COVID-19 highlights the ongoing struggle for ‘racial recognition’ within parts of the British society that needs to look at its own selective amnesia when looking at its own history.
The criminal justice system, school exclusions of black boys, the recent Windrush scandal, black on black violence, poor representation in film and TV, and the black lives matter and decolonisation of higher education campaigns, will attest that black life for many of us in the country is an ongoing social and cultural pandemic, that has been driven, and sustained, since black people arrived in the UK, as far back as 55 BC, when the Romans were stationed in Hull.
COVID–19 is merely another damaging social determinant of health that has befallen black communities, highlighted by the latest revelations of the disproportionate deaths of many black people.
Speaking as a father, grandfather, and lately a great–grandfather, I am disheartened to know that all the generations I’m connected to will inherit yet another layer of false hope and despair through which to reflect on in their lives, knowing that many of their elders have now gone.
As the devastating impacts of the disproportionate representation of BAME deaths are felt, sections of our society will no doubt avert its gaze from the wider social determinants that have blighted the lives of black people in the UK throughout history. Any researcher looking at ‘race and public health’ issues, should know about; sickle cell, lupus, prostate cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Similarly, criminal justice researchers should know that racial disparities operate at every stage of the criminal justice system. And any progressive social historian knows that black involvement in the shaping of British society has been excluded, marginalised, excluded, and airbrushed out every tier of British life, notwithstanding the advent of so called Black History Month. Whilst COVID–19 rages through the UK, why aren’t we seeing stories about this global pandemic, coming from Africa, South Asia, prison, poor black communities in North America and the Caribbean, the favelas of Brazil, and indigenous communities across the globe?
Ironically, a few weeks ago, many criminals were being deported back to Jamaica, Muslims were still seen as a suspect community, and young black people were still being vilified by the press, whilst the big talking point was the Stormzy and Wiley ‘grime beef’ and Channel 4 continuing to make us squirm and chuckle at the ‘Big Narstie Show’. Only a few months ago, many wanted to curb immigration, whilst Brexit hastened a return to the good old days of ‘Britannia ruling the waves’. But now the press plasters the faces of heroic individuals from the black community who have died saving lives in the NHS, across our screens.
If black history shows us anything, and repeats itself, then, ‘differential racialisation’ such as black deaths during COVID-19, will slip out of the public consciousness and be quickly forgotten. Let us not forget, many lives have been lost, families left devastated, communities ripped apart, whilst children are now without parents and elders.
However, the voices and stories associated with the traumas that have befallen black communities are to be found and located within black cultural expression; music, theatre, visual arts, dance, literature and spoken word. The histories of slavery, colonialization, civil and human rights struggles were told through the arts and political movements such as Negritude, the Niagara Movement, the Harlem renaissance, and the black arts movements in the US and UK.
Rather than trundle out all the moral barricades at this moment in time, gasping in shock and horror at the racial disparities of COVID–19, it may be time to look back at key moments in history, which could answer some of the questions being posed. It is also important to recognise that those who are currently in charge of the so called mainstream ‘narrative’ are (mis)informing the public, by using this moment to deflect from some of the wider critical questions associated with those people who are poor, have limited access to technology, are socially marginalised, and are located in vulnerable areas that are significantly more impacted by COVID–19, of which the black communities I have referred to, are merely a fragment.
We’ll see a revision of the history of COVID–19, written by artists, where words such as ‘unfortunate’, ‘marginalised’, and ‘disaffected’, are replaced with a lexicon such as ‘resilient’, ‘heroic’, and ‘courageous’ as a way of validating the humanity of black people at this time. Is it a question of, as Hamlet said, ‘to be, or not to be’? Or is the African saying ‘I am, because we are, we are because I am’ a more appropriate maxim that validates the black communities’ worth as human beings at this moment in time. Let the artists speak ‘truth to history’.
Martin Glynn, criminologist, academic, data storyteller and creative director of Algorhythm Data Storytelling Lab is the author of the forthcoming ‘Black Art and the Criminological Imagination’, out in 2021.
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