On the 1st of July 2015, I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons and in that speech, I said that I grew up in the 1960s and it was a decade that formed me. One of those influences was the Civil Rights Movement. As a child I knew the stories of Rosa Parks and James Meredith. I heard Martin Luther King and Malcolm X rage against the injustices being perpetrated on black Americans. It was one of the highlights of my first term as an MP when I had the privilege of meeting the Reverend Jessie Jackson. To have the opportunity to meet a man who was at the heart of the civil rights movement was something I never thought I would have the opportunity to do. In my maiden speech I said, “I watched the American civil rights movement, massive and dignified, march across America, and, through peaceful protest and civil engagement, change the psyche of a nation.” How wrong was I? Here we are in 2020 and it would appear that little has changed. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer is just the latest outrage. For many it has proven to be the final straw and they have taken to the streets to protest. Their protests have, in most cases, been violently opposed by law enforcement agencies. The slogan ‘black lives matter’ is not new. It has been widely used as a hashtag on social media since 2013. The movement opposes racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality. It was created after George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges following the shooting of Trayvon Martin. After Trayvon, Michael Brown was killed in St Louis and then Eric Gardner was killed in New York City. After each killing there is public outrage and an outpouring of anger, hatred, love and understanding. But nothing changes. Many will take part in protests because they enjoy a protest and looting from shops while destroying public property sends out all the wrong messages if we are seeking to right a wrong. But we must not be distracted from the underlying injustice and the continued persecution of black people in America. It is a cancer in American society. And of course, it isn’t just America that is blighted by racial discrimination. We like to think that in Scotland we are an open welcoming society. We like to think that we are free from the crimes of our forefathers. The wealth that poured into Inverclyde from sugar was tinged with the blood of slaves. Many local street names are attributed to people who owned slaves. But that’s the past. Unfortunately, the present doesn’t make good reading.
Despite higher levels of educational attainment among ethnic groups there are lower employment rates and under-representation in Modern Apprenticeships. With a lower rate of benefit take-up, ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of poverty, twice the risk of white individuals. And our attitudes doesn’t reflect the mantra that we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns. 22% of people living in Scotland feel that there is sometimes a good reason to be prejudiced. 35% of people believing that Scotland would begin to lose its identity if more Black and Asian people came to live in Scotland. 38% believing the same about Easter European migration. It should not come as a surprise to hear that racial hate crime is consistently the most reported hate crime in Scotland.
Rage against the very graphic injustices we are seeing in the USA. Solidarity should never be undervalued and the public and politicians alike must raise our voices to condemn the violent subjugation of black Americans, but it must not end there. I quoted Burns earlier and shall do so again.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Burns wrote that in 1795 when the slave trade was still legal in Scotland. We have made progress in the intervening 225 years but as the facts show, we have a long way still to travel. As we raise our voices in condemnation of police brutality and we support the spirit of ‘black lives matter’ we must also turn a critical eye on our society and ask what can we do here to make sure that what we are witnessing in the USA never happens here.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Member of Parliament for Inverclyde