The shocking recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has thrown the spotlight yet again on the simmering racial fractures within American society. Derrick Johnson, the 19th President of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) succinctly summarised this week in The Guardian :
“In America, Black deaths are not a flaw in the system. They are the system”.
One element that I find hopeful about this episode is the stumbling racial clarity and responsibility of some white Americans. The repeated killings of African-Americans, mostly by law enforcement, has led them to reflect that these aren’t one off incidents, but part of a systemic issue of racism with its roots in the economic benefits of the slave trade and the ideology of white superiority that justified this exploitation.
To this day there is a yawning chasm where the experience and humanity of African-Americans goes unrecognised by the majority of white American society. Any opportunities to address, debate and learn about these structural inequalities have been undermined by growing polarisation due to the rise of populist governments; their intimidation of mainstream media; the corruption of the public sphere by electoral manipulation through social media; complemented by the rise of fake news; the fragmentation of public areas for discourse due to savage public sector cuts. This has left many in despair, but also seeking answers and solutions within a broader context.
The UK isn’t immune from these historical trends. Currently the UK population is 14% BAME, but over 50% of prison inmates are BAME. Recent research from UCL shows that black people made up 31% of arrests in London during lockdown, but represent 12% of the population. There is a history of disproportionate black deaths in police custody. Mark Duggan’s death in Tottenham whilst being apprehended by police in 2011, sparked community protests that escalated into uprisings across English cities.
What does this mean for us in Bradford?
I am optimistic about the future. What I see around me is a range of people both white and BAME, meditating, deliberating, passionate about seeking social justice for all who suffer disadvantage. Thirsty for self development, open to learning the lessons of history and ensuring there is accountability, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
What I do not see is apathy. It is our job to imaginatively create publicly legitimised platforms for connecting and validating these voices.
Social change may at times seem the result of particular events and flashpoints, that energise people into action. History informs us that often these are the tip of deep-seated grievances and relentless, unheralded organizing and campaigning. Bradford’s recent development has been marked by significant community-led structures that have had a national impact, like the episode of the Asian Youth Movement/Bradford 12 that was featured in the Above the Noise: Fifteen Stories from Bradford (AtN) exhibition. These histories remain largely invisible within the district’s narratives.
Change for BAME communities has always had some element of collaboration and partnership with progressive, racially aware white people. I hope the following stories inspire new possibilities for working in the future based on the lessons of the recent past.
The Bradford West Indian Community Association (BWICCA) or Checkpoint
The black community in Bradford developed a parallel and shared struggle with the Asian Youth Movement (AYM). The number of BAME staff employed within the local authority expanded, but they found themselves immediately attending familiar barriers. Largely BAME staff delivered anti-bias training to all recruiters. However management were reluctant to monitor the impact of these processes. Qualified BAME candidates found it difficult to gain employment, prevented access to further career progression and development opportunities, were restricted to the lowest levels of the employment hierarchy, or were subject to racist abuse by white colleagues and managers.
Checkpoint were in the forefront of challenging these practices and represented all BAME workers in grievance procedures against the employers. At the same time they were looking after the interests of black youth who were subject to racist policing, denied access to local music venues, delivering support against those discriminated against by local employers. This was a vibrant, rooted community association who were courageous, principled and skillful, and took the lead against racism in the local authority and attended to the needs of their community.
White managers refused to accept their racist practices during the grievance procedures, so regrettably and at great personal cost and trauma, staff were left to pursue their claims through industrial employment tribunals. To their eternal shame in this period of the mid to late 1980s, seventy successful claims for race discrimination were brought against Bradford Council.
Bradford Council was the first organisation to be branded a persistently discriminatory employer under the Race Relations Act 1976. In a city that gained kudos in the early 1980s as being in the forefront of a multicultural society.
An independent report from 1993 ‘Alibis for Inaction’ made recommendations to Bradford Council about their practice. The net effect was no fundamental change, but simply the tempering of language and the worst excesses by white staff.
As a result of this experience the Northern Complainant Aid Fund (NCAF), based at Checkpoint, was established with funding from the Commission for Race Equality (CRE). It comprised a multiracial workforce who were Black Caribbean, Pakistani and White. This was the most effective organisation in the UK for successfully assisting claimants nationally in cases of race discrimination. The CRE withdrew its funding in 2003 under contested circumstances. UNISON (a public service union) 2004 Black Members Conference gave unanimous backing to campaign on behalf of NCAF, ridiculing the CRE’s assertion that NCAF was the ‘enemy of race equality’.
The achievements of this period should be a source of immense pride and learning to Bradford district. These are exemplars in community action and race equality, but due to the skill, courage and unyielding principled approach, they were seen by white authority as a thorn in their side.
Checkpoint’s bitter experience over decades has led them to focus on developing capacity within their own community. Individually members play an active part in Bradford’s public life. However, they see no purpose in consultation/talking shops from largely white authority-led structures that give them no equity or veto in decision making, fail to allocate resources that leads to embedded community engagement, and that have no profound impact on delivery of services.
Asian Trade Link (ATL)
Discrimination in the labour market led many Asians to pursue advancement through self employment. Many of these businesses flourished but found no voice in mainstream support services, so initially through their own funds established a voluntary forum that eventually attracted public funding in the late 1990s.
ATL flourished and delivered business support services locally and across the UK. They were represented at board level at Business Link UK and Yorkshire Forward, the Regional Development Agency.
This challenging of the status quo by dynamic Asian entrepreneurs bypassed the local authority and local business structures as neither addressed their commercial needs. Despite their impressive track record of supporting existing Asian business and cultivating the next generation of Asian entrepreneurs, ATL’s funding wasn’t renewed.
Those with responsibility for Bradford’s economic wellbeing refuse to engage meaningfully with internationally connected entrepreneurs, to look at the strengths of the Asian business community as an asset to the development of the district.
The legacy of this work has very little public record. The Bradford Chamber of Commerce has recently launched a highly publicized annual ‘Manufacturing Week’ event with schools. No opportunity is taken to unify and inspire students with the pivotal living and historic contribution of the Asian business community.
During the last week a promotion from Bradford Council to revive local business post COVID-19, #TogetherBradfordCan, using images of only white staff received scathing criticism. This led to an immediate and embarrassed apology from the council leader and chief executive. This wasn’t perceived as a blunder from within the Asian business community, but reflective of ongoing exclusion.
Education and the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair
Bradford Council Economic Strategy 2018-30 outlines that the district needs at least 48000 people to be educated between now and then at NVQ3 level (2 A levels) or better to realise their goals. Investment for the knowledge economy with high skilled, high wage jobs will only come when there is an educated skilled workforce. Bradford schools continue to lag well below national standards.
In 2001 Bradford Education was judged to be providing a poor service and was replaced by a private company, SERCO on a ten year contract. Throughout the course of the contract SERCO continually came back to the council to make their performance targets easier, but still never achieved them.
In 2001 the Pakistani community arranged an education conference on a Saturday that was attended by over 200 people. Professor Gus John was the keynote amongst a host of eminent speakers and workshops. The whole audience implored the invited new Managing Director of SERCO to work with them for the betterment of Bradford’s children. He replied by saying he had a duty to consult widely with the whole community, couldn’t give any immediate commitments, but never responded to these initial overtures.
I can only describe this as a gross dereliction of responsibility. 2001 was the year fascists invaded Bradford, police handled the event insensitively, and led to uprisings from the BAME community and, in the aftermath, demonisation of young Pakistani men in particular. The global impact of 9/11 magnified the lack of local white leadership to address this climate of fear, despite local Muslim activists taking the lead in organizing a separate conference addressing Bradford’s 2020 vision. The impact scarred Bradford for over a decade.
The Pakistani community in Birmingham tired of the underachievement of their children, held schools accountable for failing their children. Partnership between parents willing to step up as active school governors led to children dramatically improving above national standards.
This challenged the status quo. These new school leaders were smeared nationally as ‘extremists’. Eventually after a laboured investigation, all but one of those accused of professional misconduct were completely exonerated of all charges. However the damage was done, the movement was broken and the children slipped back below national standards, the schools with new white management, now being lauded for their commitment to ‘British Values’.
This is a salutary lesson in how independence of action by BAME communities is resisted by white authority. It also leaves a fractious atmosphere of distrust and despair, making it hard to rebuild capacity within BAME communities, viewed with watchful suspicion by local white leadership.
This article was written to assist discussion and support for the staff group at the National Media Museum Bradford within Bradford’s National Museum Project. Honesty and authenticity are the hallmark of positive discussions for the future and I’m confident that they will continue in the same vein.
The enforced break due to COVID 19 has allowed some people to generally reflect on their values. They’ve noticed the drop in pollution and the simple reintroduction of nature around them. Conversations abound as to how we can’t go back to the same routines once this crisis has passed.
Without any forums to discuss alternatives and socially progressive structures this juncture could dissipate into another what if moment. This lull in activity and the almost daily discussion of health and other inequalities has crystallized swirling thoughts and fired hope for fundamental change.
The life of George Floyd is best honoured by the fury and passion for justice that it’s unlocked globally.
Bradfordians of all races will continue to step up to the plate. BAME Bradfordians have had to do so out of necessity. The world gives them no choice. I hope these narratives from a varied and rich history show the capacity of BAME communities locally to deliver a positive agenda and work alongside those coming to terms with a wider racial awareness.