Today is Martin Luther King Junior Day, marking the birth of the great Civil Rights leader. It’s impossible not to wonder how someone who dedicated and eventually sacrificed his life to what we now describe as equality, diversity and inclusion would view how far we have come.
When people, especially those in authority, are inclined to resist change, they often tell us to be patient. For decades black people have been told that change is coming, that it takes time, that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement such calls for patience fall on ever more deaf ears and with justification. How long does it take to change society such that race is no longer an issue? How long will it take until black people have the same opportunities, the same job prospects, the same respect under the law, the same likelihood of incarceration etc. as the rest of us?
It is now sixty-five years since the Race Relations Act was passed and the era of permissible racism theoretically came to an end. In the lifetime that has followed we have seen progress such that overt racism is generally frowned upon in society. I say “generally,” although it is only three years since a survey by the National Centre for Social Research and the Runnymede Trust found that twenty-six per cent of people described themselves as “very” or “a little” prejudiced towards other races. A widely held view is that in reality most of the racism experienced by people in Britain today is of the iceberg variety; a little bit is on plain view while the rest goes on unseen beneath the surface. And that is a problem for those of us who are not black when it comes to trying to help redress the balance. If you don’t experience the reality of the disparities in employment for example it’s easy not to see them. This is why it’s so important to keep asking questions and to keep on listening to those whose lives these unfairnesses impact. We all need constant reminders, because without a broad coalition of support for change, none will come. Saying that social reform is necessary but not actually doing anything concrete to make it happen is no longer acceptable.
The backlash that we’ve witnessed to Black Lives Matter was inevitable. The seemingly terribly reasonable response of All Lives Matter is a sham of an argument which is easily dismantled. Of course, all lives matter but currently black ones matter less, whether it’s in the boardroom, in education or in the courts. If some lives are at greater risk they cannot be said to matter as much. What confounds me is how the very idea of equality has been so politicised by those who seek to demonise the movement. In my view, this is a human rights issue, not a political one.
We haven’t got it all right yet at Milton Keynes College but we have to keep doing everything we can to bring about change. We have a shared mission to create fairer futures and we not only have no choice but to keep trying to progress, we are determined to accelerate the pace of change and make a real difference.
There is immense frustration, wanting to put everything right now while accepting that cultural change does take time. How quickly such enormous change takes effect is virtually impossible to judge while it is happening. It will probably be many years before we are able to look back to this moment in history and say with any certainty just how much we are managing to change. However, there is one thing 2020 taught us and that is that where the will really exists, transformation can be achieved in incredibly short order. The way the world has been galvanised to deal with the COVID crisis is proof if it were needed. The levels of investment, of international collaboration, of astonishing endeavour, required to bring us to this moment where vaccines have been developed at light speed and are now being administered around the globe, is nothing less than a triumph of the human spirit. Racism is a sickness on a similar global scale. If the same level of effort, cooperation and determination were applied to eradicating it as has been to this pandemic, what could we achieve?