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When it comes to Black Lives Matter, we need to focus on the B in Bame

Focusing on the specific intra-communal differences in the black community would be a lot more useful than the erasure that typically arises with the use of catch-all acronyms

Seun Matiluko
Sunday 14 June 2020 13:29 BST
Black Lives Matter billboard unveiled in London

This year has turned into one of increasing unpredictablity. Given the historic resistance there has been to anti-racism efforts in the UK, however, the scale and spectacle of this weekend’s far-right clashes with the police and anti-racist demonstrators weren’t quite as unexpected.

Yet, even in the face of those distressing scenes, thousands protested against anti-black racism and many more protests will take place in the coming days.

This country’s unprecedented support for the Black Lives Matter movement was sparked on 25 May when a black man, George Perry Floyd, was killed in America by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for just under nine minutes. The video of his death reverberated around the world, with many in the UK feeling the need to take to the streets, pandemic notwithstanding.

The government’s position on the issue, however, is a bit all over the place. Although our health secretary has claimed that the protests are “all based in response to events in America rather than here”, at many of the protests, signs reading “the UK is not innocent“ abound, listing people like Olaseni Lewis, who died after being restrained by 11 police officers. Just as a disproportionate number of African Americans die in police custody, so do black British people, albeit in smaller numbers, and so by connecting the dots, many black British people have been protesting not just in solidarity with their African American cousins but also against inequality here.

Yet, in Boris Johnson’s statement last Monday, on the recent and ongoing protests in the UK, he spoke not of protestors feeling angry that black people face inequality in the UK, but rather of “Bame communities” and the feelings of those from “from black and minority ethnic groups”. In response to Black Lives Matter protests, why did Johnson feel the need to tag on “minority ethnic”?

His statement appears indicative of our country’s obsession with the acronyms BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and Bame (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic). The term BME has long been used by our government, thought to be a hangover from the days when some Afro-Caribbeans, Africans and South Asians fought against racism together under the banner of “political blackness”. And since the early 2000s, our government has been using Bame interchangeably with BME, perhaps due to the fact that Asian people are the largest ethnic minority in this country.

But increasingly, these acronyms just tend to homogenise distinct communities, as Matt Hancock found when Sky News’ Sophy Ridge asked him how many black MPs there were in the cabinet. His answer, referencing British Asian ministers Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, was delivered as though he had actually answered the question. Indeed, even Patel, the home secretary, has famously critiqued the term BME as “patronising and insulting”. Yet curiously, like Johnson, she too has expanded the discussion of Black Lives Matter to BME lives matter.

Last Monday in the Commons, black MP Florence Eshalomi made an impassioned plea to the home secretary that “Black lives matter, and we need to see the government doing something about that.”

In response, Patel took the opportunity to read her pre-prepared notes about the racism she, as a South Asian woman, has experienced in the UK, concluding that she recognises that “many communities across our nation” experience inequality. When asked again later about specific inequalities that black people face by another Labour MP, she reminded him that she is “from the Bame community”.

It is devastating that Patel has experienced racism in this country, and I felt empathy for her when she recounted what racist people had said to her. However, I am troubled that both she and Johnson seem to have “Bameified” the issue of Black Lives Matter. While there are undoubtedly similarities in the discrimination that BME/Bame groups face in the UK, the reality is that Theresa May, the former prime minister, explicitly said that “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white” for a reason.

The reality is that it is black people in this country, and not other minority groups, who are disproportionately imprisoned. The reality is that it is black people, for many years now, who are more disproportionately stopped and searched than any other group; who are the only group to disproportionately have force used against them by the police; and are the group most disproportionately involved in taser “incidents” – in fact they are 7.7 times more likely to be tasered than white people. Even when it comes to kids, it is only black children who are disproportionately cautioned by the police. And while over 40 per cent of those in young offender institutions are Bame, more than half of that figure are young black people. To quote Claudia Rankine, “there is only one guy who is always fitting the description” – and that person is black, not Bame. That is why when the British National Black Police Association published its Black Lives Matter statement, a few days after George Floyd’s death, it specifically referenced the black community, not the Bame community.

Black Lives Matter is a movement specifically about black people, and contorting black issues into Bame issues does not help us solve them but rather “All Lives Matters” the situation.

Although much of our current governmental datasets do not disaggregate between different minority groups, focusing on the black community and our specific intra-communal differences would go a long way to rectifying inequality in our criminal justice system. We could, for example, start to unpick why those of black African descent have had around 70 per cent trust in their local police forces since 2013, while the trust of those of black Caribbean descent, who until recently were the largest black population in the UK, has plummeted to 56 per cent. Even the black African figure is likely to become more complex when picked apart, as groups like the Council of Somali Organisations have detailed how those of Somali descent have markedly distinct encounters with the British criminal justice system than other black Africans.

If our government really wants to tackle the issues that protesters are taking to the streets for, it needs to start focusing on the B in Bame.

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