“I can’t breathe,” has echoed around the world. Millions of people have watched the video, their horror growing with each interminable, never-ending, horrific minute, as Derek Chauvin sits at ease, a knee digging into George Floyd’s neck, a hand causally resting in a trouser pocket, looking for all the world, as if he’s just passing the time of day with his colleagues, engaging in chit-chat, perhaps waiting for someone to bring him a coffee.
A man dies. A country erupts. The world wakes up.
The lesson is: Don’t go to sleep again.
It’s not the first time a black man has died at the hands of the police in the United States. It’s not the first time the toxic combination of white police power and racism, has brutalised and killed a human being because of the colour of their skin. However, this is the first time the world has come together to condemn it and demand change.
The question is: how do we make that change? The question is asked of each one of us.
As a British-Asian from the sub-continent, I ask what are we, as individuals and a community, going to do, to bring about this change?
A community which still has bathroom cupboards harbouring pots of Fair and Lovely skin lightening cream, is riddled with class and caste distinctions, and has its own problem of prejudice against black people.
If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves. For ‘American society at large,’ read ‘British-Asian society at large’.
Encouragingly, the old patterns have shown cracks and fractures across the British-Asian community. Awareness, solidarity and allyship have risen to the surface as British-Asian families and individuals have joined demonstrations and protests. Dramatically exemplified by Rahul Dubey, who may live across the pond in Washington DC, but whose actions spoke to the world and the British-Asian community. As waves of fleeing protestors, chased by the police, were being trapped in his street, Rahul Dubey threw open the doors to his home and urged them to run in. He sheltered over 80 throughout the night, called the protestors ‘heroes’ and said he hoped his son would have the same courage as the demonstrators when he was older. A telling break with the past, in a community where obedience to authority is inculcated from the cradle onwards.
Right now, we’re all engaged and conscious, but inevitably, as the weeks and months pass by, our fever-pitch of outrage and solidarity will weaken, and other pressures take over, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. It’s exactly how movements have sagged and tailed off in the past, leaving the same oppressed community struggling against the same inequalities, fighting the same battles.
We can’t let that happen. Apart from our common humanity, we British-Asians need to remember we also have a history of oppression and injustice, which has devolved into the present. I’m not saying it’s exactly the same, I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the Black Lives Matter movement.
The UK has a government of extremists, many descended from the old slave-owning, colonial class, who’ve let the public die in their thousands from Covid-19, resulting in the highest death rate in Europe. In particular, people from the BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) communities have died in disproportionate numbers. Over 64% of NHS staff who’ve died of Covid have been from BAME backgrounds.
Allyship is a step forward, but it must be sustained, disciplined, and translated into practical action, for years to come. It’s time for British-Asians to use the assets, skills and expertise that a significant proportion of the community possess, to help those experiencing inequality, injustice and racism. We need an ethos of ‘Leave no-one behind.’
How do we put that ethos into effect? Here are a few suggestions, by no means exhaustive:
Positive discrimination: it’s time for people to look around their offices and companies, and see if the racial mix of employees truly reflects society, including at the managerial levels. If not, then start the ball rolling, initiate the conversation, discuss what can be done, and ensure that positive discrimination is practised when staff are being hired and written into the company’s policies.
Mentoring: the wealth of knowledge, experience and abilities among British-Asians can be used to develop the education and opportunities of youngsters, and those stuck in low paid, dead-end jobs. Giving mentoring about preparing for interviews, navigating work environments, or how to apply for promotion can make a huge difference to someone’s life.
The political system: If you’re not in the house, you can’t change the house. As Barack Obama writes in his essay it’s important to use both protest and politics.There are many who don’t understand the political system, or the difference between national and local government. People are empowered when they understand how their political institutions work and how they themselves could become candidates if they wanted to. Those who work in politics, must find the means and methods to de-mystify these institutions. I firmly believe learning about our political structures and democracy, should be in the school curriculum as a proper in-depth subject, to inform and prepare the citizens of the future. In his essay, Obama also points that voting in local elections can be a vital tool for change, when a few hundred votes can make the difference between one candidate and another, or in the UK between one council or another.
Joining the police: this is probably the most contentious idea. Along with campaigning for a change in practices and policies, it’s important to be part of a major institution, to change its social ratio; to stake a claim to your place and your rights, and by extension the rights of your community. Young black people and others from minority communities should be encouraged, mentored, and supported to join the police force; with continued advice and nurturing, as they find their feet and learn to be confident in their environment.
Scholarships and bursaries. I’m sure there are many British-Asian businesses, including those on the British-Asian Rich List, which can fund students, nurses and others. I ask them to look at what they can do, and make a pledge to contribute appropriately. Higher education fees can be prohibitive for many, including those wanting to go into the NHS.
Pledges: So what am I going to contribute? People may rightly ask. As a writer, I know that fluent reading and writing are two of the most powerful tools anyone can possess. Adults with these skills progress in their careers, and children perform better academically. I’m pledging two hours a week, to a child who needs their reading and writing to be developed, in partnership with a school, using Zoom or another platform.
George Floyd’s tragic pleas, “I can’t breathe,” have become a call to action. This moment mustn’t be squandered. We British-Asians can’t stand back, we can and must make long-term commitments in practical and organised ways. Leave no-one behind.