The mass racial reckoning this past year was unlike anything the world has witnessed before.
While we observe Black History Month in Britain, the legacy of these tumultuous times rests heavily on the consciousness of Black people.
As we reconcile recent explosive events with what they mean for Black people across this country, one can be forgiven for concluding that there’s little reason to be optimistic.
Polling by YouGov for The Independent found that 42 per cent of Black, Asian and minority ethnic adults thought race relations in Britain today are no better than they were 12 months earlier, while 33 percent said they had gotten worse. Only 11 per cent say things are changing for the better.
This poll was conducted in May to coincide with the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of serving US police officer Derek Chauvin.
According to a report by Public Health England, the ongoing coronavirus outbreak continues to have a disproportionate impact on Black communities. Structural inequalities such as racism, discrimination, poverty, and deprivation exacerbate the effects.
From the soaring death toll and transmission rates to impacted mental health and hampered business prospects resulting from lockdown, in a playing field that was already uneven, Black people have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
The roll-out of the vaccine, hailed as the single most crucial thing that will help us to come out of this pandemic, has been highly successful across Britain on a broader scale.
But where rates of vaccine hesitancy are higher in Black communities than the white population, the government stands accused of not doing enough to promote uptake of the jab among these groups, beyond a few undertakings such as looking to “trusted voices”.
Many of these so-called “trusted voices” were highly critical of the government-backed Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report, released in March, which found no evidence of institutional racism in the UK.
It “attempted to normalise white supremacy” according to UN experts and tried to “put a positive spin on Empire,” in the words of Marsha de Cordova, who was then shadow equalities secretary.
The backlash from the public, including members of the opposition and race relations campaigners, was spectacular. For many, it will be go down in history as one of the most accursed pieces of literature ever to be published by Whitehall.
But more damaging, the report further eroded trust in government among some in the Black community who took from it that ministers are wilfully ignorant to their plight.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party – which should hold ministers to account - is plagued by its own racism issues. The Forde Inquiry report into discrimination in its ranks has been indefinitely delayed, despite increasing calls for its publication.
The party continues to see an exodus of Black members concerned by the non-existence of a robust race-equality strategy. I am told by credible sources that when de Cordova abruptly resigned last month, she cited similar concerns.
If the opposition has not been able to effectively counteract the government’s poor track record on race, under a Prime Minister who has himself used offensive phrases (some of which have been labelled racist slurs which he retrospectively claimed to regret), then it is fair to question where we go from here.
In documents released by the Home Office, ministers casually acknowledged that the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will discriminate against Black people, claiming this is “objectively justified”.
Meanwhile, thousands of victims of the Windrush Scandal, which disproportionately affected Black people, continue to await compensation almost four years after the debacle came to public attention.
Activists argue that the UK has failed to move the dial forward on race in a meaningful way, and any little progress made has been “undermined”.
I spoke to Weyman Bennett, co-convenor of Stand Up To Racism, who told me: “The murder of George Floyd [and the fall-out from it] shows that we have moved two steps forward and one step back.
“On one hand, the mass Black Lives Matter movement and the acknowledgement of racism and injustice meant steps forward, but then, the UK government continues to deny institutional racism in this country, and refuses to accept that the UK is not innocent of racism and discrimination.”
Despite a turbulent year on race, however, significant progress has been made in the equalities movement, and it’s vital to harness from that a sense of optimism and press on forward. The only alternative is to stand still and do nothing, to the detriment of everyone.
This progress has been evidenced through the mass anti-racism organisation among the Black people and their allies which we saw through waves of protests across the UK; feathers were ruffled, peaceful disruption occurred and many of the politically disenfranchised felt emboldened to elevate their voices and speak out about racism.
‘Black Lives Matter’ became a rallying cry throughout Britain with seemingly renewed and intense vigour, as well as the rest of the world, while many gatekeepers and institutions were forced to openly acknowledge the injustices meted out to Black people in a sudden, spectacular fashion.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, public organisations from the NHS to the Premier League supported anti-racism. Players have taken the knee at the start of every fixture - although there is still a way to go in achieving lasting progress on and off the pitch, as well as across wider society.
Black Lives Matter UK received more than £1m in donations, half of which is in the process of being released to Black-led organisations working towards dismantling structural inequalities.
Record numbers of people signed petitions supporting anti-racism causes; in fact, more than five million people have supported racial justice campaigns in Britain since May 2020, with millions signing at least 1,500 petitions on the platform Change.org.
The private sector also ramped up its commitment to tackling discrimination. The number of FTSE 100 companies with at least one director from an ethnic minority group on their board grew from 54 to 81.
And social media, for all its flaws, continues to give people a platform to foster essential discussions about positive change and, frankly, call out injustices.
Even the Royal family has been under scrutiny following claims made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in a ground-breaking interview with Oprah Winfrey in March. They shared that a senior family member – not the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh – had allegedly made a racist comment about their unborn child.
The Sussexes said that the relative had raised concerns about how dark the child’s skin tone might be (a claim the Palace disputed, saying that “Some recollections [of the conversation] may vary”).
The couple also suggested that parts of the British press were racist and had targeted Meghan because of her skin colour.
After denying that it is a racist institution, the Royal family admitted it “must do more” on inclusion and in June, for the first time, revealed how many ethnic minority people it employs.
This change came after The Independent reported on calls from race equality campaigners for the royal household to be brought into line with equality legislation in response to Meghan’s claims that the establishment ignored her requests for mental health support.
The media, too, reacted strongly to accusations of systemic inequalities.
Ian Murray, head of the journalism trade body the Society of Editors, responded to the Sussexes’ claims with a statement saying the UK media “is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account.”
His comments sparked an outcry, with several outlets and my cousin, ITV News presenter Charlene White, pulling out of the society’s press awards. Murray later resigned from his role as executive editor, saying he must “take the blame”.
The Society went on to retract Murray’s statement following public pressure and mobilisation from prominentBlack journalists, suggesting a moment of change, and even a shift in power relationships.
It was encouraging to see the recent appointment of community affairs correspondents at The Guardian and advertisements for regional race reporters.
Ben Hunte, formerly of the BBC, has just started at Vice as a Senior Reporter and will be focusing on Race and LGBT+ affairs. I myself recently became Fleet Street’s first-ever Race Correspondent at The Independent. My entire function is to place marginalised perspectives where they should be - at the forefront of the national news agenda.
Helping to bring about change and amplify diverse perspectives within an industry in which Black journalists account for just 0.2 per cent of the working population is an uphill battle, and one that will not be won overnight. Nor will it be achieved by the few.That is why these multiple advances are so significant - and hopefully the tip of the iceberg.
It seems to me, that with all that has taken place over the last 365 days, that reporting on race has finally been acknowledged as legitimate in an increasingly diverse society. And that is important.
So, this Black History Month it is crucial to reflect upon the immense work that there is yet to do - and all that has been achieved since 2020.
What happens next, as the struggle for equality rages on, remains to be seen.
But as the saying goes: “once you choose hope, anything is possible”; everything is at stake.