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Not That Long Ago

Sheffield awaits Race Equality Commission recommendations

Let us remember that we have been here before – inquiries, reports, campaigns. 'Tackling racism' requires more than short-lived efforts, says experienced educator and writer Calm Waters.

Sheffield skyline from tall building Upperthorpe
Gary Butterfield

Sheffield is a city that prides itself on its progressive socialist past, on being a City of Sanctuary to refugees, on its ability to attract international artists like Abdullah Ibrahim, Toni Morrison and many others. And yet the history of the Black presence here remains poorly understood by too many people, including decision makers.

Would it surprise you to learn Sheffield Archives tell us that the Black presence in the area goes back to at least 1725, when Thomas Pompey of Guinea was baptised at All Hallows Church in Harthill?

As I write these words Sheffield is bracing itself for the recommendations of its Race Equality Commission into how the city should tackle systemic racism. Over the last year the commission has taken evidence on "the nature, extent, causes and impacts of racism and race inequality within the city." Recommendations will be made around six key themes: business and employment, civic life and communities, crime and justice, education, health, and sport and culture.

For many of us this exercise feels old. We have had national inquiries, local reports and campaigns of varying sizes, all aimed at tackling racism. And yet we put our backs to the wheel. None of us has the luxury of despair, but Sheffield Archives tell us we have been doing this since at least 1953, when the Sheffield Coloured People’s Association was formed.

I remember sitting in meetings in the 1980’s listening to Black Sheffielders critique mental health services, maternity services, the disproportionate labelling of black children in school and how it leads to early criminalisation. These observations have been echoed across decades, backed by yet more data, only now with many of the city leaders from that time long gone.

A cursory look at contemporary history reveals that a pattern has been established. A series of terrible racial injustices occur. Central government responds with a programme here, an initiative there, careful legislation that works to contain rather than expand protections against racism. We can see this even now with regards to the right to protest, and how the 'hostile environment' for refugees and asylum seekers has been created since 2014.

The next stage sees councils being allotted a pot of money to disburse to local groups set up to compete against one another. A few Black and Asian people are hired by publicly-funded institutions noted for their whiteness. They are not tokens, but usually highly-qualified people from elsewhere. They are often trying to work within a system that is at best ambivalent about their presence. They are trying to find allies, trying to innovate, trying to bring more marginalised people on board. But these firsts, onlys or one-of-a-fews are often shunned. Bruised by it all, they often leave.

Black people, Asian people, Travellers – these groups are no more unified than white people. Black people, in Britain and in Sheffield, are incredibly diverse. Mistrust of one another can come from through social class, nation, religion, even ancient family feuds spanning generations and continents. Empire divided people who often had similar interests. Looking to engage these groups requires an honest assessment of how belonging and betrayal has affected us.

Outside of Black communities there are those who would have us all celebrate Britain’s imperial past. But you cannot do that while ignoring the many legacies of colonialism.

Sheffield’s modern, post-war Black communities emerged from British colonies. At that time, we were not immigrants. We were British. We put on uniforms, carried arms and fought to protect democracy, twice within living memory.

It is important to remember that well before Windrush, when individuals travelled from the British West Indies or Anglophone Africa to the UK it was the equivalent of going from one parish to another. Una Marson, the first Black woman BBC broadcaster, was not an immigrant; she was a British subject, a citizen entitled to live in the UK.

So when elders talk about Britain as the 'mother country', they are not dementing; they are remembering. To dismiss the sense of belonging that had been nurtured during colonialism and which was active in many parts of the British empire is to underestimate the power of generations of propaganda. And we wouldn’t want to do that, now would we?

We were not immigrants; we were British, and the mother country asked us to come in our hundreds, in our thousands to the war-battered imperial centre. We came. We helped to re-build Britain, we helped to build the NHS, worked in transportation and manufacturing, steel works. We did jobs that others did not want or were too infirm to do.

Soon though, we learned that there was a counter-narrative. While the government was inviting us to work, it was also setting up a colour bar around what kind of work we were allowed to do. And that same government did little to remind racists and fascists of our Britishness.

Housing too was hard to come by. We were obviously not supposed to have children, and indeed many were left behind in the Caribbean, only to join their families later. When children did arrive, disproportionate numbers of these were declared educationally sub-normal (ESN). Not long after they were disproportionately labelled as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). Throughout the decades and to this day too many have been subjected to various kinds of school exclusion.

You could be forgiven for believing that we are failing. That is not true, but the media, with its emphasis on sensationalist crime, deviance and difference, has us all believing the worst of Black communities. In whose interest does this racist narrative operate?

So, as we wait for the recommendations of the Sheffield Race Equality Commission, let us remember that we have been here before.

Doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is a kind of sickness. Therefore, look with an unjaundiced eye for what is new about this report. How does it distinguish itself from other reports, inquiries and initiatives?

Ask yourself: a decade from now, will we still need to re-discover Thomas Pompey?

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