IGP Stories

The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to change how we think about racism

Social Prosperity Europe

Dr Nikolay Mintchev

The Covid-19 crisis is going to be a gamechanger for the UK’s ethnic and racial politics. Four years after the 2016 Referendum on EU membership, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another monumental conjuncture that will inevitably figure prominently in future histories of identity politics, racial injustice, and many other social and political issue in this country. Things will not be the same after this crisis, but at the moment it is still unclear what is to come.

The politics of Brexit was, and still is, a politics of social and cultural polarization. The four years after 2016 saw political emotions heat up and a range of accusations – from racism, ignorance and stupidity to arrogance and disdain for democracy – fly back and forth between Leave and Remain supporters. Crucially, there has also been little if any willingness from supporters of either side to change their political view on the subject as polling data since the referendum has demonstrated.

Accusations of racism played a big part in this social polarization, and these were not unfounded given the prevalence of xenophobia in pro-Leave discourses, as well as the rise in harassment and violence against migrants and minorities in the aftermath of the referendum. Unsurprisingly, however, accusations and critiques of Brexit as a racist political project have not been particularly effective in changing people’s views; on the contrary, they have often been experienced as attacks and attempts to insult and delegitimate the Leave position, prompting the accused to double down and consolidate their initial views.

What has been persistently left out and obfuscated in these Brexit-related polemics is the structural dimension of racial/ethnic inequalities – the significant differences in access to opportunities and resources, as well as outcomes on key indicators of quality of life such as employment, housing and health.

The notion of racism that has circulated in polemics about Brexit is an ‘old’ notion that is ‘frozen’ in time. It is about hatred of the other, discrimination, violence and harassment. In today’s allegedly ‘post-racial’ society, where race is said to be irrelevant in defining people’s life chances, racism is imagined as a relic of a bygone era which only resurfaces in the actions of dysfunctional racist individuals embodying ignorance and/or moral failure. Racist incidents in this context tend to be portrayed as exceptions to the rule rather than symptoms of an entrenched societal problem that requires significant social change. Structural racism, however, is a different matter altogether because it is about the social structures that reproduce inequalities even in the absence of individuals’ racist foul play. What matters in structural racism is not the intentions of any one person but the consequences and outcomes produced by the system as a whole.

When the coronavirus outbreak began to take its toll in the UK it became evident that ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted. One report revealed that 34% percent of critically ill coronavirus patients are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, although according to the last census (in 2011) minorities made up only 14% of the population. Another study carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), found out that people with Black ethnicity were more than four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than their White counterparts. In addition to this, BAME doctors and nurses have also been disproportionately impacted: of the first 82 deaths of frontline NHS staff in England and Wales, 61% were from a BAME background, despite the fact that BAME people make up 44% of doctors and 24% of nurses.

The government has called for a review to investigate this scandal and find out the reasons behind it. So, a comprehensive analysis is forthcoming. What we know so far, however, is that there is a complex assemblage of economic and social inequalities, the effects of which manifest themselves on multiple scales, from the broader regional level to everyday practices within the organizational dynamics of institutions. Ethnic minorities are significantly more likely to live in overcrowded housing, to be in precarious zero-hour work which demands that they continue working to make ends meet, and to suffer from ill-health. All of these factors increase the likelihood of contracting and dying of Covid-19. In addition to this, there have also been concerns, specifically with regard to NHS staff, that subtle institutional power dynamics within the organizational structures of the NHS have put BAME doctors at greater risk. Such explanations are reminiscent of the ‘institutional racism’ that was revealed by the landmark McPherson Report as a key cause of the mishandling of the police investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder by racist thugs in 1993 (in fact, Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, has been appointed to head the investigation into the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities). The workings of institutional racism, unlike those of ‘old’, ‘frozen’ racism are subtle, unconscious, and without any overt bad intentions, but they nevertheless produce racial/ethnic inequalities in their effects and outcomes.

Running in parallel to these structural and institutional explanations, there have been a number of speculations about genetics and culture that one often encounters in tabloids and on social media. The genetic explanation is a ‘post-racial’ one, despite its reference to racially specific biological traits. It claims that Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on minorities has nothing to do with ethnic or racial social inequality, but is rather the result of differences in the ability of Black and Asian people’s bodies to produce Vitamin D. This explanation has been rejected by high level medical professionals, and as analysis of the data in the aforementioned ONS study has shown, there is very strong evidence that structural inequality is a major determinant of the pattern of the impact of coronavirus.

A second speculation – the one based on culture – is a more old-fashioned racist one. It effectively portrays minorities as people who refuse to follow the social-distancing rules and thereby turn themselves into spreaders of disease, pollution and dysfunction more generally. This explanation is pushed primarily by people on the far right, but its logic of portraying minorities as ‘a problem’ of one kind or another has a long history in public discourses on ethnicity/race and is likely to have an appeal beyond the narrow circle of its most ardent proponents.

The Covid-19 crisis has opened up a rupture in this landscape of racialised and classed stereotyping. The media images of BAME doctors and nurses who tragically fell victim to the virus have disrupted the racist fantasy of dysfunctional otherness. They have done so by revealing the imposing reality of diversity among the most highly trained professionals in one of the UK’s most treasured and celebrated national institutions, the NHS. Racist stereotyping of dysfunctional otherness does not work very well in this context, and neither do denials of structural racial inequality. The fact that BAME people have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus can hardly be dismissed as the creation of an allegedly hyper-sensitive ‘loony left’ that is often portrayed as the inventor of its own victimhood. And hopefully, this will also mean that scholars, writers and activists committed to equality will have to spend less time arguing against such denials and dismissals.

The key point is that we now have an opportunity to have a more productive public conversation about racial/ethnic inequality than the one we have seen in relation to Brexit. The current crisis presents a possibility to shift the field of public discourse away from the cycle of denying and affirming the existence of racism in society, and towards a focus on what can be done to redress the racial/ethnic structural inequalities – as well as the broader class inequalities – that have been highlighted by the crisis. Here, it is crucial to keep sight of the fact that racial/ethnic injustice is one part of a larger system of social inequality that has affected people of all backgrounds. As ONS data shows, deprived areas in England and Wales have experienced heavier death tolls, both within and outside urban multicultural areas. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the UK’s massive disparity, whereby the death rate in the poorest areas (55.1 deaths per 100,000 people) is twice as high as that in the least deprived places (25.3 deaths per 100,000 people). The London Borough of Newham, which is perhaps the country’s most diverse locale, as well as one of the most deprived ones, has experienced the heaviest death rate (144.3 deaths per 100,000 people). Addressing racial/ethnic inequalities and socio-economic inequalities more generally is not a matter of either/or but a matter of both/and: ethnicity-based initiatives that aren’t part of a broader reduction of inequality and ‘a level playing field’ risk creating social divisions; class-based initiatives that fail to recognise that minorities are affected in disproportionate numbers and in specific ways risk ignoring – or worse, denying – the fact that the legacy of racism persists in institutional cultures and socio-economic structures.

The coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity to do things differently. It is an opportunity to pay more attention to systems and their outcomes as a starting point for collectively redressing existing inequalities and creating a fairer society after Covid-19.

Image credit: CDC on Unsplash

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