As the editorial and comment sections of our major newspapers whiten up again — the black and brown faces pushed forward for effect during the peak of #BlackLivesMatter upheaval already dropping back to the shadows—there is one singular and central lesson to be learnt and acted upon.
Yes, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson goes on about statues rather than people (echoing US President Donald Trump’s formal defence of confederate statues in the US while remaining silent on the blighted lives of generations of Black Americans), it is important to focus on what the toppling of statues taught us and not the already fading symbolism.
And what the toppling of the metal and concrete icons to slavery taught is this: Black people do not have to wait for approval from those benefiting from the status quo to not be insulted. We do not have to petition for permission to no longer be sidelined. Black, minority, and ethnic communities do not have to crawl for consent for the right not to be maligned, abused, overlooked for jobs or educational opportunities, etc.
When the Edward Colston statue was pulled down in Bristol my first thought was: My God! It was still there? I recall the fuss over it a few years ago. Then other things pressed in, like the UK’s xenophobic self-destruction—or Brexit, as it is called.
The looming prospect of Britain becoming a minor US state horrifies me, as well as the pandemic taking, as it has, its exceptional toll among the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community, often in front line jobs, care work, and also often in poor housing.
The wailing about statues and not “pulling down history” was hypocritical histrionics. I studied history at school and I was never once given a module on slavery. So let’s bow to the sensibilities of those poor, gentle folk and really make it part of history. Put the statues in museums and make sure that British schoolchildren know the real detail of centuries of slavery that benefited the British elite. Tell them that a significant proportion of those currently with entrenched wealth in Britain got that money directly or indirectly from the brutalisation of traded black human beings. But that leaves, well, everything else.
It is past time to bring the pulling-down-slave-owners-statues attitude into our daily lives in a very practical way. We live in a world where the dollar matters more than duty, and hard currency matters more than caring. The pound matters more than people. It is time to use that leverage.
Check out your bank, your law firm, your estate agent. How many BAME people do they employ, and at what level, compared to your local community? If the top rank is entirely white and the black employees are the contracted cleaners, take your business elsewhere. Ditto the newspaper you may buy? Look at the upper echelons of the universities in your city. Are those at the top overwhelmingly white? If so, how on Earth do you think black youngsters are going to get the idea that academia is something for them? What about the channels you watch on TV or the radio shows you listen to? Do you only hear or see black people when it’s time for sport or music? This is a problem the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC) has discussed for decades, but they have done nothing to make the changes that matter. Are all the teachers at your school white, even where you are lucky enough to have an ethnically mixed school intake?
In other words, out of your taxes—hard-earned, hard-fought for—who is getting top pay? The time for pulling down statues is gone. The media— with its short attention span for anything that doesn’t directly affect Emmas, Dominics, and Jonathans—has moved on. But we can do something really significant if the energy moves on and up. This is no longer about pulling down statues, it is about pulling the rug out from under entrenched, comfortable, polite-on-the-surface British racism.
The way to do it is easier than you might think. The way to make change is by keeping your change in your pocket; by withdrawing the power of your pound and placing it where fairness is. Only then will the platitudes turn into something concrete. And on those new concrete plinths we can build something far better than cold, grey statues.
Amanda Baker is a qualified lawyer in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and a current affairs blogger and spoken word artist. She was the first black woman to be elected to Newcastle City Council in 1988.
—Courtesy the Jamaica Observer