Anoosh Chakelian: We’re delighted to be joined by Gary Younge, who’s written our cover story for this week’s New Statesman, headlined “We Can’t Breathe”, which looks at Covid-19 deaths in the UK and also the police brutality playing out in the US, to analyse how systemic racism is killing black people.
Gary, I understand you were working on this piece looking at coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on black people, and as you were working on the piece, the events started unfolding in the US, is that right?
Gary Younge: Yes, I mean, it mutated, as viruses tend to, I guess, so it started off looking really more specifically at the inequalities in Britain, the racial inequalities of infection and death in Britain, and I had for that anyway kind of topped and tailed it with my experiences in New Orleans, covering Katrina, because that seemed like the kind of best description, the best analogy, in terms of things you know which are suddenly no longer deniable; things that are washed up in a certain way, and that’s what it felt like with the Covid-19 deaths, in the way that just the anecdotal, impressionistic first kind of month or so, when they showed the pictures of who in the NHS had died, and you were like, “Well, hang on a minute, there’s something going on there”.
So yes, when I start writing the piece, it’s just about that, and then things take off in America and they’d been bubbling under for a while, but then they really took off, editorially kind of quite unhelpfully, just towards the piece going to bed, and then the decision was made, which I wasn’t sure about, but it was the right decision, that we want to incorporate some of what’s going on in America in this story. And I wasn’t sure because I didn’t think it was something to tack on and the racial landscapes are very different here and there, but if you’re talking about systemic racism and you have a piece that is mostly about Britain but is topped and tailed by what you saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, then there is a definite logic, and actually it clearly was the right thing to do.
Stephen Bush: I find it really interesting that you say that, partly because, having read both the first version and the second one, when I similarly heard that you were going to be asked to make changes to it, I completely understood why, because it would obviously, for all the reasons you say, look slightly dotty for it not to be in there, but I kind of thought, “How is that going to work?” and I think it’s astonishing how much even having read both of them, I can’t see the joins. It’s a really elegant and brilliant bit of work. But the thing I found interesting about what you just said there was about what you see as the differences, obviously as someone who’s covered politics and society here, who’s lived and covered politics and society in the US, and there is obviously a raging debate about how similar and different they are. So what do you see as the kind of big points of difference?
Gary Younge: Well, first of all, America in general is more lethal: it’s a more lethal country. It has guns, the police have guns, they execute people, and that is a key difference. So everything about America, its domestic violence, its racial violence, its homophobia, it’s all more violent, or it’s all more deadly. More deadly. Actually, my experience of growing up in a new town in Britain in the 80s is that actually I kind of think Britain is a more violent country, more socially violent country: people get drunk, they take a swing, people can be quite aggressive in that way, but it’s just less deadly. Most people haven’t got guns.
So everything in America is more lethal: that means the racism is more lethal. That’s one key difference. America has a significant middle class and we don’t. I do think we have a small, burgeoning black middle class here, although it’s very porous, there’s lots of intermarriage and all that kind of stuff, so it’s still not anything like on the scale you would see in Atlanta or Charlotte or Houston, so that is a significant difference. We are a smaller number of a smaller number, so we’re what, 4%, 5% of 70 million, say, as opposed to 10%,11% of a lot more, so there is critical mass in America for large numbers of things. And then, we in numbers are more recent in Britain, in significant numbers. Not that recent, but still more recent, whereas black America, after the Native Americans and a few pilgrims, they were among the first Americans, and so they have more institutions that have been going on for much longer, and are kind of embedded in society in a way that we really don’t.
My wife is African American, and I remember her, when she first came to Britain in 1998 for a few years before we went to the States, and it was just around the MacPherson Report, and she said, “Yeah, when I was growing up in America, all the firsts had already been taken,” she said, “There had even been a black woman in space,” whereas she felt that my generation and those a little bit older – I’m 51 – were still being kind of bloodied as the first to do certain things, to have a column, or to do this, or to do that. So there’s that, too.
And then finally, actually, and quite importantly, America is a more formally segregated country, and that’s because all of America’s racial travails happened in America. The slavery, the Jim Crow, the segregation, all of that, and it’s all been worked through. It’s only, what, 55 years since America became a non-racial democracy, whereas Britain, like the rest of Europe, exported most of its formal racism to the colonies, and therefore doesn’t have as much formal segregation here: we have more social housing and things like that, which keep people mixed, and that also means that whatever education would take place with decolonisation, with anti-racism, and all of that, also took place elsewhere, which means that in many ways, I find many European nations much more ignorant than white Americans about their racial history, because no American is going to deny there was segregation, but Brits will deny that Britain had anything to do with kind of segregation and our knowledge of colony and empire is pretty kind of lame, really.
Anoosh Chakelian: That’s so interesting, because I do think that you can tell that there’s a squeamishness in Britain about racism being an explanation for certain social patterns – for example, the Covid-19 deaths, I reported on them a while back, before the review was announced, and there were lots of explanations flying around, almost being touted as a way to try and suggest that racism or inequality wasn’t part of it: the vitamin D theory, for example – I know that’s still a theory that’s being studied – was being talked up by certain scientists, and it did feel like a bit of a squeamishness there…
Gary Younge: Yes, I think that Britain is actually more advanced than most of the rest of Europe, and really, really backward, still really backward, which tells you how bad things are elsewhere, at acknowledging that race has a role. It’s kind of Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t mention the War”; people just don’t want to talk about it. “I don’t think of you as black,” you know, all of that kind of, there almost isn’t the kind of language for it, or certainly the political language, whereas in America, notwithstanding this moment we’re in, and you look at something like Trump – someone like Trump – something like his phenomenon, and you can see that this has not been fully processed, and in many ways, this is the kind of last hurrah of a significant section of the white community, as a kind of backlash to what civil rights means, which is that black people have a say.
But of a morning, in America, if you say to someone, “Can you direct me to the nearest black Baptist church?” they’re going to tell you where it is: they’re not going to think that’s weird. There is a kind of open acknowledgement of race as a factor, whereas Britain, notwithstanding the MacPherson Report, and certain kind of moments at which things force their way through, Britain is much more in denial. And so you get this weird thing in moments like this where you have kind of countries where – because there have been demonstrations all over Europe – I mean, some of these places, you think, “There have been other opportunities for you to come out and demonstrate against racism in your country and it hasn’t happened, there have been occasions of people who have been killed or injured or in some way done wrong, and it hasn’t happened,” and it’s always easier to export anti-racism than it is to employ it.
Stephen Bush: One of the things which I was really struck by, reading the piece, because it was one of those observations that I just went, “Oh, well, of course,” but it just hadn’t occurred to me until I saw it written down, was you talk about, “Well, look, there’s an obvious reason why the genetic explanation does not fit here, which is that British Indians are not dying at the same rate as other people from the Indian subcontinent, who they obviously do share a genetic heritage with, so this is clearly about infections of power”. You also talked earlier about how the middle class in Britain is more porous. In a sense, while if you’re black and middle class, you are still black and middle class, you don’t join a separate black middle class, you just join the British middle class. Obviously there are loads and loads of British Indians who are working class, but do you think that one of the stories of that death rate is a kind of cultural perception in the United Kingdom that Indians are middle class or ‘respectable’?
Gary Younge: I don’t think so. The stats seem to suggest that Indians do better, that they really do – I think they might even vote at a higher rate than white people, but they certainly in employment and income, wealth, they are towards, and in some cases I think above, white people, whereas Pakistanis and particularly Bangladeshis are right at the bottom and do worse than Caribbean people. And I think that’s just the patterns of migration and where people come from and why, which doesn’t mean- In the same way, I thought it was quite important to include in the story the fact that actually Jews are dying at a higher rate, too, and that’s a religion, not a race, and there are different explanations for that, but the fact that there is a preponderance of higher incomes and higher wealth among Indians, like you said, there will still be many poor ones, just in the same was as there’s lots of white working-class people.
And then you have the fact that, particularly, I think, Pakistanis have been concentrated in certain jobs, and here I’m thinking of taxi driving, which is where you could get a high viral load, and public transport, too – I mean, both Sadiq Khan and Sajid Javid both had dads who were bus drivers – and I think that’s a big bit of the story that has yet to be kind of worked through, the kind of concentration of people in certain occupations: security guards, taxi drivers, public transport, and then of course NHS.
Anoosh Chakelian: Yes, and actually in the piece, you mention the “futile attempts” of the Left to try and “engage race and class separately”, and I really wanted to ask you about this, because you go on in the next paragraph to talk about the tendency of “relegating race, gender, sexual orientation to mere identity politics”. How do think this has played out for the Left? Do you think that it’s moving away from that “identity politics” focus, or do you think it’s still letting it hamper its analysis?
Gary Younge: I mean, we’re still in the middle of it, and so it’s difficult to say, and I feel like it’s in play, really. It is a constant sense of frustration to me, the way people on the Left throw around the term identity politics, and I often have to stop them and say, “What do you mean? What are you talking about?” and often, the way that they describe it, identity politics could include the suffragettes and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, it could include a whole lot of people who employ their identity in politics, because of course we all do. You don’t come to politics without your identity. And I think what this moment has brought out, which then is the thing that those who would agree with me have to kind of hammer home, is this is very good example of how being black isn’t just about how you feel or what music you listen to, it’s not irrelevant to how you experience the world, and how your politics is shaped. Actually, being black makes you more likely to die, right now.
What this virus has exposed is the degree to which people with different ethnicities are more vulnerable. Now, that doesn’t undermine any other solidarities that you might have, including class, but it does inform them. And so there is this notion that you need to leave all that crap at the door, we’re only going to talk about class, we’re only going to talk about material things: well, death is a material thing, and deprivation is a material thing, and you’re more likely to experience it if you come from these ethnic groups. So it’s not some kind of frilly frippery around which one might wrap a class analysis: it’s central to any understanding of how people come to politics.
And the point that I was trying, to some extent, to kind of ally with is like, “Guess what? the thing that would save most lives for black people is test and trace and PPE”. We’re not calling for this virus, that the vaccine be called the Mandela Vaccine: that’s not what we are doing here. We are calling for the things that everybody needs, but we need them more than everybody else, because we’re suffering more than everybody else.
Stephen Bush: This is kind of only cursorily related to some of the points in the piece, but it’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot, having read it and obviously in the context of this week: one of the British political stories I have never quite understood is how it vanished without trace that Andrew Mitchell, then the Conservative chief whip, had to resign because he was said to have called the police plebs, and then it essentially emerged that he almost certainly had not, and at the very least, the evidence suggesting he had had been manufactured, and it kind of completely failed to register in the kind of public mind, whereas with these protests, you see that – I don’t want to say all or most, because I don’t – I feel like a lot of black people, we see something like the death of Rashan Charles and we think, “Oh, that could happen to me”. Now, there is literally no reason for a white person not to have looked at what happened to Andrew Mitchell and have gone, “That could have happened to me,” but that clearly hasn’t happened. In many ways, you can come up with a much stronger argument that some of the deaths in police custody you could look at, as an ordinary black British person, and go, “That couldn’t happen to me”. Why do you think it is that, within the United Kingdom, the kind of cultural reaction to police over-reach is so different in those two communities?
Gary Younge: I think that … first of all, I don’t think it always has been. I think that some white British communities have very troubled relationships with the police or, and I’m going to use the word advisedly, the state, if you’re thinking of Northern Ireland, and certain working-class communities, I think, certain estates, things like that, can have really difficult relationships with the police. But these things land in a narrative, don’t they, so that we have the 80s and the sus laws, and the fact that I was raised to not fully trust the police – to not trust the police, not even fully: to not trust the police. I wouldn’t tell my kids, “If you’re in trouble, go and ask a policeman”. And that kind of transferred quite effortlessly to when I went to America. And it’s not that I don’t think there are good individual policemen; it’s that by the time I’ve found out whether they’re good or not, it might be too late.
And so, one goes from, “Well, that could happen to me, but it probably won’t,” to kind of “That’s happening, that’s the kind of story that you’re raised with and that therefore the context has already been provided”. And to that extent, it speaks to broader dysfunctions and broader disparities that may not be so obvious or so relevant, so quick to make the connection.
I’ll give you an example, and this, by the by, happened on the weekend of the Megan Markle wedding, and I say that because people kept annoying me by saying, “This is going to be so wonderful for Britain,” and I was like, “Why?” I’m in Sainsbury’s with my daughter, I’m buying my stuff, I’m packing my stuff, I’m taking the average amount of time to kind of get my stuff, pack my stuff, I’m not doing anything weird, and this man behind me starts grumbling, and telling me … this behind me, he’s grumbling, and he’s going, “You should be quicker,” and I said, “Have you got a problem?” and he said, “Well, I just think you’re taking a very-” and I said, “I’m taking the amount of time it takes to pack my bags: you’d better back off,” and then he said something else, and I said, “You really are just going to have to leave me alone now,” and he says, “Listen, boy, something something”. Now, in my world, you can’t call a black man “boy”. You can’t. Now, that’s kind of – I’m not going to say triggering, because I’m not of that generation, but that took it to a whole new level. Now, he might have just been saying “lad” – he might have, in his mind. But it was too late and it was too bad, and, you know, there was an incident, let’s say, and then I had to explain to my daughter why there was an incident. It wasn’t a physical incident, but the security guards came over and dealt with him, not me.
So these things, they land in a certain place, and ever since – actually, that’s not quite true: not ever since, but for the longest time that there have been significant numbers of black people in Britain, the issue of how they are policed and controlled, and the notion of their being a threat to law and order and safety, has been an issue. And so, when you see the police do something like that, it lands in a certain way that it wouldn’t if you’re white, I think.
Anoosh Chakelian: You’ve mentioned it in this podcast, and also in your piece, the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, where the police were found to be institutionally racist, so we’re over ten years past that now, and yet you’re still telling us about these stories, and then in your piece about what the situation for minorities remains like now. Yet still these Covid-19 deaths in the UK could possibly be another Macpherson moment if that opportunity is taken, as you write about in your piece. So how important is that, especially considering the fact that we still have these problems remaining over a decade later?
Gary Younge: Well, I think it’s very important, and I think that a decade isn’t that long in the history of racism, so I think it’s very important, because it’s an opportunity. And it’s an opportunity to reframe – I mean, an awful lot of ground that was gained with MacPherson was lost or dispersed – sold, even, maybe – but a lot of it stayed, an awful lot of it stayed and created a sort of significant shift in how these things are understood, how we are understood, how the country understands itself. And there’s no gainsaying what the enquiry would come up with, but in the same way that MacPherson gave us the tools to understand institutional racism, to understand racism as not just being the kids that killed Stephen Lawrence, but also the system that failed in apprehending and prosecuting them, that we can kind of move from just “Isn’t that sad all those people died?” to, “This is how racism works”. And you know what? I’m not sure. I would be really interested to know how often in the stories of those medical staff that die, if you looked at their shift pattern, how it compared to other people’s shift patterns. I would be interested to know how often those people asked for PPE and what the response was. I’d be really interested to know why I think particularly Caribbean and African men are so likely to end up as security guards. And so some of it would demand a kind of qualitative, almost narrative, analysis of how we got to a place where we were concentrated in areas where these things can happen.
I think that would do us a great service as a country, and of course where people are accountable, that would be important, but in far less a fashion than the MacPherson Report: you would be looking less at individuals than systems, unless there’s one hell of a shift organiser who’s always putting black people on terrible shifts – which I doubt: it could be, but I doubt! Then you’re kind of looking at something that needn’t be understood by anybody as a witch-hunt, not that the MacPherson Report was, but kind of there were clear targets in sight. I don’t know that there is a clear individual target at sight in this, which actually kind of liberates it from quite a lot of anomie, really, potentially.
Stephen Bush: One of the things you talk about in the report is how you see the government trying to shape the story in terms of why the death rate is what it is, in terms of obesity, patterns of living, to turn it into a kind of unfortunate aggregation of individual responses, as opposed to a kind of unfortunate aggregate of systemic ones. How do you think that can be resisted?
Gary Younge: Well, I think that is in play. I mean, it was interesting, the degree to which this report when it came out was greeted with a certain level of cynicism, which was partly because they delayed it because they didn’t want to upset people in a tense racial moment, according to Sky, which is a peculiar notion, but also I think because – and this is why these things, race, they don’t exist in a bubble – people don’t trust government right now. The Cummings thing, the large number of deaths, this kind of broad sort of miasma of kind of incompetence, means that when their inclusion of Trevor Phillips in the beginning, which lots of people said it doesn’t have the credibility because of the things he said about Muslims, in a range of ways, they’d forfeited the credibility before the report came out, and then the report came out and it didn’t really say that much, and to the degree to which it does say anything, it says, “Well, adjusting for deprivation, this, this and this,” and it’s like, “OK, but let’s not forget the deprivation bit, can we come back to that?”
All of which is to say that it’s at the mercy of a range of factors, some of which have nothing to do with race and Covid, actually, and I think that there is a significant section, certainly of the polity, possibly of the population, that would like this to kind of go away and, in a classy way, almost blame black people for their own deaths and to sort of say, “Well, here’s what we need: we need more healthy eating in black communities, and gyms, we will fund local council gyms and do outreach to Bangladeshi families,” and all of that kind of stuff, “and to diversify advertising for cycling and walking and stuff like that,” and you think, “OK, fine, fine, fine,” and, you know, that’ll be fine, we could all be healthier, and they would like nothing more than to do that.
And the struggle will be to keep on making it very clear that that is not what we’re after, that we are after something bigger and broader and to frame, which was the kind of effort of the piece, really, was to say, “Look, why don’t we try and understand it like this: this seems like the most rational way to understand it, and if you want to talk about Vitamin D, you can talk about Vitamin D; if you want to talk about obesity, you can talk about all of those, but even as you do talk about all of those, this is a far more plausible explanation for how we got here, so I wouldn’t want you to be running off on that track too far, because you’re always going to have to come back to here”. And that is down to us, as journalists, as intellectuals, as people in the ideas industry, to make sure that we don’t let them get away with that.