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Nottingham Community Engagement Worker Josh Osoro Pickering on the Deep-Rooted Problems of Systemic Racism

12 July 20 words: Josh Osoro Pickering
illustrations: Jay Wilkinson

English-Kenyan community engagement worker and writer Josh Osoro Pickering explores the deep-rooted problems of systemic racism, the impact of capitalism on black communities and why now is the time for change...

In February 1965, at the height of America’s Civil Rights Movement, the writer James Baldwin addressed a packed debate hall at Cambridge University. The debate was on black people and the American dream, which Baldwin swiftly tackled before brilliantly enlightening the room on the black struggle with the “Western system of reality”. 55 years later, we are still explaining to white people why we are not valued within that same Western capitalist system. To some white people, the recent surge in momentum for Black Lives Matter, driven by an incandescent black rage at police killings, has been unexpected. Many black people didn’t see it coming at the point it did either, but it was inevitable – as inevitable as the end to the Jim Crow laws that segregated Baldwin’s America. In particular it has shocked governments and the police, not because black people are angry – they knew that all too well. What has shocked them is the timing and momentum of it. At a time when COVID-19 has opened a window into the inequities of the “Western system of reality” and those in power are fearfully scrambling not to lose their grip, people have been presented with the perfect moment to enforce change.

As in the US, demonstrations across this country have seen thousands take to the streets. Their actions are branded as irresponsible by a Government who have spectacularly failed to protect us from the pandemic, and no group feels that more than us. But the urge to act now in this perfect moment takes precedence. The far more deadly and persistent pandemic of racism only offers rare curative moments. The protesters tearing down the symbols of British racism are thugs, we are told. Now panicked, authorities are pre-emptively removing monuments themselves, like firefighters desperately setting bushes alight to halt the oncoming blaze. But the fiery winds of change won’t be put out by the mere relocation of statues to museums. We have had cosmetic modifications before and now it is a much wider change that is needed. That won’t be easy. The problem is not some institutional racism that absolves the government of responsibility. It is a far bigger systemic racism and is therefore a fight that will be resisted by those powers. History, though, repeatedly shows that it can be done. 

Capitalism and the subjection of black communities are undeniably connected. It is a matter of historical record that the system was built on the devaluation of black lives through the slave trade and developed on the wealth created by it. Now, in the glaring light that shines through the cracks exposed in capitalism by COVID-19, people have said enough is enough. An attitude for change, a more sustainable, community-focused new normal, or whatever you wish to call it, has stirred otherwise ambivalent people to declare support for racial equality more vocally than was possible only three months ago. The problem of racism isn’t new, but our normal, that is to say this unsustainable capitalism we have been afraid to rid ourselves of, is broken. For black people, it always was broken. The weight of past and present oppression seeps, in some form or another, into every aspect of daily life: our inner-thinking, our hopes and fears for our children and the recurring traumas of our individual and collective experiences. What we need to recognise in Britain is that those (particularly in politics and the arts) who continue to benefit most from the devaluation of black lives and culture are often the direct beneficiaries of the atrocities that this nation’s wealth was built on. This isn’t just something that happened centuries ago. 

Now panicked, authorities are pre-emptively removing monuments themselves, like firefighters desperately setting bushes alight to halt the oncoming blaze. But the fiery winds of change won’t be put out by the mere relocation of statues to museums

I am filled with a sometimes crippling sadness when I think about that reality, unable to do my work or think straight. Over the past weeks, black people have experienced an intense fly-by of those histories, incidents and current realities. We have faced our trauma, given countless opinions, advised white friends and re-watched graphic videos of our people dying, knowing all the time that we must overcome our pain at seeing it, to come out the other side. I initially thought that the process of talking and sharing might be therapeutic, but the fact that many of us feel duty bound to push down the anguish it arouses to seize the day worries me. An emotional crash is likely, particularly for those with more of a past to unearth and more battle fatigue to overcome. That we are now seeing an invigorated push for equality across the world is in no small part due to the efforts of young black people and their friends of all backgrounds. They have motivated many exhausted veterans, who have fought for years without seeing much change.

And now we find ourselves at a point of no return, but with many possible directions forward. Statements have been made and unlikely people have uttered the words “Black Lives Matter”. Some of them have meant it, some of them have surely not. Where we go next depends on the real appetite for action to bring about change. A lot of the talk about ‘white allyship’ has centred around the need to confront uncomfortable truths. It must now centre around uncomfortable actions. The marketing opportunities of blackouts and solidarity have passed. We will now be watching to see who is sincere about acting on that rhetoric. Black people don’t want to read “I understand that I don’t understand” now. Show us that you are willing to understand and willing to act. 

But a warning: this system doesn’t like it when you act. Indeed, it is designed to prevent it. The struggle is uncomfortable and there will be times when allies want out. White privilege will offer some that opportunity, and the fact it is there means those allies will never truly understand, no matter how much they intend to. Like George Orwell feigning poverty to experience life in Down and Out in Paris and London, while always having his estate to return to, they won’t ever fully get it. However, like Orwell, they can join the fight for equality. They are doing it now and must continue to if we are to win. This system was forcibly built on black labour, but not for black people (nor most white people) and now, like an obedient black worker, I am expected to speak within the fading margins and offer a word of solution to a problem I did not create. Well, we have passed a point, and I wish you to understand the necessity I have described here, as I offer only one word: revolution.

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