I am a white, heterosexual, professional man, so you may question my qualifications to write about racism. However, I hope you will give me the benefit of doubt and continue reading.
When I was newly married and living on Hyde Park flats, my wife got a job childminding a beautiful Nigerian baby. We used to go to Castle Market to shop and I would carry the baby in a baby carrier. Being spat at and verbally abused, just because we had a black baby, was a blinding revelation to us and started to give us an insight into what it must be like to be the victim of racism.
In 2008 I led a campaign to stop one of my students being deported to Burundi, a country where she had fled violent oppression. During the campaign, I was subjected to racial abuse on social media and was sometimes shocked by the responses of people who I asked to sign the petition, who refused to help because of the colour of her skin.
Roll on to 2020 and we see the murder of George Floyd by the police and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests all around the world. As my wife is shielding I could not join the Sheffield protest, but Extinction Rebellion and Green Party members did show their solidarity because racial justice and climate justice are two sides of the same coin. The world’s economic system has always required the exploitation and oppression of people alongside the exploitation and destruction of the environment.
Black people have always suffered far more from pollution and extreme weather than white people. American Activist Elizabeth Yeampierre comments
“people are suffering from asthma and upper respiratory disease, and we’ve been fighting for the right to breathe for generations… those are the signs you’re seeing in these protests — “I can’t breathe.” When the police are using chokeholds, literally people who suffer from a history of asthma and respiratory disease, their breath is taken away… this is an environmental justice issue. The communities that are most impacted by COVID, or by pollution, it’s not surprising that they’re the ones that are going to be most impacted by extreme weather events. And it’s not surprising that they’re the ones that are targeted for racial violence… and you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic”
This is just as true in Sheffield. Who is if that suffers most from the traffic pollution? It’s the people living in the inner city and near the M1, communities where there are a far greater proportion of BAME and white working-class people. Where is our rubbish burnt? Bernard Road, to the east of the city centre to ensure the plume is blown towards Darnall and Tinsley. Where are the most police stop and searches? You can bet it is not Dore and Totley!
Around the world it is predominantly black communities that suffer when multinational companies come to tear down the forest where they live, or record droughts lead to crop failure and famine, or floods, tornadoes or wildfires destroy communities. Our economic system has ransacked the earth, leaving it scarred, polluted and with a fever. Indigenous, black and poor people have always paid the price for the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to live unimaginably rich lifestyles.
I am very concerned for my former teacher colleagues in Uganda, who have been at the brunt of extreme weather recently. Storms have led to Lake Victoria rising to record levels, with whole villages completely flooded, washing away homes, crops and livelihoods. This on top of the locust plague and the COVID pandemic leaves them in an appalling situation, largely ignored by our media.
So what is to be done? Politicians must listen to the demands of Black Lives Matter. We must decolonise education, and teach the truth to our children about black history. It is not enough to be non-racist, we have to be anti-racist. We must confront issues and ask the difficult questions, like why is there no black person on this management team or this Board of Governors, why do so many more black children get excluded from school, and why so many more get stop and searched by the police. Why is news of our celebrities given more coverage than what is happening to the people of Africa, Asia and South America? The struggle to stop police brutality is part of the struggle to prevent climate catastrophe. The environmental movement and the anti-racist movement need to combine forces to stop discrimination and combat the destruction of our planet that so negatively impacts BAME people all around the world. It is not only right for white people with privilege to take a stand against racism and the threats to our planet, but it is also our duty to do so.