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Black British Lives Matter: A book all should read, particularly white people

Review: A grim catalogue of social exclusion edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder

Black British Lives Matter
Black British Lives Matter
Author: Lenny Henry, Marcus Ryder (eds.)
ISBN-13: 978-0571368495
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £16.99

For a while not so long ago, starting from the mid-New Labour years and culminating in the famous “multicultural” opening ceremony of the London Olympics, there was a pervasive sense in the British media that the United Kingdom was, if not quite a post-racial society, at least on the way there.

Overt racism had become a big no-no, institutions such as the Metropolitan Police and the BBC had performed mea culpas for their respective failings in race relations, and even English football seemed to have scrubbed itself up to a level of respectability unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. The UK was far from perfect, but its attitude towards race was less violent than the United States’ and less obdurate than that of other European countries.

That all proved to be illusory, unravelling thanks to, among other things, new possibilities for toxic abuse facilitated by social media and a resurgence of the bad old vulgar overt racism, including in football, in the wake of Brexit. Of course, black Britons (and members of other minorities) would have all along scoffed at such a notion of racism being near vanquished. For them, it hadn’t gone away in whatever manifestation.

Black British Lives Matter, a collection of essays by and interviews with prominent black personalities, edited by comedian Lenny Henry and journalist Marcus Ryder, comes at a time when a re-examination of the country’s race relations has gathered steam, and resistance to it, particularly from the government and the right-wing media, is robust to say the least.


As the title suggests, the impetus for the book was provided by the Black Lives Matters protests, the most recent wave of which followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. But while police brutality towards black people, particularly in the UK, looms large, the book focuses mainly on more mundane social matters, inequality of access to education, media positions and business opportunities for black Britons, the often neglected health issues particular to the country’s Afro-Caribbean population, and the everyday frustrations and injustices thrown up by systemic racism.

The essays are written by a diverse range of contributors, including Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen; architect David Adjaye; and Labour MP Dawn Butler. They are sprightly, their righteous anger often shot through with humour, and are thoroughly documented. The latter is especially crucial because “receipts” are provided for a long and grim catalogue of social exclusion faced by black British people.

Some statistics are familiar, such as children of Caribbean heritage being twice as likely as white children to be permanently excluded from school, or black women in the UK being four times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than whites. Others are surprising (though perhaps they should not be), such as a University of London study that shows only 0.2 per cent of British journalists are black.

There are also less negative figures. For example, black people are over-represented among British university students, though not in high-ranking institutions, which in turn feeds into marginalisation in the professions, not least in academia itself.

Deep reluctance 

A number of essays diagnose a deep reluctance of British society to reckon with its own racist history – journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff says that when the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of slavery was commemorated in 2007, the media were fixated on the fact the country abolished it rather than the inconvenient reality that it had profited handsomely from slavery. Recent years have seen moves towards acknowledging that, with of course pushback from some sectors, as seen in the furore in the right-wing press over the National Trust mentioning the slave trade at some of its grander properties.

The current historical moment is an opportune one, with some opinions previously considered radical outside the black community moving mainstream. Historian David Olusoga says he was taken aback by the energy of younger people in recent protests, both black and white, to change things – even if he worries that acts like last year’s toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol might be weaponised by opponents of that change.

Black British Lives Matter is worth reading for everyone, particularly white people, even if some might find it discomfiting, or even affronting. But such discomfort is no bad thing. Former Liverpool and England footballer John Barnes, who was subject to years of vicious racial abuse from the terraces, spoke once of the impossibility of his white team-mates understanding how it felt to receive such treatment, likening it to being bitten by a shark and being asked if it really hurts.

The book won’t bridge that subjective gag. But giving one’s attentions to the various testimonies here might at least be the start of some social redress.

Oliver Farry

Oliver Farry is a contributor to The Irish Times