment and education.

There also needs to be a radical, wholesale shift in an economic system built on the enslavement and sale of human beings. This is an economic system which continues to concentrate overwhelming amounts of wealth in the hands of a few whilst many others do not have access to adequate resources.

Although it is inspiring to see young people of all backgrounds uniting to condemn racism, it is also deeply sobering to remember many black grandparents are currently watching their grandchildren fighting for parity in the same way they did throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Dr Martin Luther King described the black experience in Letter from Birmingham Jail in the 1960s, writing: “When you are harried by day and haunted at night by the fact you are [black], living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

For many in the black community, these words resonate in 2020 as much as they did when they were first published in 1963.