George Floyd’s tragic killing in the US at the hands of the very public service that was meant to protect him – and us – is another sad reminder of the evils of racism. I watched the graphic streaming of the killing with dismay and utter disgust.
Usually, I am very prompt to speak out and write after instances of discrimination and racism surface. But on this occasion, I was left startled and speechless. We often pride ourselves when we speak of our so-called ‘civilised world’. However, the callousness in the killing of George Floyd demonstrates that we do not live up to the standards of civilisation that our world claims to have.
Philosopher Rousseau said that man is born free but the social system enslaves people. This perspective has boundless resonance for the masses of oppressed people around the world, and particularly for the black community. When Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, few people could imagine that it was the beginning of a cycle of events that would turn the lives of many upside down through dispossession, slavery and open oppression. The ensuing social structures have since kept the ‘knee on the neck’ of a great multitude, causing them to be marginalised and taken into protracted servitude. The vicious killing of George Floyd and the issues of racial and social injustice and their repercussions for the black community and minorities more generally defy any human ethics.
It is easy to see these issues as an American syndrome, but the observer of British society does not require special lenses to see that these issues are also deeply rooted in our midst. The epidemic of racism, like the coronavirus pandemic, profoundly and severely rocks the daily and professional lives of millions of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in our British cities, towns and workplaces. Police brutality in the UK is not unheard of. For decades these problems have remained obfuscated and swept under the carpet. This has been so institutionalised that they are part of both the old normal and the new normal for minorities. The issue of racism has been perpetuated and is pervasive in our society. A key reason for this is that some tend to believe they can escape the law and are not bound by moral values when they persecute people of colour. Racism is therefore the driver of inequality, be it economic, social or health.
British businesses have a lot to learn from this tragic situation. Formulating equal opportunities and diversity policies does not suffice to render the workplace equal. Providing diversity training for employees is not touching the core of the problem of racism that we have in British companies. What is needed is vigorous actions to enact those policies and development initiatives. For example, it is important to use the statistical evidence that we have about the race imbalance at executive and senior management level in British companies. Action also goes through the use of our moral judgement to determine whether it is right to keep thousands of BAME employees at the lower ranks of the organisations because of their race. Companies must seize this opportunity to examine their organisational conscience and operate genuine change in how they deal with equality and opportunity or diversity. This is no longer a matter of the law or a question of the business case – the killing of George Floyd draws us back to a basic human ethical principle: fairness.
It is with dismay that I watched the tragic event. In 2017, I wrote on the issue of lip service paid to race and equality matters and this month marks the twentieth year I have been writing on the crucial issue of race inequality. My message and that of other campaigners can make some people uncomfortable in our organisations, but I and the millions who march the streets of the US, the UK and the world in search of justice for George Floyd and equality for all are not ashamed and will not tire until the ghosts and remnants of racism are cast out of our society. However, I hope that the next time I write about race and race relations in the US, the UK and around the world, it will be a more optimistic perspective.
A more humane workplace commands that we hear the cries of the black and minority workers who scream ‘I can’t breathe’ in the wilderness of our societies. For the sake of ethics, we ought to deliver minority workers some air filled with the oxygen of optimism so they can breathe their qualities, talent and human ingenuity in our social and organisational systems.
Dr Dieu Hack-Polay is associate professor at Lincoln International Business School