Humanity is experiencing not one pandemic, but two. Covid-19 has prompted an urgent global response to finding a cure and has impelled governments to act to protect people’s lives. The same can’t be said for the other pandemic we are living in: the racism pandemic.
Racism has poisoned society for hundreds of years. Its symptoms still plague people psychologically and continue to persist systemically in organisations and institutions.
What’s also alarming is the fact that the two pandemics are intertwined, with Covid-19 having an unequal and disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities across the country. People from ethnic minority backgrounds make up 14 percent of the UK population, yet 34 percent of critically ill Covid-19 patients are from these backgrounds.
It is clear that coronavirus is exposing longstanding inequalities. So, work needs to be done to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the racism pandemic.
Why racism is a pandemic
The analogy of racism as a ‘virus’, ‘pandemic’ or ‘disease’ is not a new thought.
Dr Napoleon Wells, an American psychologist and activist, has labelled racism as a ‘psychiatric illness’, where there is intent to harm someone physically or psychologically because of the colour of their skin, an extreme form of prejudice.
Professional athletes, like Raheem Sterling and Anthony Joshua, take the strong belief that racism is ‘the only disease right now’, which is ‘taking lives of the young, old, rich, poor; a virus which is unapologetic and spreads across all sectors’.
Like Covid-19, racism is a global problem. In the United States, the unjust killings of black people, such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, have sparked mass protest across the globe.
But racism exists in the UK too:
- Between 2004 and 2018, the level of unemployment of black people was double that of white people.
- There was an 11 percent increase in race hate crime between 2017/18 and 2018/19.
- Black people are nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.
It’s clear that we urgently need to work on remedies.
Is there a cure?
Citizens, organisations and authorities need to work out how they can go about combating this disease.
Anti-racism charity, Show Racism the Red Card, emphasises that ‘education is the key’ to addressing racism. Educating people on racism and its critical components, such as racial stereotyping, unconscious bias and white privilege, will go a long way in tackling racism at its core and helping people understand what they can do to make positive change.
Giving more opportunities – particularly in leadership positions – for people of colour in industries that are predominantly white, could also be key in educating others through stimulating change towards diversity.
Making these alterations and educating industries and the public can only be effective if long-term commitments to establishing change are made.
Education for the next generation
Education is one way of ensuring racist attitudes do not progress into children of the next generation. Children are not born with discriminatory attitudes. Racism is a learnt behaviour which tends to derive from negative environments and biases that have been passed down from generations.
Teaching anti-racism can happen at home, by parents making a commitment to educating themselves and their young ones on the forms racism can take. It is crucial that this occurs in order to showcase positive and healthy ideas about race, diversity and equality at a young age.
Parents can access guides to the issues that have culminated in racism existing in society, with information on how to communicate this to children through the use of examples.
Education on the nature and implications of racism, with discussions on equality, respect and tolerance, needs to begin early and continue throughout a child’s development into their teenage and young adult years. It is crucial that this also continues throughout a young person’s secondary and higher education.
This may be through an increasing number of assemblies, PSHE lessons or school events on this topic, which immerse young people in an understanding and appreciation for positive ideas on diversity and inclusion. Improvements could be made to the curriculum to educate more on race in history lessons, particularly in areas such as British BAME history and Britain’s involvement in the slave trade – which is largely ignored and untaught.
Higher education institutions could have more events dedicated to diversity, such as networking and panel events with successful people across a range of different backgrounds. Modules or relevant courses related to race, diversity and equality could be made available at these institutions, such as Goldsmith University of London’s Masters in Black British History.
Educating problematic sectors
The police and media have often proven to be instrumental in directly and indirectly perpetuating racism in the UK.
The media ingrains and re-emphasises racial stereotypes, through bias in headlines, language and opinion. From Islamophobic headlines, to the racist undertones in media coverage of Meghan Markle, racism is fuelled by a lack of education and tolerance of racial stereotyping.
Education is needed to ensure writers, editors and journalists are aware of what they are writing, their writing style, and the content they are producing – but there is also a disturbing lack of diversity in the media and tabloids. The UK journalism industry is 94 percent white.
The media industry must take the initiative to employ more diverse individuals across the sector, to foster a more inclusive culture and rebuild a more positive picture for the media.
Education is also needed in the police sector. The report of the inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s racially motivated murder in 1993 highlighted institutional racism as a key component in the failure of the investigation, where racism ‘infected’ senior officers. Recommendations to tackle racism were outlined in the report and included: the needs for training of police officers in addressing racism and valuing cultural diversity; improving understanding and attitudes to help prevent racism in the future; and diversifying the police force.
Today, could it be said that these recommendations have led to effective change?
- As of March 2019, 93.1 percent of UK police officers were from white ethnic groups, with only 2.9 percent being Asian and 1.2 percent being black.
- While black people comprise 3 percent of the overall population in England and Wales, they currently make up 12 percent of its prison population.
- In 2018, 43 percent of police searches were of black people.
These statistics prove that not much has changed and that more needs to be done. Encouraging training on white privilege, unconscious bias and racial stereotyping is imperative, and needs to be a legal and consistent aspect of training across all positions of the police, as well as policies to recruit more diverse police officers.
Through education, we must also change the culture of dealing with racism
Racism is an illness, hence it should be treated like one – with precision, care and understanding. Re-stigmatising racists is the opposite of a cure, because if we as a society are not going to help and allow individuals who are discriminatory to recover and change, then we are not getting to the root cause of the issue and are prohibiting progress.
It is important we can identify where racist behaviours are attitudes are coming from and why people feel this way. Then, through education, we can expose people with racist behaviours to healthier ideas about diversity and encourage healthier relationships to people of diverse backgrounds.
It is clear that coronavirus is exposing longstanding inequalities. Work needs to be done to combat the Covid-19 pandemic - but also the racism pandemic.
In the most recent RSA Journal, I read with interest the piece on competition by Margaret Heffernan – particularly, the part that describes an experiment designed to engineer a 'super flock' of hens. To see whether increased competition would create higher levels of production, geneticist William Muir pulled the top egg-producing hens out of a regular flock and put them together. After just two generations of this new flock, the results were remarkable - six of the super hens had been pecked to death by the remaining three, whilst the original flock was performing better than ever.
"Some are born posthumously", said Nietzsche, and the acuity of this remark hit me on learning of the death of Jimmy Reid.