Clara Amfo, Laura Mvula, David Lammy and more: 'We’re shifting the deadly disease of racism'

Presenters, performers, writers and politicians on whether the protests in the UK in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death will have a lasting effect

Clara Amfo, radio DJ and television presenter

When I gave my speech about racism and George Floyd last week on Radio 1, it was something I had been wanting to say my whole life. I have never felt more myself than I did in that moment. I felt empowered. I’ve been overwhelmed by the messages I’ve received since. I’m proud of people’s humility and willingness to learn.

The day before, I called my producer and said: “I cannot come into work today.” I simply could not face it. When you see black bodies disrespected the world over, you take it in. You carry it with you. It affects your mentally.

Some people ask: “Why are you so upset about something that’s happening in America?” First, the UK has a history of racism. And second, the black experience is like being on the same team, like we’re wearing the same football strip. I am connected to other black people. If they suffer, I suffer.

We are going through a period of transformation right now. It is uncomfortable, but I welcome the discomfort. The racist ideology I want us to fight seeps into every aspect of our lives. It has to be dismantled. Kele Okereke, musician

As a black person you have to insulate yourself from the images of violence you see because they are too disturbing and too frequent. I thought there would be reform after Michael Brown or Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. My cousin, Christopher Alaneme, was stabbed to death after being racially abused in 2006 when he was 18. But then nothing changes and you have to build up a wall to protect yourself, so you don’t have to deal with something that’s heartbreaking all the time.

It has been really encouraging to watch the Defund Police movement gaining traction in the US. People think that the police in the UK aren’t as bad because they don’t carry guns. But they still carry tasers, and taser use has increased in recent years. If we have more police with tasers, it is only going to mean more black men being hurt, maimed, injured, possibly paralysed.

It has been inspiring to see so many young people from all walks of life on these marches saying: “Enough is enough.” That’s exciting. If we remain engaged, we have every chance of changing things. I am hopeful.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, shadow secretary of state for justice

I hope this really is a moment for change, that this is more than just another period in which we as a country look at issues of race and injustice – like Stephen Lawrence’s murder, the Macpherson report, Mark Duggan’s killing, Windrush – and then the news cycle moves on. 

Edward Colston statue
Protesters in Bristol pull down the statue of Edward Colston. Photograph: Keir Gravil/Reuters

The theme I keep hearing in black and Asian communities is that they are tired. We have arrived at a place in the UK where we’ve had a series of inquiries, reviews, reports, and now the cry is for action. Action on the curriculum: a reckoning with Britain’s past, with our colonial heritage. Action on inequalities in employment, in housing. Action on stop and search. I want to see my review into the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system fully implemented.

What has been heartening for me is to see so many young people take to the streets, and they are people of all colours. The protesters who tore down that statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and threw it into the water were breaking the law. However, it was also clear that they were using their privilege to challenge the memorialising of someone who murdered so many.

In recent years we have seen the rise of populism. Figures such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and some of the rhetoric from Boris Johnson have fed into a narrative of hate. But much of the public has had enough of that. That rhetoric is being called out and seen for what it is: shallow and skin deep. Millennials and Gen Z in particular have had enough. They want to get their hands on the levers of power. It is heartening to me, but I don’t want to speak too soon.

Candice Carty-Williams, author 

Last week was horrible. I felt paralysed by sadness the whole time. I was so exhausted. But it also just felt like a more intense version of my normal life. I remember watching a news report about Philando Castile in 2016; I was in tears. White people walked past me, saw I was crying and carried on moving. Black people have been experiencing this pain their whole lives. Now white people are forced to see it, and it’s uncomfortable for them. That’s good. Because it’s always been uncomfortable for me. 

1992 LA riots
Rioters overturn a parking attendant booth during the 1992 LA riots. Photograph: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

I remember talking to Zadie Smith and she said that when she saw the LA riots, she hoped change would come from that. But it didn’t. Now we have social media, and it feels as if people have to engage because they have no choice.

I hope that people understand that racism is a collective issue. Your voice is a powerful thing. You should speak out on the things that aren’t right. Whether your platform is 10,000 people or one person, it’s still a platform. Don’t distance yourself from the struggle for fear of not knowing the right thing to say. Go away, do the reading, educate yourself and then say something. Change has to come from the people because our government won’t do anything.

Baroness Valerie Amos, Labour peer and director of Soas University of London

We have had report after report, which shows the depth and impact of racism in Britain. We have a massive education attainment gap, significant underachievement in schools, a lack of employment opportunities and a disproportionate number of black men in British jails. Only 0.6% of university professors are black. Really, how much more evidence do we need that racism in the UK is real?

We need to stop writing reports and actually start tackling it at the root, because issuing national guidelines isn’t working. We need to be more specific than that. There is so much concern about sentencing and the number of black men in jail; let’s look at the sentencing record of every single judge. How have they treated people going through the criminal justice system? Let’s look at our police officers, at individual forces; what is the pattern we are seeing, and how can we shift that?

I know how hard it is to bring about change. People often look at the statistics around Soas and think we look good compared with other institutions in the sector. But as far as I am concerned, those figures aren’t good enough. And besides, figures don’t tell you anything about the culture of an organisation. You need to dig beneath the figures and find out what people’s real experiences are. You can’t be frightened of that.

Leomie Anderson, model and entrepreneur

Right now, we are going through our generation’s civil rights movement. It is a huge awakening for a lot of people and it has needed to happen for a very long time. Injustice does exist. White privilege does exist.  

When I started out as a model, people would tell me that black girls don’t sell magazines. I was hearing that kind of racism from the age of 14. Even now, I know for a fact that I do jobs where I get paid less than my white counterparts. 

A lot of people are looking to black people right now and asking them: how can things change, how do we fix this? But black people have been having those conversations with white people for decades. Clearly, black people explaining what white people are doing wrong isn’t working because white people get defensive. They say: “I haven’t done anything racist.” They don’t see that as long as you are a white person who has benefited from the systematic oppression of black people, you are part of the problem. I implore those white people to educate themselves, understand that white supremacy is real and people of colour are oppressed.

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet, musician and writer

There is a part of me that thinks something has to change this time. But I thought that when Stephen Lawrence died. I thought that with Windrush. I have thought that so many times. Something awful happens and what the system does is it gets an inquiry going, it writes a report, releases its findings and then the public just forgets about it. Or the anger dissipates. But there is something different now about what’s happening around the world.

Probably the only thing that gives me hope is that it is young white people saying: “Enough.” When the statue of Colston came down, it was white people taking it down. This is their ancestor. White people are looking at their history and realising it’s messed up. 

Laura Mvula, musician

Right now, I am in the countryside. It is interesting to be physically far from the protests, but to feel so connected to the black community on the most profound level. Being out here, I have had a lot of time to reflect: the ground is moving beneath us, we are seeing shackles being broken and I am channelling that struggle into music. 

I was speaking to my mum on FaceTime yesterday, just catching up, and she abruptly broke down into tears. She felt so overwhelmed and so heavy with the weight of what is happening in the world right now. It feels like we are moving through a major upheaval. Of course, it is not the first revolution and it doesn’t feel like the last. But it feels like we are finally getting to where we need to be, to where we should have been centuries ago.We’re shifting the deadly disease of racism. 

Yomi Adegoke, journalist and author

Like many black journalists covering race and racism, I have learned over the years to manage my expectations when it comes to “change”.

Society speaks of monumental change as if the more we say it, the more likely it is that it will happen. Each time an uprising takes place after an incident like this, there is a sense of hope that is undoubtedly paired with a creeping feeling of deja vu. The scenes of people nimbly dodging teargas explosions, of rubber bullets ricocheting off buildings as sprawling crowds march with fists and signs raised: they inspire, but also make us question what comes next. Already, politicians talk of thuggery and criminals, discussing protesters in these terms as opposed to the police being guilty of killing innocent people. 

But then something does undeniably feel different. When the statue of the slaver Colston was pushed into a watery grave in Bristol, I feared it would only be a symbol of poetic justice. But then came the announcement that the area’s flagship music venue, Colston Hall, would be renamed and a statue of a slave trader in east London taken down.

Navigating this period feels like a constant balancing act, walking a tightrope between optimism and cynicism; tenaciousness and tentativeness; Martin Luther King’s dream and the nightmare that we have known all our lives. Now is a time of restrained hope, but hope all the same. 

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic

This is my fourth cycle of civic uprisings. I have seen so much: the Southall riots, the first Brixton riot and the Tottenham uprisings. It would be churlish of me to say there hasn’t been progress. There has been. The Macpherson report really paved the way for a black middle class, in my opinion.

Tottenham riot 1985
An overturned car in the aftermath of the Tottenham riots in 1985. Photograph: PA

Afterwards, the Labour government put policies in place that changed things for me as a black man, in terms of my own personal ability to access the arts. So there has been progress. But when my 15-year-old son asks: “Dad, can I go to the march?” I feel sadness. I look at him and think: wow, my generation has not fixed things. We can only ask for structural change. We have to look at the mechanisms of power, from our FTSE 500 boards to our front benches, and do an audit. We need to look at access for those communities whose forebears would once have been sold. 

I think about racism in Britain, and America. To me, the difference is that racism in America is direct, loud racism. The racism inherent in how the American police treat black people is easy to point out, and hard to deny. But the racism that we saw in Central Park, with Amy Cooper [who called the police on a black birdwatcher], is more akin to British racism. It’s insidious; it’s deniable. That’s the racism that we in black Britain face on a daily basis. The insidious world of micro-aggressions. White supremacy is a constantly evolving beast. How does this entity continue to articulate itself, year after year? It adapts itself to keep a disparity alive. Even when white supremacy loses arms and legs, it somehow morphs itself into a different thing. We need to dismantle white supremacy entirely. White people need to recognise that they are a global minority wielding disproportionate power and give some of it away.


As told to Sirin Kale

The GuardianTramp

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