The Lammy Review – Brief Reflection on Inequalities
A very long time ago, I was born in Jamaica to parents of African heritage, and I have lived in Britain since the age of 15 years old. I am therefore aware of the many challenges encountered by people of my ethnicity and culture in this society. Some of these challenges have been laid before us, again, in the recent Lammy Review into the treatment of, and outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system. The report highlights the disproportionate treatment and representation of BME people in a Justice System that appears not to be just for all.
For example, while BMEs make up 14% of the England and Wales population, they make up 25% of the prison population; and of young people in custody, 40% are BMEs. African and Caribbean people make up 3% of the England and Wales population but were 12% of the adult prison population in 2015/16; and are 20% of children in custody; twice as likely to live in poverty, African Caribbean children are also more than twice as likely to grow up in a one parent family than white children. African and Caribbean heritage children are more likely to be excluded from school, stopped and searched, and to be arrested by the police. The report states that at a time when overall youth offending is falling, BME youth offending is rising. Its stark conclusion is that ‘unless we see fundamental reform, these young people will become the next generation of adult offenders stuck in a cycle of crime, unemployment and welfare’, and may I add, blighted lives.
For me, one of the most sobering aspects of the Lammy Review is the international nature of the challenges it highlights from six countries and twelve cities. For example, in the US 1 in 35 African American men are incarcerated compared to 1 in 214 white men. In Canada, Indigenous people are 3% of the population, yet 25% of the prison population. The Australian Aboriginal population is 2%, yet is 27% of the prison population. In New Zealand, Maoris are 15% of the population and 50% of the prison population. There appears to be a recurring theme of an over-criminalised, over-imprisoned minority in these countries, as in our own.
American philosopher and social critic Noam Chomsky makes a startling claim in a video clip I saw recently. He describes the US as a deeply racist society in which from the very beginning African Americans have been exploited as free or cheap labour. Chomsky asserts that although constitutional amendments after the American Civil war were supposed to free African Americans, in effect the north/south compact granted the former slave owning states the right to do what they wanted; and what they did was to criminalise black lives. By incarcerating African American men, these states turned them into a perfect labour force, high on profit, low on maintenance; much better than slavery. Chomsky argues that even the so-called ‘war on drugs’ in the US is a racist construct designed to make it impossible for African Americans and Hispanics on a whole, barring an elite handful, to become part of mainstream society. For Chomsky, the election of President Trump appears to have been a quasi civil war won by the Red States of the old confederacy that will perpetuate the criminalisation and exploitation of African Americans and Hispanics.
In this country, the Lammy Review having surveyed the British Criminal Justice System suggests some ways forward, thirty-five of them! It calls for fundamental reform to include building BME’s trust in the system by eliminating bias, and engendering greater transparency and diversity. It can be argued, however, that the challenges we face are more profound than the report’s remedies suggest and require treatment of the causes of inequality not the symptoms. To change the prevailing unequal paradigm, the roots of contemporary inequalities based on race must be confronted and defeated because these matters are not superficial, they are structural. One source says, ‘society is structured in a way that excludes substantial numbers of people from minority backgrounds from taking part in social institutions.’
According to the Jewish Bible, thousands of years ago God sent Moses to the Pharaoh in Egypt saying, ‘Let my people go’. I suggest that a similar prophetic call needs to be made today. Back then, not everyone welcomed Moses, certainly not the Pharaoh; but neither did some enslaved Jews who benefited from the iniquitous slave system at the expense of their brothers and sisters. Today is no different. Nevertheless, the call to let God’s people go, must ring out loud and clear.
Throughout history, we see that liberation is achieved by grappling with foundational and causal issues. It is for good reason that we marked in 2007 the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade ACT, because it was that Act of Parliament that gave the trade its licence, its authority. Some point out that slavery continued the day after the Act was passed and for quite a while afterwards. I agree, but because the root had been pulled out of the legal ground the tree was destined to die. Today we have many anti-racism, anti-slavery and anti-human trafficking laws, yet injustices and inequalities based on race persist. As has been rightly said, no law can make one human love another – not even the law of God can do that. Laws are necessary, but laws are never enough.
As a society, Britain has shown a willingness to confront the roots of historic racism and the injustices and inequalities that follow from that ideology by passing anti-racism laws. Yet as the Lammy Review shows, the job has not been accomplished. The tree may be out the ground in the legal system but it is by no means dead and is clearly alive and well in the thinking of some. Lammy’s call for fundamental reform, building trust, transparency and diversity is well made and received. However, I believe we need something more, something transcendent, something transformational, something that addresses the human condition: heart, mind and soul. Jesus called this transcending thing ‘love’, and the writer to the church in Galatia says, ‘…the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Accepting that some among us may be unwilling, or find it impossible to love neighbour as self, those of us of like mind should set about modelling what it means to love. I offer two tips for starters.
First, loving ‘self’ demands self-awareness. The privileged and the underprivileged need to be self-aware. This calls for intentionality in questioning how we arrived where we are now. Who have been deprived for our benefit and who have benefited from our deprivation? Of what we know about ourselves what is based on truth and what on falsehood? In a video clip recently brought to light, the Late Martin Luther King pleaded with African Americans to ‘believe in yourself and believe you’re somebody’. He goes on to say, ‘somebody told a lie one day, they couched it in language that made everything black ugly and evil, degrading and low and sinister; but the word white means purity, beauty, high and heady’. Whose report have we believed about self-love or self-hate?
Second, loving the other can be hard, especially if you’ve been taught the other is not your equal, is sub-human even, or if the other has hurt you in the past or in the present, treated you less than. Jesus says: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13).
Brothers and sisters, it is as we actively grapple with what it means to love our true selves and truly love our neighbours that we will be compelled to enjoin the struggle against inequalities so prevalent in our society and the world. The late great Nelson Mandela leaves us this: ‘We humans, none of us is free until all of us are’.
Peace and love!
Note to self…my economic, political, social and spiritual liberation is first and foremost my responsibility!