Black Lives Matter and Working Towards the Development of Human and Social Capital
The brutal murder of George Floyd has sparked a wave of mass protests, and what started off under the banner of BlackLivesMatter, has spread globally, as oppressed communities seek to make their voices heard.
Some of the notable successes of the global protest movements, have been to re-ignite a debate about institutionalised oppression and discrimination of minorities globally, as well a discussion of how to address the multi-faceted concerns of the various protestors.
In the UK, the protests have brought to the fore many of the legacies of the British Empire, including slavery. Many multi-national corporations have come out in support of Black Lives Matter and have been keen to highlight their anti-racism principles. Others have gone as far as to say they will be paying reparations, including Lloyds of London and Greene King Pubs. However, equally, there has also been a counter narrative, which is unashamedly unapologetic. None of this is better exemplified by the furore over statues, particularly that of Sir Winston Churchill.
The Churchill Complex
A central focus of the UK protestors’ ire has been Sir Winston Churchill. As a nation, we have been told two things about Sir Winston; that he defeated the Nazis, and that he was the progenitor of the Cold War and the Anglo-American alliance. A less publicised fact was that he was a willing cheerleader of Empire – even allowing for the contextualisation of the time he lived in – and was firmly ensconced on the brutish spectrum of imperialists, so much so that Prime Minister Baldwin warned against allowing him in cabinet due to his antediluvian views. It’s beyond the remit of this article to expound upon his litany of abuses. However, there are a silent majority who are incredulous that someone voted The Greatest Briton could have such a dark side. This has been a driving force behind some who wish to devalue the protestors as irrational and posit institutionalised racism as a liberal myth. It is a symptom of the partial narratives we are fed.
From the outset in our schooling, we are taught about the peripheral role of black and Asian people to the human story. If I recall my own school experience, my memory of black history was thus. Black people where enslaved for a period of time. How, why and for what purpose was not discussed, but it was BAD. Then during a period of enlightenment – which also led to the agricultural and industrial revolutions – the British in all their civilised wisdom decided to begin a movement to emancipate the slaves and by 1833 all the slaves where freed. Thereafter, black people pop up again during the civil rights movement in the US, with a focus on Martin Luther King. This was the sum total of the black contribution to human civilisation, according to my school curriculum.
The narrative was slightly more complimentary with brown and Asiatic peoples, but perhaps even more distorted. There was a religion called Islam, which sprung up in a vacuum in Arabia in the 7th Century AD. They did ok for a while – they even had a ‘Golden Age’ – and translated a number of Greek texts which were ‘lost’ to Europe during the ‘Dark Ages’. However, Europeans rediscovered these texts during the Renaissance and the Middle East slipped back into Oriental despotism and licentiousness and a natural state of stagnation, decay and decline. This supposedly decayed civilisation was then deservedly conquered by several virile and rejuvenated Western powers, which gifted them science and democratic forms of governance, dragging them into modernity. There was an honourable mention for India in the context of the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’ and for the Ottoman Empire in the First World War as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’.
Therefore, we have generations of individuals in the UK who believe that the British Empire and Western Europe in general was driving factor of Human Civilisation, with the British Empire posited as being on a civilising mission. A kindly father pushing backward nations into modernity.
Of course, this is not the case. The ‘black’ and ‘African’ contribution to history is immense and encompasses civilisations as diverse as Ancient Egypt, The Malian Empire, the Shona Empire and the Empire of Benin. How many FTSE 100 CEOs are aware of Lourenco Pinto, a 17th Century Portuguese Seafarer, who was in awe of Benin city or how the Malian Empire may have sent expeditions to the Americas in the 14th Century?
The achievements of the Islamicate world are no less impressive. Recent scholarship has debunked the Orientalist trope that the Ottomans were in a state of decline from the 16th Century, and show that the Empire successfully revived and re-invented itself on several occasions and was an active participant in the Crucible of Europe before its eclipse in World War I. Far from being in a state of scientific decline, the Islamicate world had a vibrant tradition of scientific and metaphysical scholarship, perhaps until colonisation made it more inward looking.
This lack of civilisational awareness will become inhibiting, as we move into an increasingly multipolar world. Even within the world of investment banking – which I believe represents some of the best aspects of Anglo-American meritocracy – I have had the indignity of suffering many an embarrassing speech in front of an Asian and African audience. One springs to mind, where as part of a business delegation, I cringed as a British Government Official was expounding the virtues British rule – the English language and the common law – to an audience of Lagosian bankers.
World views are developed and reinforced during our educational process, and the perceptions developed during these formative years survive well into adulthood. Therefore, even when teaching both colonial and modern history, why are school children not taught of the great debt this country owes its troops from the Commonwealth, with 1.3 million Indian troops alone during the First World War. My ancestry hails from the Punjab province (divided amongst India and Pakistan today) which contributed almost 60% of all combatant troops of the British Indian Army; Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs, Pathans and Hindu Rajputs alike served side by side and died for their Monarch. We are taught that the US intervention in the Second World War was the turning point in defeating the Nazis, however nothing is mentioned of 2.5 million Indians who fought against the Fascists.
Years of distorted schooling have developed an elite which is ignorant of the human story of which we all are great contributors. On a micro level, it means that negative stereotypes are reinforced in the workplace and media, further perpetuating unconscious biases. For example, the media has continually conflated the black community with crime, which then allows politicians to demonise specific cultures as having criminal tendencies. However, those same media outlets and politicians will not draw the same conclusions between race and crime, if the crime was committed in the white working class areas of Glasgow or rural Wales. The effect has been humiliating, with black men many times more likely to be stopped by the police.
Similarly the negative stereotypes about Muslims are continually reinforced in the media. The effects are palpable, with various studies illustrating that Muslims are significantly discriminated against in the workplace and are 76% less likely to be employed in the first instance according to a BBC report.
Hasty generalisations and racist tropes appealing to a fear of the Other, have become the staple of mainstream news media. These are then reinforced in the popular media, the confluence of which creates a society which at best passes off negative stereotypes as banter, and at worst leads to racism, discrimination and violence.
Developing Human and Social Capital
Even when corporate and government initiatives try to be understanding, I believe they fall short of the standards required. There has been a genuine drive towards diversity in The City, particularly with respect to ethnic and gender diversity in the lower ranks. However, while physical manifestations of diversity are indeed improving, I would argue diversity of thought has remained stagnant. A traditional neo-liberal economic world view holds sway in most medium to large sized organisations, and, coupled with views of Anglo-American exceptionalism, I would argue this has inhibited thought.
The same structural constraints have plagued the new champions of sustainability, who are quick to show off their green and social credentials, and advocate ‘sustainable consumption’ or ‘sustainable economic growth’, without pausing to contemplate how oxymoronic those terms are.
The time is nigh to incorporate new ways of thinking, particularly drawing on the diverse cultural perspective of the peoples that inhabit this United Kingdom. Who knew that the British encouraged the use of Islamic Law in the Indian Ocean from the late 18th Century until the early 20th Century?
A Way Forward
In order to develop sustainable communities where all citizens remain empowered, we require an honest appraisal of the shared history of these Isles and develop a genuine dialogue. Insidious racial stereotypes are perpetuated and maintained out of the unconscious biases we develop over an extended period of time. Such biases are both inter-ethnic and extend vertically from the dominant culture to sub-cultures.
In financial markets, one manifestation we have seen of this, is the inhibition of BAME entrepreneurship. Salonica is BAME led, and therefore we are cognisant of the biases faced by the community. Therefore, access to capital for BAME owned business is a topic we have been actively trying to address. It is rare to sit in on an investment committee meeting and see a person of Caribbean heritage in that position of power. The empowerment of BAME community in the UK via entrepreneurship and access to capital should be an easy fix but unfortunately has slipped down the government list of initiatives.
In a corporate environment, we can bridle unconscious biases through continual employee development programmes. In this vein, we will be working with firms on their sustainability strategies, specifically, historical awareness programmes, which focus on the interrelatedness of world civilisations and intellectual transfers.
Reverting to the inspiration behind this piece, BlackLivesMatter, and the issue I have with the multitude of large corporations now expressing solidarity for anti-racism movements. There is a serious concern of social washing and, for companies with track records of human rights abuses and support for war, I find difficult to trust that they truly believe that black lives matter.
We would all do well to heed the words of Tom Paxton, which became a protest song during the Vietnam War:
‘What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned our government must be strong!
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men!
And we elect them again and again,
I learned that war is not so bad.
I learned of the great ones we have had…
What did you learn at school today…?’