It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since I was asked to guest-edit House Magazine’s first ever Black History Month Special. I keep a copy on my parliamentary desk – it’s a reminder of the joy that came over me when I first saw the kaleidoscopic collection of testimonies, essays and exposés in print. But I’m also reminded of the immense pressure I felt at the time, imposed by myself and those around me, to say the right things.
Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, my phone was flooded with texts of solidarity, and my inbox was inundated with emails from constituents asking me what they could do to support the struggle for racial equality, as well as NGOs setting out action plans, and private companies wanting to do more on diversity and inclusion. And as a sea of dissent united protestors from Lisbon to Lagos, I struggled with the wave of expectation that crashed down upon me. It wasn’t so much an expectation to be a champion of racial equality, but an expectation to be a champion of hopefulness, to insist that, this time, we really were witnessing a groundswell, and to legitimise people’s sense of desperate optimism that, in a year’s time, things would be different. To admit that I had my doubts, I feared, would risk dampening a movement with unprecedented yet fragile momentum. The truth is, however, these doubts were real. I worried the calls for justice would fade into complacency, and that the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 would be nothing more than a ripple in an ocean of inertia.
I’m glad to say that, in many ways, I was proven wrong. As I write this today, I’m far more optimistic about the prospect of lasting change than I thought I’d be. The demands for justice last summer were not a temporary outburst. They were a wake-up call, propelling a new generation into an enduring state of resistance. More than a year on, and they are still pushing organisations to take issues of race more seriously; the fears that their demands would dissolve simply haven’t grown to fruition.
To those who participated in the summer of discontent, I underestimated your stamina for the same reason I didn’t fully appreciate your uniquely youthful and inclusive energy. Millennials and Gen-Z were visibly rocked by the death of George Floyd, and they continue to articulate their demands for justice with courageous originality. Young people – Black and white – aren’t scared of diving into uncomfortable territory. They are putting their hands up and asking the difficult questions about white privilege, fragility and supremacy. This isn’t a generation that has chosen to temporarily “opt in” to the political sphere. Instead, they are responding to their inescapably political reality. A political reality in which racial justice is inextricably tied up with economic, social and generational justice.
It’s deeply regrettable, then, that the government have been caught lagging. Over the course of the pandemic, the unemployment rate for Black and minority ethnic workers grew three times faster than the rate for white workers. Black healthcare workers, predominantly female, are still at greater risk of death from the ever-present coronavirus. And young Black men are still being stopped and searched by the police at grossly disproportional rates.
It took nine minutes for a police officer to suffocate George Floyd to death. It took thirteen months to sentence him for murder. The question is: how long will we have to wait until this government listens to the generation telling us, loud and clear, that Black Lives Still Matter? As the government continues to sit on its hands while young people make a fist in the air, I say this: ignore the new wave of resistance at your peril.