As Black Lives Matter protests surged after George Floyd's murder, the UK vowed to act. Three years on, it hasn't followed through
On 28 May 2020, a small group gathered outside the US embassy in London to protest against the murder of George Floyd days earlier. In the following week, thousands across the UK, and worldwide, would march in solidarity with Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Floyd's death was far from the first time a Black man had been openly killed by police in the US, but the way he was murdered made millions across the world stop, listen, and even act. In the UK, institutions, government bodies, companies, and organisations expressed solidarity with the protesters. From banks to restaurant chains, educational bodies to health organisations, the message was clear: 'We stand with you.'
For a brief moment, it felt that those in power had finally stopped talking over those daring to speak about racism and discrimination and started listening. 'Diversity,' 'inclusion,' and 'anti-racism' became buzzwords. Pledges were made and commitments given.
Three years on, what has changed?
Well, to start with, a government-commissioned report into racial inequalities on the back of the BLM protests was widely condemned and even rejected by the UN after it dismissed suggestions Britain was institutionally racist.
Not to be outdone, the Met Police also rejected claims it was institutionally racist following the Casey Review this year, which found it was. That review was commissioned following events such as the strip-searching of Child Q, a Black schoolgirl wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis, and the fatal shooting of Chris Kaba, which both took place in 2022.
The NHS also found itself under the microscope during conversations on racism and discrimination following Floyd's death, with the then-chief executive, Simon Stevens, writing that "the layered impacts of years of disadvantage and inequality" had been "brought into stark and urgent focus" by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Later that year, the NHS's annual Workforce Race Equality Standard report found white staff were nearly twice as likely to be shortlisted for internal opportunities as Black and minority ethnic (BME) staff. And BME staff were almost twice as likely to enter the formal disciplinary process than their white colleagues.
The health service pledged to do better, launching "the NHS Race and Health Observatory, a new independent centre to stimulate understanding and action".
But that 2022 report shows there has been only an incremental decrease in the number of BME staff reporting discrimination from colleagues and a slight decrease in the number of BME staff who believe the NHS provides equal opportunities for career progression.
The report did find a 3% increase in the number of BME staff who are board members - which could be an important first step to addressing the racial health inequalities raised since the protests. But this small rise is not enough to be celebrated, particularly since the same pages revealed 17% of BME staff have reported experiencing discrimination at work.
The failures to act are not only evident in the public sector. In the wake of the protests, corporate companies and retail giants were also quick to make promises, stating their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
But many companies in the UK still do not collect ethnicity and diversity data, making it hard to track progress or hold them to account. And as of last year, just 22% of the companies on the UK FTSE 100 publish the ethnic breakdown of their workforce, and only 9% disclose their ethnicity pay gap, according to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
English Heritage also pledged to commemorate the stories of Black Britons and those from ethnic minorities through plaques across London. As of 2023, only three plaques of notable Black figures have been erected in London since Floyd's murder.
The Natural History Museum also vowed to take action, by conducting a "naming review" to review collections that may cause offence to visitors. It told me this week that it had now developed principles to acknowledge the "full history" of its collections.
George Floyd's murder once seemed like it could be a turning point. It brought an urgency, even desperation, to conversations that had been had many times before in countries with significant Black populations. It felt like change could be coming.
While it would be foolish to believe that institutional racism could be solved in three years, it is enough time to see if institutions are willing to put in the work, have uncomfortable conversations, and enact thorough and far-reaching policies. It seems most haven't.
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