I have been a safeguarding lead for fifteen years, the first ten of those in the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire. Leeds has a large Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population. The NHS Trust I worked for took diversity seriously and that was evidenced by the real diversity within our teams and at all levels within the organisation.
A few weeks ago, we watched the needless death of George Floyd, a black resident of Minnesota. A white police officer, hands in pockets, knelt on his neck and killed him. The sheer casualness of that act shocks. Mr. Floyd’s alleged crime was to have passed a suspected counterfeit twenty-dollar bill in a grocery shop. By anyone’s definition, a non-violent crime and one any of us could unwittingly commit. This incident and the world-wide outpouring of anger and protest has caused me to reflect on my professional experience and my white person’s perspective.
The disproportionate treatment of BAME people by the police is not unique to the US. In Britain since 1990 there has been 1500 deaths of individuals during, or immediately after, police custody, 500 of those were from BAME backgrounds. The BAME population of the UK is 14%. The ‘Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody in the UK’ (2017) noted that until 2015 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) which investigates deaths in custody didn’t have anything relating to ethnicity within its terms of reference for investigations.
The Care Act 2014 which provides the legal framework for adult safeguarding in the UK includes discrimination within its comprehensive list of categories of abuse. It is there with equal billing to physical abuse, sexual abuse, modern slavery et al. But in all my years of chairing safeguarding strategy meetings, attending safeguarding boards, leading investigations and implementing safeguarding plans and advising organisations I have never encountered a safeguarding alert about racial discrimination.
I accept that is purely anecdotal based on my experience. Whistleblowing procedures, like safeguarding, are supposed to be one of the means of addressing this problem but how many times have you heard about “disgruntled employees …playing the race card”? There is of course material and training on diversity and awareness that must thread through everything we do in health, social care, the police and education but it does not really address the elephant in the room: That racism, usually in the form of an unconscious bias, still infects structures and institutions within our societies. We need more than just awareness training to deal with that, we need better ways to take action.
In the immediate aftermath of the big stories of harm and injustice in recent years; Winterborne View, the Rotherham child sexual exploitation ring as just two examples, I and anyone else involved in safeguarding found our inboxes crammed with new directives calling us to act. The national and organisational responses to the abhorrent acts revealed in those stories did not just change safeguarding practice significantly, they changed the country’s culture as to how we go about listening to victims.
But as I write this in the midst of the Black Lives Matter outcry following the deaths at police hands of George Floyd and now Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, I am not receiving any fresh guidance about what I should do in my line of work. It’s in the news but it is not on the safeguarding agenda in the same way that Winterborne or Rotherham stopped us in our tracks.
In the wake of the recent protests, the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a commission on racial injustice. He spoke of people having “…a sense of victimisation and discrimination”. He was trying to show empathy, but that phrase told me quite clearly that he thinks the fear and pain people feel isn’t real, that it is only a perception. His is a minimising statement it is that unconscious bias again. This points at the core of the problem. The majority in our society (including me) do not know what the real experience of racism feels like. It doesn’t affect us so we avoid the issue. It is not a matter of choice though; unless we own it we can’t address it. It is not sufficient to passively not be racist we need to be anti-racist.
This is a complex and deep-seated problem and we at Psychiatry-UK can’t change the world ourselves, but we can influence it in our work and everyday lives. We can start by owning it.