In the face of unparalleled restrictions on normal life due to the ongoing threat from Covid-19, the Prime Minister makes a video telling us that “We are going to do this together”.
He and the heir to the throne both catch the virus (though they both make speedy recoveries), and the predominantly right wing media use this to underline a supposed levelling of power and privilege in the face of Covid-19. National unity is also what the Queen appeals to in her special broadcast referencing Dame Vera Lynn’s wartime song We’ll Meet Again, designed to help the people of our Green and Pleasant Land meet the current challenge facing the nation. Let’s repeat the mantra of State and Sovereign: We are going to do this together.
As someone who is from a south Asian Muslim background and gay, I welcome what seems to be a ticket onto the same boat as the mainstream White British population, even if the government’s handling of the current crisis appears to be steering us towards the icebergs. It speaks to my experiences of feeling other, due to having been born fatherless – the product of a failed marriage between parents from antagonistic Muslim sects. This sense of otherness grew exponentially when my mother later married my abusive stepfather, who wasn’t even Muslim at all, and then, later still, when I realised I was gay and came out. And all this took place in the context of a wider society that was deeply racist, homophobic and Islamophobic.
Despite my desire to belong, however, I am left feeling confused. After all, hasn’t our current Prime Minister been doing his utmost over the years, to caricature minority groups? He has spoken of Black people as “picaninnies with watermelon smiles”; and Muslim women wearing the veil as walking “letterboxes”; and he has referred to gay men in stereotypical terms as “tank-topped bum boys”, and declined the opportunity to apologise.
These kinds of sentiments take me back to my ingrained feeling of being an outsider who does not really belong anywhere. Except that this time it is ‘our’ Prime Minister uttering slurs which attack my fragile sense of who I am, rather than a reactionary homophobic imam from my younger days. And this is despite the fact that I do not identify as a religious Muslim in the slightest. Yet I very much feel targeted by Islamophobic remarks and behaviour. Despite my roots often making life problematic for me, they are nevertheless part of who I am and go beyond a narrow focus on the interpretations of religious texts.
And, whilst I have luckily not been as affected as much as many people I know by austerity – particularly other mental health service users – I am very aware of the impact of the Tories’ divisive policies over the last decade, which have widened socio economic inequalities in the general population and led to a rise in food banks to unprecedented levels while others have made whopping profits. These policies have impacted all racial groups but have hit BME communities as a whole, disproportionately hard. According to Runnymede Trust and Women’s Budget Group, Black and Asian households are facing the biggest drop in living standards, with losses of 19.2% and 20.1% from 2010 to 2017 as a result of tax and benefit changes and lost services. This amounts to real-terms average annual losses of £8,407 and £11,678.
And what of the vans urging illegal migrants to leave that had been launched by his predecessor, Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary? To say nothing of her predecessor, David Cameron, who, in the fallout from the terror attacks on British soil and foreign wars, tore up the idea of multiculturalism, which had been – however problematic, imperfect or absent in its application – sold as a key part of modern Britishness. On paper at least, it had offered a kind of space acknowledging the possibility of inclusion of hybrid British identities. Multiculturalism was, to me, an example of trying to put the sentiment behind the declaration that “We are going to do this together” into practice. Certainly – even with its problems – it was far more compelling to me than the perfunctory appeal to unity now. The cumulative effect of scrapping it is to bring about a sea change in the social contract, and is something I find deeply unsettling.
The issues of multiply marginalised racial and sexual identity and socio economic inequality are some of the factors I had written about in a Manifesto, A Call for Social Justice finished in 2018. For this work, I organised consultations with 200 mental health service users from diverse BME communities, in order to highlight the policy and practice changes needed to reduce racial inequalities and improve our lives and mental wellbeing. Though none of the BME campaigners I knew were holding their breath about government actually making changes, there was a sense that the Racial Disparity Audit (2017) ordered by Theresa May, could at least serve to highlight racial inequalities across many areas of life.
The issues that the Audit focused on had been consistently highlighted across three decades. These included the fact that Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their White counterparts; and that Black men are a staggering ten times more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder than White men within the mental health system; and that they experience systematic discrimination within the criminal justice system, from stop and search to sentencing to parole conditions, as highlighted by the Lammy Review (2017) which was also part of the Audit’s work. And, coming back to ‘my’ community, I had hoped, that in the fight against radicalisation and terrorism, the government would take a more enlightened and ultimately more effective approach, by working with the over 3 million strong Muslim communities, rather than treating them as a fifth column to be watched over hawkishly through Prevent.
But, in the current right wing national populist era, such priorities – tenuous even back in 2017 – have been all but forgotten in the effort to placate mainstream White British communities who, right wing politicians and media keep insisting, are being marginalised and threatened in their own country by racial minorities. When BME people are not multiplying biologically to threaten the white majority, our cultures are portrayed as corrupting and blackening society.
As right-wing historian and political commentator, David Starkey succinctly put it, in his spin on the reasons for the violent inner city riots in 2011, “the whites have become Black” (BBC2, Newsnight, Friday, 12 August 2011). Starkey also demonised south Asian (specifically South Asian Muslim) cultures by saying that the Rochdale child exploitation ring which groomed white girls for sex had values that were “entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab”. The specious reasoning that blaming culture in this way, rather than biology, is not racist, has to be constantly exposed.
So, coming up to the present day, and faced with a pandemic, politicians and red top newspapers have, until recently, airbrushed the fact that some communities are disproportionately likely to be affected by Covid-19 – as they are with almost any kind of public health issue. What we are seeing, is a socio economic and ethnic postcode lottery of sickness and death. And already, we are seeing that BME communities, which as a whole, experience more socio economic deprivation, and are subject to racism, are having a much higher death toll than the White British mainstream. Co-morbidity, including elevated risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease are higher in people of south Asian and African Caribbean descent but the reasons for this themselves are connected to socio economic deprivation according to some experts.
Whilst the government has ordered a review to account for why there are proportionately far higher percentages of BME patients in intensive care units with Covid-19, what is the point of it, if (on the record of past governments over the last 30 years) nothing is done to tackle the socio economic factors underlying these inequalities?
It is easy at this time, when NHS staff are putting their lives on the line and the death toll mounts, for politicians and right wing media to rush to praise NHS staff as heroes. And of course, social care workers, who are also on the front lines in nursing homes and other establishments, are almost totally ignored, in keeping with short sighted government policy which has run down social care now for over a decade. But maybe, since government decisions seem to be responsive to Twitter outcries, social care will now be included, albeit in weak and unconvincing ways?
But what the right wing media noticeably neglects to mention is that 44% of medical NHS staff are from BME backgrounds, despite being more likely to experience bullying especially at higher levels.
What a contrast to the media’s frenzied highlighting of the ethnic or religious identity of BME people (especially Muslims) when they commit any number of crimes, even when those crimes have nothing to do with their ethnic background or religion.
So, those BME people who make up that 44%, have to be whitewashed as mainstream Us and We, and not seen as problematic Black and brown others, as Them. These whitewashed heroes include the first four doctors to die of the virus, all of them BME and with Muslim names. Let’s open our windows at 8pm to clap and honour them!
After all, we are going to do this together.