OPINION: What was achieved in the 2020 fight for racial justice?

Wednesday, 23 December 2020 10:12 GMT

Demonstrators raise their fists while kneeling during a Black Lives Matter protest in London, Britain, July 12, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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The George Floyd protests forced many to acknowledge racial inequality for the first time. Deeper commitment and more-sustained energy is needed in 2021 to end it

By Lola-Rose Avery 

The summer of 2020 was not a good summer- it was grim, but it was galvanising.

The killing of George Floyd whilst in police custody on May 25 lead to global protests and frank conversations about racial justice of a kind that has not been seen in recent times, despite the world being wracked by a global pandemic.

The summer of discontent made change feel inevitable. Seemingly, the status quo was in jeopardy.

Large numbers of people, specifically non-black people, were willing to admit that they had never engaged with racial issues in a significant way - attempts were made to self-educate and to offer help, rather than just passively observe injustice.

There was a wave of support and sense of togetherness: a message sent to Black people: ‘in this fight, you are not alone.’

But as the months progressed and the protests diminished, the black screen shots posted on social media to signal support for racial justice began to disappear (no doubt because they disrupted the aesthetics of the users’ highly-curated feeds).

Passion from anyone who was not passionate about combating racism before the furore seems to have all but dissipated.

The heat of the summer months has passed and as we approach the end of an unbelievable year, myself and others are reflecting on what lasting progress, if any, has been made.

The four police officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged and will face trial. Viewers will be able to watch when the trial is live-streamed in March 2021 and can decide for themselves whether justice has been delivered.

In contrast, no charges were made in relation to the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March during a botched raid on her apartment. One step forward and one step backward.

Here in Britain, sobering statistics published in December show that police brutality is by no means a uniquely American phenomenon. In the year to March 2020, Black people were five times more likely to have police use force against them than white people.

In the same period, Black Britons were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, according to the government.

These figures predate the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests so it will be interesting to see in 2021 whether public pressure has led to any concrete changes in police behaviour.

I am a barrister and I watched this year as many in my profession gave the floor to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues to let them speak honestly about their race-related experiences in and out of work.

I was invited to do the same and give my input during various discussions. Colleagues shared accounts of everyday racism. Other colleagues listened. Some legal organisations pledged change.

The protests this year have forced the legal profession to discuss representation and consider ways to increase the often-low numbers of Black people, which worsens at the most senior levels.

Representation, of course, is only one part of the equality conversation. Another important, and less-discussed, issue is how Black lawyers are then treated.

Black barrister Alexandra Wilson, who in September was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day, was praised and vilified on social media in September for speaking out about racism in British courts.

The head of the courts service in England and Wales promised to investigate Wilson’s complaint but in December it was forced to apologise again after another black barrister, Luke Mclean, was mistaken for a defendant twice in one day.

Being mistaken for anyone except a barrister is an experience I am familiar with. It’s happened to me even in spaces designated for advocates.

Other Black barristers have been sharing similar experiences of discrimination for decades.

These examples of so-called ‘casual’ or ‘everyday’ racism in 2020 are not grave or life-endangering but they do reveal preconceptions that run through a society still permeated by systemic racism.

What progress on racial inequality has been made then? Tangible, systemic change cannot be made in a few months so it is too soon to say.

I hope 2021 will bear some fruits of the concerted efforts made to fight racism around the world this summer. But it is going to take deeper commitment and more sustained energy to more visibly dent the scourge of systemic racism.

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