University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Young people need to learn more about the history of racism in the US and Britain

In the light of the worldwide anti-racists protests taking place across the world, two current UoP students, Lois Marriott and Becca Francis, argue passionately for the need to educate young people about the history of black people’s experience of racism.

We both chose to take units during our history degree that would help us understand issues on race and white privilege. This included “ Racism and Anti-Racism in Postwar Britain” taught by Dr. Jodi Burkett and “African American History and Culture” taught by Dr. Lee Sartain. We also learned about the history of slavery on the core units of our degree, as well as the impact of Imperialism. A combination of all these units gave us a good understanding of black history and a small insight on the oppression black people and other minorities have felt for centuries. This allowed us to understand our own white privilege and our country’s history of racism. The current protests on George Floyd’s murder are resonating with people across the world, including Britain. Many people do not understand why Britain is ‘getting involved’. There are two issues with this, firstly that a racist murder that has video evidence should cause anger across the world. Secondly, many people are pairing this argument with the claim British police shouldn’t be scrutinised, as it was American police who committed the crime. Racism is not a uniquely American problem. Racism can be seen across the globe and Britain is not exempt from this. Britain’s history with racism, particularly within the Empire, is not taught to students at school and this creates a large gap in many people’s knowledge on British racism. This is why so many people are not understanding why the American protests have resonated so much with the British.

The statue of Bristol slaver Edward Colston thrown into the river Avon yesterday.

The statue of Bristol slaver Edward Colston thrown into the river Avon yesterday.

Lois on Jodi Burkett’s unit:

Britain’s history with racism is both long and complicated. With that being said, it is not something taught in schools. This was what inspired us both to choose Jodi’s unit as it was a subject we both had limited knowledge on. This highlights a clear flaw in the UK’s curriculum. The new curriculum in England was released in 2014 and includes an option on ‘Migration to Britain.’ This unit also covers some history of the Empire too but only 4% of GCSE pupils take this unit.[1] Our own GCSE experience was just as limited as the only Black person I learned about on the whole GCSE course was Mary Seacole. Even her memory was placed in the shadow of Florence Nightingale and her significance massively played down which demonstrates the clear racism embedded in our education system.

Jodi’s unit highlighted the prejudices black people face everyday in the UK. We learned about the ‘criminalisation’ of black youths from the 1970s onwards. This is something still present in society today and by studying this at university it opened up our eyes to the injustices the black community faces on a daily basis. It highlighted to us that even fifty years later this was still a major issue. The racism faced by the black community in the UK does not stop here. Stephen Lawrence is seen as the personification of racial violence in the UK and I was completely unaware of it until I studied this unit.[2] Stephen Lawerence was murdered on 22nd of April 1993 in a racial motivated attack. The police ignored the racial motive, his friend’s eye witness account because of his ethnicity and many leads in connection with the case.[3] This led to the Macpherson enquiry into how the police handled the case in 1999 and the amendment of the Race Relations Act in 2000. It took campaigning from his family and nineteen years for his murders to be held accountable for their actions. This also demonstrated the institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police at the time. This is just one example of the racially motivated attacks we studied and just a handful of those that have been committed. The whitewashing of British history cannot continue and we must educate young people on black history. Beyond this, we must educate ourselves where school education has failed us. The society we live in today gives us knowledge at our fingertips through technology and google. I am lucky enough to have studied this at degree level however black history should not be limited to those who choose higher education.

Map of lynchings by states and counties in the United States, 1900-1931

Lynchings by states and counties in the United States, 1900-1931, data from Research Department, Tuskegee Institute, source: Library of Congress

Becca on Lee Sartain’s unit:

While I have briefly studied African American history and culture throughout GCSE and A-Level, studying the topic at degree level has allowed me to gain a greater understanding of African Americans’ struggles in the twentieth century. This topic has provided me with vital knowledge that has helped me understand the history behind years of racial discrimination, systemic racism and white privilege. Within this unit we gained an uncensored insight into the lives of African Americans through the twentieth century and the struggles they have always faced, even up until today. In the early 1900s, the NAACP “perceived police torture as an issue intertwined with lynching”.[4] It is clear that police violence is still an issue we are facing over one hundred years later and some may say that not much progress has been made. Similarly, during the anti-lynching campaign, the NAACP used images of lynchings to change the narrative and display the white mobs as the savage, and in turn humanize the victim.[5] They suggested it was the white mob who was the true threat to the American modern and democratic image. The NAACP’s message was that all white Americans are potential mob members when they do nothing.[6] This message resonates with us today with the current events. Whilst embarrassment evoked change regarding lynching, it appears history is repeating itself today. The uncensored history of African American society and culture is something that should be taught in schools and colleges, not just at degree level. It has been reported that the current situation is the biggest ever Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, learning the history behind how we got to this point is vital.

An issue of The Liberator depicting African Americans next to a lynching tree. The Liberator. Volume VII. 1837. Edited by William Lloyd Garrison. Published by Isaac Knapp, Cornhill, Boston, Massachusetts

An issue of The Liberator depicting African Americans next to a lynching tree. The Liberator. Volume VII. 1837.

News broke on 3rd June 2020 that the four police officers in connection with George Floyd’s murder had all been charged. This is a positive step. However, it is important to remember how many times this has not been the case. It is unfortunate that this was only the result due to growing international pressure, widespread outrage and media coverage. This is just one small step in a long battle that has been going on for over a century. It is a movement we must continue to support and fight for until racism is obsolete. Language used by leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have the power to influence the population. They both use their platform incorrectly – Trump, for example, called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’. It is clear that the recent events are only the beginning, and learning the history behind why the protests are happening today is very important. We both agree there has been a lot of important information that we did not know until degree level. A less censored version of our history is well overdue in schools.

[1]  Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire in Secondary Schools (published July 4, 2019)

[2] Jon Burnett, “After Lawrence: Racial Violence And Policing In The UK”, Race & Class 54, no. 1 (2012): 91.

[3] Jon Burnett, “After Lawrence: Racial Violence And Policing In The UK”, Race & Class 54, no. 1 (2012): 92.

[4] Thomas Welskopp, Alan Lessoff, Fractured Modernity: America Confronts Modern Times 1890s to 1940s, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2012), 14

[5] Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 84

[6] Jenny Woodley, Art for Equality: The NAACP’s Cultural Campaign for Civil Rights, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2014), 114

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