Festus Akinbusoeye is Police and Crime Commissioner for Bedfordshire
One of the iconic images of our time is that of Nelson Mandela, with clenched fist in the air as he walked through a throng of mostly black South Africans following his release from Robben Island prison after 27 years in jail.
Likewise is the image of the clenched fists in the air of Tommie Smith, the 200 metres gold medal winner, and John Carlos, the bronze winner, as they stood on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. Both African American athletes wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badges and were joined by Peter Norman, the white Australian who won silver, in a show of solidarity.
The outward expression of an inward reaction to a societal phenomenon is not new. In the cases cited above, all four used a clenched fist or piece of attire to demonstrate their convictions about racism.
They chose to stand with clenched fists ,as did many others during that era around the world. Now we see people choosing to take a knee instead. The method may have changed: sadly, the key aim of these outward expressions remains the same, which is to shine a light on the present realities of life for a section of our society. This is why if I was a professional footballer today, I too would ‘take the knee’ against racism, then arise and fight against it.
I confess to having little time for the political ideology of the Black Lives Matter organisation and entity, any more than I am a subscriber to Ben and Jerry’s position on defunding the police (I just love their ice cream). But it would be wrong of me to entirely ignore, evade or reject assertions about racism in society today, while contrasting it with the way things were two or three decades ago.
Yes, we can pause and reflect on how far we’ve come; but we cannot, as a society be satisfied with where things are. We cannot settle for this.
The mindless ruining of a fantastic national moment by a collective of cowardly racists following England’s loss at the European Championship final must be a turning point for those who believe it is time for us to stop ‘banging on’ about racism in Britain. Perhaps it might be a good time to focus more on the substantive issue of bigotry, and much less on the political ideology of an organisation that will likely win fewer votes than the Monster Raving Looney party at any election.
Why? Because the current deflection I am seeing around this issue is rather worrying, and failing to seize the moment only prolongs the pain, permanence and politics of racism. This is in no one’s best interest.
In Britain, we now have a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Health Secretary, Business Secretary and Exchequer Secretary to the Her Majesty’s Treasury, all of whom are of black African or Asian heritage. The good people of Bedfordshire also elected the first black Police and Crime Commissioner in England and Wales at the May 2021 elections.
On the face of it, all is well.
But contrast these with the experience of a man who gets turned down for a job because his name is Mohammed, or the woman who was sent home from work because her afro hair was too curly.
Within the area of policing, I am minded of the challenges and questions which still require answers before we find solutions. For example, at every point of contact with the criminal justice system and law enforcement, we see cases of disproportionality between white and black citizens. Be it recruitment, retention, disciplinaries, dismissal, arrests, stop and search, police use of force or sentencing. We see the same outcomes.
I have previously written of my experience of being stopped and searched six times in my adult life, whether in inner city London or leafy Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire or Bedfordshire. The same experiences seem to repeat themselves, though all resulted in nothing being found on me. But the memory of each of these experiences still linger long afterwards.
Surely, these must tug at the moral chord of those in a civilised society who have a desire for their fellow human beings to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness. Aside from the moral need for action against racism, there is the economic necessity for tackling it. There are economic consequences for a failure to take these issues seriously or more importantly – taking positive actions against them.
The same applies when we fail to act on gender-based discrimination or other forms of bigotry. More research is now being done into the wider economic impact of racism. The misallocation of talent, active or passive disenfranchisement of certain groups from certain sectors and the dampening of economic activity among those groups come at a cost to us all. We are all poorer when systemic exclusion or isolation of citizens exist.
Taking the knee will not solve the issue of racism, anymore than clenching a fist at the 1968 Olympics did. However, this outward expression of a demand for action against the day to day experiences of millions of our citizens should be met with more empathy, not disdain.
An invitation to be part of a solution does not mean the invited guest is the problem. However, to focus on the colour of the invitation card would be an opportunity missed. Focusing on BLM as an organisation when it comes to the wider discourse around inequalities and racism in our communities, and in light of the vile treatment of England’s black football players, only means we will be back at this same point again. This, for me, is therefore not so much a black or white issue. It is a black and white one.