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Uncommon Decency

Jun 28, 2023

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Romans, I seem to see "the Tiber foaming with blood". That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror across the Atlantic but which is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.”

That was Enoch Powell, the Tory MP who delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood" speech on April 20th 1968. On the same day that Powell offered his apocalyptic vision of a Britain that opened its doors to immigrants, the FBI added James Earl Ray to its list of ten most wanted fugitives. Why? Two weeks prior, James Earl Ray had assassinated Dr. King in Memphis. On his death’s eve, Dr. King had given a speech posthumously referred to as the “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Addressing the crowd, Dr. King said: “In the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

For Dr. King the progress of colored persons was vital to human progress. For Powell, it was the end. Dr. King’s influence has far exceeded that of Powell’s, and the world is better off for it, but in the UK we don’t learn about the debate over the Race Relations Act. We don’t learn about Powell being sacked by Ted Heath from the shadow cabinet because of his speech. We don’t learn about Paul Stephenson and the bus boycott in Bristol, but we do learn about the bus boycott in Birmingham Alabama.

 As in other areas of public life, the UK takes its lead on race relations and the study of civil rights, from the US. This was exemplified in June 2020, when in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, people across Britain and the world took to the streets to protest racism. In London, protesters marched in Parliament Square, and in Bristol, they pulled down the statue of Edward Colston and tossed it into the river, mirroring similar actions in the US where confederate statues had been toppled. This spurred a series of debates and actions across the UK about racism in Britain.

For one of our guests, this is exactly the problem. Tomiwa Owolade is a writer and critic whose latest book, This Is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter (2023) argues that we should consider race from a British perspective, not an American one. Our second guest is Dr. Remi Adekoya, a lecturer at York University and author of two books, Biracial Britain (2021), and It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth (2023).

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