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Black Lives Matter protests have renewed the spotlight on structural racism

Through our London Futures strategic review, we’re examining the state of London today and considering possible futures for the city. In this first blog of our new series, Claire looks at London’s position as the most ethnically diverse region in the UK. Most Londoners report getting on with people from different backgrounds, but recent Black Lives Matter protests renewed the spotlight on how structural racism affects our whole city.

London has a long history of ethnic diversity – going back at least to the Romans invaders, whose families seem to have been from various parts of Africa and Europe. For many Londoners, it has been a place of openness and tolerance, and sometimes a safe refuge from horrific crimes in other countries. There is a proud history of fighting racial injustice and of welcoming people fleeing violence. But we also have a shameful history of racism and intolerance.

This can be big and visible: Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts marching down Cable Street and recent Britain First protests, for example. It can be individual racially motivated hate crimes, violent acts and words: approximately 1,600 racist or religious hate crimes are recorded each month, and the true number is likely to be higher. And millions of Londoners live every day with the consequences of structural racism* on the opportunities they have access to in work, the outcomes they get from education and the places they can afford to live.

Our city is the most ethnically diverse region in the UK. Compared to some other major cities there is relatively little residential segregation: Londoners tend to live close to people of different ethnicities to them. As a result universal public services – schools and healthcare – tend to look pretty diverse. But appearances can be deceptive. Despite the capital’s history as a point of arrival for immigrant groups, Londoners are no more or less likely to hold racist views than people elsewhere in the UK. The British National Party’s strongholds were in outer London – initially in Welling where they had a bookshop, and later Barking and Dagenham. The party has largely disappeared into a morass of its own making, helped along by some impressive anti-racist community organising – but this does not mean its supporters have changed their views.

In particular, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought a welcome focus on the politics of public space, and on the persistence of memorials to slave owners and imperialists. It seems certain that more statues will fall (or move to museums) in the next few months as a result of efforts by the Greater London Authority to review public spaces, and that some major British institutes named after people who profited from slavery and colonialism will change their names. We need to see positive action as well: more memorials to Black Londoners to join the tribute to Mary Seacole at St Thomas’ Hospital, more roads, parks and schools named with reference to Black history, and more public art which challenges us to think about our shared past, like Kara Walker’s harrowing, complex installation at the Tate’s Turbine Hall.

Changing the public realm is generally contentious, usually slow and often expensive. But it is still straightforward compared to changing the structures which underly inequality in our city. Even if all income inequalities between ethnic groups ended tomorrow, the importance of inherited wealth to Londoners’ choices about housing means that it would take generations before Black people to own homes at the same rate as White people.

Living in a diverse city where people generally report that people from different backgrounds get on well in their area is undoubtedly a good thing, but it will not end racism. Indeed, prioritising ‘getting along together’ over addressing deep-seated inequality risks making the underlying problems worse as it encourages a lazy and misinformed smugness about the extent of the problem. Real change will come from Londoners having difficult conversations about our past, present and future – we’ve made a good start, but we must go further.

*Note: Structural racism refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial inequity.

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Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.