Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and across the world, the Guardian interviewed 50 young black Britons, many of whom have been at the heart of the recent anti-racism protests, to ask what changes they would like to see in their lifetime.
Three demands came up repeatedly: decolonising the curriculum; divesting funds away from police forces in favour of a public health-focused approach to crime; and better representation of black Britons across a wider section of society.
Many of the people the Guardian spoke to despaired at the neglect of black history – particularly black British history – in schools. Several spoke of their frustration at Britain’s general reluctance to confront, deconstruct and come to terms with its colonial past in the national curriculum.
“The curriculum is ridiculous. They just teach you that there was slavery for a little bit and it was really bad, then the slaves were freed and that was that, Martin Luther King did a speech and racism was over,” said 18-year-old Mia Bennett, from Sunderland.
She struggled to connect with what she was being taught: “It’s only from reading black authors that I realised how much of my own history I was shielded from.”
People also wanted schools to move away from solely teaching black history in the context of slavery. “The only thing I was taught about black people in school was that we were slaves, which when you’re 12 is very upsetting,” said Makeda Mawusi, 25, from Newmarket. “We need a wide range of education showing that black people were very successful and very rich as well as what happened after colonisation.”
The teaching of black history was not only important from an educational perspective, many felt it would also help students redefine their voices as black Britons. “It really helps people manifest and grasp their identity,” said Rebecca Tyler, 19, from Nottingham. “It shouldn’t be a young person’s task to have to learn these things themselves.”
Helen Femi Williams, 24, said if learning about the empire was compulsory, people would have a more nuanced understanding of modern Britain – and each other. “Whether we’re here for 60 years or just got here, there’s a sense that we don’t belong,” she said. “Things like the Windrush scandal wouldn’t have been so easy to do if people understood what the Windrush was.”
“The UK is not innocent” was written on placards and chanted on streets across the country after the death of George Floyd in the US in May. While his killing by a white police officer was the catalyst for the UK rallies, young black Britons said racial disparities in policing was a problem in the UK too.
More than 20 years after the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence declared the Metropolitan police institutionally racist, black people are nine times as likely to be stopped and searched as white people.
Trey Campbell-Simon, 21, said: “One time, I was in my friend’s car, he was white, and it was a nice car, and it got pulled over. I was a passenger in the backseat and I was dragged out the car.” He has been stopped and searched about 30 times in London.
Lockdown has compounded the issue. After a series of high-profile incidents, police in England and Wales face an inquiry in autumn by the Independent Office for Police Conduct to establish whether forces racially discriminate with stop and search.
Campbell-Simon was one of many to call for diverting funds from the police budget in order to invest in communities, from youth clubs to affordable housing. He said this redirection of funding would cause issues such as knife crime – and in turn, points of tension including stop and search – to reduce dramatically.
“I speak for myself, but there’s an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality when it comes to the black community and the police. The police are seen as the enemy,” Campbell-Simon said. “Invest in the community and it will become more cohesive.”
The youth campaign group All Black Lives, which formed in June, has called for the scrapping of section 60 and abolition of the Met’s gang violence matrix. The group has vowed to march every Sunday until their demands, which also include changing the curriculum and tackling health disparities, are met.
As well as investing in communities, there must be a willingness to invest in individuals. Parity of opportunity and greater representation of black people in higher positions was mentioned repeatedly in these interviews.
Last year, it emerged the number of BAME board members in Britain’s largest companies had fallen to 7.4% since 2018.
Ruben Elendo, 23 from Croydon, cited politicians such as David Lammy and the historian David Olusoga as inspirational. He said he did not know of such figures when he was growing up, adding: “You can’t be who you can’t see.”