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A call to action to dismantle institutional racism in the UK

Desmond Brady

25 Aug 2020

REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The impact of eight minutes and 46 seconds in the murder of George Floyd watched by millions around the world sparked a new reckoning in the chapter of institutional racism—for not only in law enforcement but in society at large. Thousands of people marched in the streets around the globe and many public statements supporting ‘Black Lives Matter’ poured out from numerous multinational public and corporate institutions.

Now, a few months later, the calls for change from people in the streets in the United Kingdom (UK) have quieted. The flows of donations have slowed with some progress on over policing in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Last month more than 180 lawyers in the UK gathered virtually during a session hosted by Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) to discuss how individuals working in local government, and the law, could lead and participate in addressing the systemic racism. Speakers from both sides of the Atlantic included Sharon Sayles Belton, VP Strategic Partnerships and Alliances, Suki Binjal, Director of Law, Governance and HR, London Borough of Lewisham, Shamsher Zada, Solicitor at City of Wolverhampton Council and Rachel McKoy, Head of Commercial & Contracts at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and Deputy Vice President at Lawyers LLG.

Pervasiveness of racism and bias in policing

In the UK, Zada provided some eye-opening statistics to frame the prevalence of racism in law enforcement. More specifically, Zada highlighted that in some areas of the country Black people are 14 times more likely to be stopped and searched and eight times more likely to be tasered if you are Black.

As a former mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota where the murder of George Floyd took place, Sayles Belton provided her perspective on the entrenchment of racism in policing and her thoughts on some potential solutions. First, Belton puts the issue of racism in law enforcement into context, pointing out that these problems are deeply rooted in the structural racism that permeates our society and its institutions.  Then, Belton offered her thoughts on much needed changes:

Over-reliance on police to address social problems: In many cities, police are brought in to deal with too many public safety situations that involve failed public policies, such as the growing number of people that are mentally ill or chemically dependent that live on the city streets. When their presence makes people feel uncomfortable, the police are called. They arrest, jail and release. “It’s a revolving door and a poor use of taxpayer’s funds”, Belton says.

Build up public services to address root cause of social issues: In order to reduce reliance on law enforcement, investments in human services need to be made. “Focusing on affordable housing, education, preventative health care (rather than the current model of sick care), and mental health services are key areas that can help address racial disparities and enhance public safety”, notes Belton.

 Assume innocence over guilt: Finally, Belton called for law enforcement to presume innocence first instead of assuming guilt when they are called to deal with a situation. The expectation people have when they call the police is that ‘the peace’ will be restored. “We need to think differently about the culture of policing that leads with the presumption of guilt and culpability. Moreover, violence against Black people by police increases as a result of bias, for example, there is a “presumption (stereotype) that I am likely to be aggressive because I’m a black woman, …we need to change that”.

Education is a pathway to a brighter future

Even with the shining spots of positive change occurring in Minneapolis, dismantling institutional racism at the societal level requires long-term investment in a variety of areas but especially education. “There are a number of children who are, living in poverty, going to bed at night hungry, lacking in health care, and living in unsanitary conditions, and research says that if you start with these disparities, your choices in life were going to be extremely limited” Belton elaborates. Indeed, Belton saw this up front when she worked as a parole officer, and based on her first-hand experience, she highlights several critical goals and policy solutions:

  • Early childhood education paired with parental education: Early childhood education and parental support paired together are imperative. Additional investment in the latter is needed for those who had poor role models with less-than-ideal parenting skills. “If we want to have healthy children, we need to have informed parents who can effectively advocate for their own children throughout their early years”, Belton says.
  • Literacy by third grade for every child: Belton highlights that if children can read by third grade, they are less likely to get involved in activities that could actually disrupt their positive life experiences.
  • Build pipeline to increase number of BAME teachers: Role models for BAME children are so important and seeing themselves reflected in positions of influence when they are young plays a critical role in influencing what profession they seek in adulthood.

Reforms in the legal industry

Turning to the prevalence of bias against BAME lawyers and the need to advocate for reforms, Zada highlighted the following, despite “every organization that I’m familiar with having a diversity policy with a commitment to abide by that policy”:

  • BAME solicitors are more likely to be punished by the solicitor’s disciplinary tribunals than white solicitors.
  • While only 13 percent of all solicitors are BAME, 25 percent of new investigations are against BAME solicitors.

Belton offered a potential solution in the form of a ‘citizen review’ that allows for an independent party to be able to look at these claims of violation of conduct for a neutral or a fair and impartial review of whatever the allegation is.

Key call to action: Deal with your own bias

Perhaps the most important—and albeit complex—solution of all is to dismantle racism among society is for everyone to make a conscious decision to “understand the bias and then to learn to behave in a manner that doesn’t embrace that bias”. This was the main take-away and solution that would make the biggest difference. “We have to take responsibility for addressing our own stuff and the corresponding stereotyping that has been permeated throughout our society, in the media, in literature, and in our daily conversations and conduct.”

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