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MLK: In his day-n-this day in 2021. #BlackedAsiaWithLove

In his day, they called Martin Luther King a thug. They said that he was disturbing the peace. They accused him of sedition, and jailed him on any charge they could find. The got him on any perceivable and inconceivable traffic violation. Mostly, the only charges they could find were loitering or disobeying a police order – do what I say, niggra! They convicted him to a 4-month sentence for a sit-in. They fined him and anyone in the movement for anything. You can’t imagine the trial/fiasco around his arrest for leading a bus boycott. 

Sending his kids to school, peacefully.

Attending a comrade’s trial, peacefully. Loitering, peacefully. Sitting-in, peacefully. Driving, peacefully. Marching, peacefully. Preaching in the pulpit about the Prince of Peace, peacefully. Harassed, taunted, goaded, surveilled, bullied, bashed, arrested, convicted, abused by the police and their brethren among politicos – violently. Dear reader, please don’t find me pedantic by pointing out that this all sounds like 2020.

Here’s Dr. King’s full arrest record. He never once incited riots, yet they called him a thug. He never once missed an opportunity to call for calm, yet they said he was a looter. They made him a repeat offender, notoriously flaunting the law. Who was notoriously flaunting the law? The same sorts of folks who flaunted the law on January 6, 2021!

MLK grew up in the tradition of Black Liberation Theology, radically different from the individualist salvation and racism preached in white churches. King began to address this in a letter to white clergy, he wrote from a jail cell in bloody Birmingham. The pen is indeed mightier than the…cowardice of mobs and bombs.

Follow the drinking gourd

Dr. King understood that resistance is in our blood as strongly as the will to survive. Even with all of the stories I’ve heard from my elders, I still can’t imagine what it was like, even for my grandparents growing up picking cotton deep in the Jim Crow south. Yet, they resisted. And while I am sure that they feared white people their whole lives, they refused to study hate on them. Growing up, my grandparents had few choices in how they dealt with their white masters. Yet, they resisted hate. The roots of non-violence runs deep in our culture.

The roots of non-violent protest runs deep in American culture, but particularly so in terms of righting the legacy of our nation’s original sin: Slavery. In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in the white section of a street car in New Orleans. Four years later, the US Supreme Court upheld states’ right to segregate by race. This solidified Jim Crow at the highest court, and gave way to a host of racial segregation laws, policies and everyday practices that means virtually every aspect of life was unequal. This is the world into which Dr. King was born. 

Culminating nearly a century after the Civil War the Civil Rights Movement worked to address the legacy of Slavery. It took that long, so dear reader, please do imagine a century of Jim Crow. Emancipation, then that. 

Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and plenty, plenty others in their crew were repeatedly jailed and dismissed as agitators. Now, how many poor people sit in jail because in the New Jim Crow, they can’t afford the fines and fees, that means you pay for your own bondage. This is where your taxes go. Violence won’t solve this problem, but they won’t listen when you take a knee. They call you an agitator.

We chose the BALLOT they chose the BULLET

Dr. King used all his power to negotiate reconciliation, peacefully, yet he was gunned down and murdered, violently. Now, they advocate for their right to bear arms, knowing they’ve always been spurred to arm themselves in order to squash us (and not their own masters). They traded in whips and chains for guns and jails upon Emancipation. Now, their descendants are so twisted and confused about it that they claim not to know that’s also our blood shed and the Rebel flag, not just theirs. They still don’t get it. They are threatened by inclusion, perhaps fearing their own mediocracy, so they’d rather build a wall. In 2021, they were finally able to wave the Confederate Battle Flag in the halls of the US Capitol.

Their people fought and died for the independent right to bond and enslave us, yet now they speak of Dr. King like he’s some poster child for kneeling and praying for forgiveness in response to any atrocity they commit (even that kid who staged a massacre in a Black church was taken into custody, peacefully). Now, the same people call Dr. King a national hero in the same breath used to denounce those peacefully protesting for equity and justice today. For them, Black Lives do not Matter.

What’s the Capitol of Insurrection? #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A week ago, I was writing -hopefully – about the peaceful transition of power. I was thinking to myself that even if Georgia’s run-off election didn’t release the American senate from the hooves and cleaves of the CONservative right, that somehow, the world would be in a better state now that dialogue-oriented ‘liberals’ were leading the administrative cabinet. This week, however, I am writing about a failed coup d’etat in the United States. 

Lynch mob

Much of American history is steeped in the struggle for freedom. To be clear: WE have never, ever been free in America. None of us. Sure, relative to where I sit right now in S.E. Asia, the fact that I am talking openly about politics, and speaking ill of other people’s nasty votes, attests to this relative freedom I enjoy just by having that bald eagle on my passport. The fact that it’s a national pass-time to be critical of power, all the while coveting it for myself, points to the hypocrisy with which each and every American struggles internally. It’s not that people of other nations don’t share this struggle, but it’s just that we Americans do this in the world’s richest, most ethnically diverse nation. And ‘the problem we all live with’ persists. 

By signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln didn’t defeat white supremacy any more than the Declaration of Independence defeated tyranny and injustice. “With great power comes great responsibility,” goes the Spiderman mantra. Yet, here I am on my knees, in tears, crying for the death a of a democracy that’s been in decay ever since my people were brought to those shores in shackles, owned by those mentally enslaved by white-washed Jesus.

Unfortunately, it would be facile and naïve to pretend that this American moment isn’t painful. It hurt me, personally, to see the siege of our Capitol, live and in technicolor, more vivid than any dream I’ve dreamt or nightmare about this very scenario. And I have had both dreams and nightmares about the siege. My mother’s parents grew up southern, Black, poor and politically disenfranchised as a matter of everyday practice under Jim and Jane Crow. It’d would have been nothing for a lynch mob to tackle any negro attempting to vote. That was business as usual, even as they conscripted my grandfather into the army to go to Europe and fight Hitler. The irony has never, ever been lost on any of us. 

Many days, in my daydreams, I’ve often wondered what it’d be like if a bunch of freedom-loving folks just stormed the Capitol and occupied the seats of power until the elected leaders conceded to formally grant our freedom. Yet, I would never want to see the mass graves they’d have to dig should any negro or negro-loving white person even gather to talk about storming the Capitol – let alone share plans and munitions. Besides, I am an earnest follower of non-violence and genuinely believe liberation is found therein. Instead, we’ve spent years – decades, nearly a century of recorded history – warning the world where white supremacy would lead us, if left unchecked. I’d be as rich as Jeff Bezos if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that racism was dead, and that I was dredging up hate by insisting we speak about it. Yet, here we are. Whatcha gonna do now?

A homemade shrine in Hoi An, Vietnam.

2020: A Year on “Plague Island”

Last year in this blog, I argued that 2019 had been a year of violence. My colleague, @5teveh provided a gentle riposte, noting that whilst things had not been that good, they were perhaps not as bad as I had indicated. Looking back at both entries it is clear that my thoughts were well-evidenced, but it is @5teveh‘s rebuttal that has proved most prescient in respect of what was to come….

The year started off on a positive, personally and professionally, when both @manosdaskalou and I were nominated for Changemaker Awards. Although beaten by some very tough competition, shortly before leaving campus we were both awarded High Sheriff Awards, alongside our prison colleagues, for our module CRI3006 Beyond Justice. As colleagues and students will know, this module is taught entirely in prison to year 3 criminology students and their incarcerated peers. Unfortunately, the awards took place in the last week on campus, but we are hopeful that we can continue to work together in the near future.

Understandably much of our attention this year has been on Covid-19 and the changes it has wrought on individuals, communities, society and globally. Throughout this year, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team have documented the pandemic in a variety of different ways. From my very early thoughts, written in the panic of abandoning campus for the experience of lockdown to entries from @helentrinder @treventoursu @jesjames50 @cherylgardner2015 @5teveh @manosdaskalou @anfieldbhoy @samc0812 @drkukustr8talk @zeechee @saffrongarside @svr2727 @haleysread The blog has explored Covid-19 from a variety of different angles reflecting on the unprecedented experience of living through a pandemic. It is interesting to see how the situation and our understanding and responses have adapted over the past 9 months.

Alongside the serious materials, it was obvious very early on that we also needed to ensure some lightness for the team and our readers. With this in mind, early in the first lock down, we created the #CriminologyBookClub. We’re currently on our 8th novel and we’ve been highly critical of some of the texts ;), as well as fallen in love with others. However, I know I speak for my fellow members when I say this has offered some real respite for what’s going on around us.

Another early initiative was to invite all our bloggers to contribute an entry entitled #MyFavouriteThings. We ended up with over twenty entries (which you’ll find via the link) from the criminology team, students, as well as a our regular and occasional contributors. Surprisingly we learnt a lot about each other and about ourselves. The process of something as basic as writing down your favourite things, proved to be highly cathartic.

Whilst supporting each other in our learning community, we also didn’t forget our friends and colleagues in prison. Although, the focus has rightly been on the NHS and carers, the pandemic has hit the prison communities very hard. Technology can solve some of the issues of loneliness, but to be locked in a small room, far away from family and friends creates additional problems. For the men and the staff, the last 9 months has brought challenges never seen before. Although, we could not teach the module, we did our best, along with colleagues in Geography and the Vice Chancellor @npetfo, to provide quizzes and competitions to help pass the hours.

In June, the world was shocked by the killing of George Floyd in the USA. For many of us, this death was one in a long line of horrific killings of Black men and women, whereby society generally turned a blind eye. However, in the middle of a pandemic, the killing of George Floyd meant that people could not turn away from what was playing on every screen and every platform. This lead to a resurgence of interest in Black Lives Matter and an outpouring of statements by individuals, organisations, institutions and the State.

For a week in June, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team muted all their social media to make space for the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices initiative from Alishia McCullough and Jessica Wilson This was a tiny gesture in the grand scheme of things but refocused the team’s attention on making sure there is a space for anyone who wants to contribute.

Whether this new found interest in Black Lives Matters and discussions around diversity, racism, decolonisation and disproportionality continue, remains to be seen. Hopefully, the killing of George Floyd, alongside the profound evidence of privilege and need made evident by the pandemic, has provided a catalyst for change. One thing is clear, everyone knows now, we can no longer hide, there are no more excuses and we all can and must do better.

This year some old faces left for pastures new and we welcomed some new colleagues to the Criminology Team. If you haven’t already, you can read about our new (or, in some cases, not so new) team members’ – @jesjames50 @haleysread and @amycortvriend – academic journeys to becoming Lecturers in Criminology.

Finally, looking back over the last 12 months, certain themes catch my eye. Some of these are obvious, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have occupied a lot of our minds. The focus has often been on high profile individuals – Captain Tom Moore, Joe Wickes, Marcus Rashford – but has also shone on teams/organisations/institutions such as the NHS, carers, shop workers, delivery drivers, the scientists working on the vaccines, the list goes on. Everyone has played a part, even if that is just by staying at home and out of the way, leaving space for those with a frontline role to play. Upon reflection it is evident that the over-riding themes (and why @5teveh was right last year) are ones of kindness, of going the extra mile, of trying to listen to each other, of reaching out to each other, acknowledging unfairness and privileges, recognising the huge loss of life and the impact of illness and bereavement and trying to make things a little better for all. Hope has become the default setting for all of us, hope that the pandemic will be over, alongside hopes that we can build a better world with its passing. It has also become extremely clear that critical thinking is at a premium during a pandemic, with competing narratives, contradictory evidence and uncertainty, testing all of our ability to cope with change and respond with humility and humanity.

There is no doubt 2020 has been an unprecedented year and one that will stay with us for ever in the collective memory. Going into 2021 it’s important that we remember to consider the positives and keep trying to do better. Hopefully, in 2021 we will get to celebrate Criminology’s 21st Birthday together

Remember to stay safe, strong and well and look out for yourself and others.

Your god is cruel #BlackAsiaWithLove

Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” depicting Ruby Bridges – the first black child to attend an all white elementary school in the South. Image from the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

I don’t trust your god

Your god is cruel

Your god is mean

Your god allowed generations of your people to enslave mine

Your god made it okay to look into the Bible and see white power.

You prayed to your god with every slave you took.

You prayed that your catch would be bountiful, and

Your enslavers safe.

You’ve prayed that you would gain money, and fame, and power.

And you did.

Your god gave you everything.

Thanks to your god-given wealth,

You built church after church, and

Cathedral after cathedral, all around the globe,

So that everyone could worship your god.

You prayed that we’d all pay homage to a mean and cruel god.

Your god’s played a trick on you,

Convincing you slavery was god-like, that white was right!

That dark was evil, and so

Your god’s given you moral dominion over the darker peoples of the world.

You and your god dominate.

Don’t you know,

Your god’s cross was used to conquer the Americas, and

A church sits smack in the middle of west Africa’s biggest, extant slave castle!?!

Yes, your god was right there with you as you captured human cargo, and

Stored them right next to your church so they could hear you pray, and

Marched them out of the door of no return, onto feed your greed that your god sanctioned.

You grew fat, bloated with power,

Thanks to your god.

I don’t trust your god.

Nor should you.

Now, with every attempt we have to take back our humanity, you resist.

We say “Black Lives Matter,” and you pray they don’t.

You pray for a champion – a big man – to come down from above and save you.

And when that big, rich, powerful man does descend,

And threatens to shore off all apologists for your god’s cruel past,

You treat him as heaven-sent!

And call out all defectors from your church,

All those so-called Liberals who’ve turned away from your god.

You pray that this big man and his family will bask in the gains of your god’s glory.

That somehow this big man’s glory attests to your god’s power.

You cheer when that big man waves a bible at you, in front of any church, and

You tell yourself: “My God is good,” and

You run-n-fetch your god every time the big man blows the dog-whistle,

Which you hear clear as day.

Run. Stay. Sit.

You follow your god’s orders.

Free yourself from your old god.

To erase that history, to look away from those facts, you must also erase yourself…

Because slavery, and continued subjugation is not just my problem, it’s…

The Problem We All Live With.

It’s in you, too.

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. [Theme song: When You Gonna Learn, by Jamiroquai]

Jay Kay sang: “Yeah, yeah, have you heard the news today?”

Me: Yeah, yeah, my hometown is on fire.

Protestors in downtown Louisville, my hometown.

My hometown is on fire. In March, SWAT-armed officers served a warrant, and an EMS worker ended up dead. The deceased was Black and poor, and lived in the poor Black part of town. The officers adhered to the codes of the ruling caste. The media covered the death matter-of-factly. The tag line is: “Breonna Taylor was an innocent person in her own home.” So, by extension, all the other victims were not innocent, and therefore deserved to die. Only Jesus’ death warrants defense…and outrage – according to the actions of the folks who James Baldwin called those who believe themselves to be white. So, Breonna, George Floyd, all of them…these were justifiable killings? Yeah, yeah, casualties of the race war where white supremacy has always had the whip.

My hometown is on fire. The mayor put the city on lockdown days ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, not Corona. Trucks block traffic now; windows were boarded up days ago. All to announce that (only) one of the shooters would be indicted, and on the lower end of charges. The officer was initially denounced and fired, and (only) now charged with “wanton, reckless endangerment.” None of the charges relate to Breonna’s death, so that’s exactly what the courts won’t be able to address.

Those who believe themselves t be white will defend their rights against these dead Black bodies

My hometown is on fire. Locals who believe themselves to be white char the memory of the victim, each victim, individually. For Breonna was not perfect, nor was Trayvon, nor George Floyd, nor Sandra Bland, nor countless others … all just human. Not even Amadou Diallo was a perfect-enough-victim for ‘those who believe themselves to be white’. Each family of each victim has had to fight the system individually, as if in a vacuum. Little attention to this incident was paid until the bodies mounted around the country. Everything changed when people of all races marched together, looters rioted and property was lost. Only then did “voters” take notice.

My hometown is on fire. The police have never been held accountable for such deaths. Apparently, the deceased liked bad boys, and was a victim of circumstance. White citizens – the so-called “voters”  – resist seeing the systemic causes to these deaths. Just a few weeks ago, after MONTHS of national outrage and protest, the police reached a 12-million-dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. Every Kentucky tax payer will pay for our collective neglect. My hometown held it down, made the world say her name.

My hometown is on fire. Say her name. “Say her name,” is now a moniker for another fallen Black body. Where whites see no systemic problem, there can be no systemic solutions. Please, “stop it going on.”

Protests in my hometown, Louisville, KY

“I can’t breathe”: Criminology, Science and Society

Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect.  In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder.  Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon.  After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth.  This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder.  The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment. 

There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point.  Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society.  In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool.  As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced.  The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.   

When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.

This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law.  It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton).  In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.* 

The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.

Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.

Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.

If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong.  If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”.  Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement.  For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression. 

Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.

Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.

If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.

*Even that can now be given as an affirmation

For the Trayvons, Since Blackface is a weapon #BlackenAsiaWithLove

2 April 2012 Hanoi

 

The real Blackface that’s the weapon is the minstrel show,
The Blackface that labeled me out,

Showing people a side of me never seen

But projected onto me,

Such that when so many see my own Blackface,

They see that other

They see that other one.

The one told to them over their kitchen tables.

The one sold to them at the movie show –

Hoop dreams

Baller creams

Holla dolla-dolla bill, y’all.

‘Cause we also know that there are real Black faces

That see those minstrel black faces

Staring them back in the face,

So blinded by the light that they cannot see their own.

 

That’s one side of Trayvon’s story-

Then we all know how precious of a story this really is

That a mother lost her darling son

That a grandmother lost the one who used to babysit for the other gran’kids

That the little cousins are still unclear about where that dear boy is.

 

Blackface means that as soon as your voice starts to drop

As soon as that fuzzy hair starts to sprout all over

As soon as your knock knees start to look bold

You’re no longer a kid

Your childhood is lost

And you must learn to act in ways that would make most sane adults stumble

You learn how not to offend white people

How to speak in a soft voice

Or perish

How to walk slowly, with an unassuming gate

Lest you appear as a threat

With the knowledge that any of these threatened folks can annihilate you

Wipe you from this earth

Where only a generation or two ago

Men hanged like tree-ripened fruit

Aged on a rope in an instant

From kid prankster

To adult menace in a matter of moments

We’ve all seen that photo of one of America’s last lynchings

Not nearly the first

Not nearly the haste, carnage and human waste that made people cease.

 

In 1930, not in anywhere near the deep south

Not from one of our southern willows that sway

But in the mid-west

In Indiana, less than a 150 miles from where Michael Jackson was born

And less than 30 years before he came to be,

So that years later when he sings about hate in our multicultural hearts

Or smashes a window in the video

Enraged with anger

Mad from hypocrisy

The sort that we all know all too well

The gap between the promise and dream.

The reality versus the verses etched all around the capital,

Versus the slave hands that laid those very stones.

The women folk whose very gender made them slaves

And the Black women whose faces made them chattel –

But exploitation of a sexual kind

Yes, we all know too well

What a Blackface can do

How a Blackface can scare you

Even when it’s yours.

So, we now the rage Michael felt,

The hate he seemed to have fought though lost,

Internalized but never giving up.

Yet he was born into a world that hated Blackfaces

Where his was a real threat,

Lest he learn to sing and dance.

The hate is real life minstrelsy.

 

It’s that same song and dance that we as boys learn to perform

And I am tired of dancing

Trying to make nice when people approach me as cold as ice

Smiling and trying to behave

While all their body language tells me that they are scared to death of me

And that they see my Blackface as chilling.

We all know that all the Trayvons in this place

Learn from an age too early to have to teach kids such harsh cruelties of life

That by 13, he could be nearly 6 feet tall and that factor alone endangers his life

Were he to play sports and his body develop.

He would stand no chance of being treated like anything other than a gladiator.

So it’s even more ironic that Trayvon was a scrawny boy they called “Slim”

Seems there’s no real way to win

Though I think that if we as a people can get through this

If we as a nation can have this conversation

The one mothers like Trayvon’s have with their sons

For we all know how people react to Black

 

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

CONned by CONfederates #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I come from a town named after the French king who supported America’s independence struggle from Great Britain. A large statue of him sits in front of our old courthouse, across from the old town hall. The fleur-de-lis covering his robe was consequently adopted as the symbol of my city, as well as New Orleans and several other municipalities around our nation. I am from a county named after a slaveholding ‘founding father’, the nation’s third president, who was the governor of the Virginia territory that was split then to eventually create my ole Kentucky home.

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Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the same time as he was a prominent slave-owner. Our nation fought for nearly two centuries to (openly) recognize the long-term relationship Jefferson had with a teenage slave. Contemporary CONfederates & other zealots fought against recognizing their descendants.

Dixie Highway is one of the largest roads crisscrossing my city, and it’s even the best way to get to Fort Knox, where our nation used to hold its gold. There are other CONfederate activists who are venerated locally in bronze. I never had to “wish I was in Dixie.”I was born there.

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Rosa Parks statue in downtown Montgomery, AL

Although the Sons of CONfederate Veterans resisted, my parents’ alma mater moved a 70-foot-tall CONfederate monument off its campus and out of the city. It wasn’t destroyed, but perhaps, hopefully, better contextualized.

There are umpteen items in my hometown named after President Zachary Taylor who was born into a prominent plantation-owning family. He held slaves during his short-lived term and danced all around the issue of slavery with his CONfederate chums.

Where my grandparents are from in Alabama, the Black high school is named after a CONfederate war general. Right now, the first white house of the CONfederacy sits smack in the middle of the seat of city, county, and state government.

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“First White House of the Confederacy,” Montgomery, AL 2013.

History needs to be re-written to include all the people that made the history.

Some lessons from the lockdown

Dementia
Koestler Arts (2019), Another Me: The Redwoods Centre (secure mental health unit), James Wood QC Silver Award for Portrait, 2019

In March 23, 2020, the UK went into lockdown.  The advice given, albeit conflicting in parts, was clear.  Do not leave your home unless absolutely necessary, banning all travel and social interactions.  This unprecedented move forced people to isolate at home for a period, that for some people will come to an end, when the WHO announces the end of the pandemic.  For the rest of us, the use of a face mask, sanitiser and even plastic gloves have become modern day accessories.  The way the lockdown was imposed and the threat of a fine, police arrest if found outside one’s home sparked some people to liken the experience with that of detention and even imprisonment.

There was definite social isolation during the pandemic and there is some future work there to be done to uncover the impact it has had on mental health.  Social distancing was a term added to our social lexicon and we discovered online meetings and working from home.  Schools closed and parents/guardians became de facto teachers.  In a previous blog entry, we talked about the issues with home schooling but suffice to say many of our friends and colleagues discovered the joys of teaching!  On top of that a number of jobs that in the past were seeing as menial.  Suddenly some of these jobs emerge as “key professions”

The first lesson therefore is:

Our renewed appreciation for those professions, that we assumed just did a job, that was easy or straightforward.  As we shall be coming back eventually to a new normality, it is worth noting how easy it will be to assign any job as trivial or casual.

As online meetings became a new reality and working from home, the office space and the use of massive buildings with large communal areas seemed to remain closed.  This is likely to have a future impact on the way business conduct themselves in the future. 

Second lesson:

Given how many things had to be done now, does this mean that the multi occupancy office space will become redundant, pushing more work to be done from home.  This will alter the way we divide space and work time.     

During the early stages of the lockdown, some people asked for some reflection of the situation in relation to people’s experiences in prisons.  The lockdown revealed the inequality of space.  The reality is that for some families, space indicated how easy is to absorb the new social condition, whilst other families struggled.  There is anecdotal information about an increase on mental health and stress caused from the intensive cohabitation.  Several organisations raised the alarm that since the start of the lockdown there has been a surge in incidents of domestic violence and child abuse.  The actual picture will become clearer of the impact the lockdown had on domestic violence in future years when comparisons can be drawn.  None the less it reveals an important issue. 

Third lesson:

The home is not always the safest place when dealing with a global pandemic.  The inequality of space and the inequality in relationships revealed what need to be done in the future in order to safeguard.  It also exposed the challenges working from home for those that have no space or infostructure to support it.          

In the leading up to the lockdown many households of vulnerable people struggled to cope with family members shielding from the virus.  These families revealed weaknesses in the welfare system and the support they needed in order to remain in lockdown.  Originally the lack of support was the main issue, but as the lockdown continued more complex issues emerged, including the financial difficulties and the poverty as real factors putting families at risk.

Fourth lesson:

Risk is a wider concern that goes beyond personal and family issues.  The lockdown exposed social inequality, poverty, housing as factors that increase the vulnerability of people.  The current data on Covid-19 fatalities reveal a racial dimension which cannot longer be ignored.    

During the lockdown, the world celebrated Easter and commemorated Mayday, with very little interaction whilst observing social distancing.  At the end of May the world watched a man gasping for breath that died in police custody.  This was one of the many times the term police brutality has related to the dead of another black life.  People took to the streets, protested and toppled a couple of statues of racists and opened a conversation about race relations. 

Fifth lesson:

People may be in lockdown, but they can still express how they feel.

So, whilst the lockdown restrictions are easing and despite having some measures for the time being, we are stepping into a new social reality.  On the positive side, a community spirit came to the surface, with many showing solidarity to those next to them, taking social issues to heart and more people talked of being allies to their fellow man.  It seems that the state was successful to impose measures that forced people indoors that borderline in totalitarianism, but people did accept them, only as a gesture of goodwill.  This is the greatest lesson of them all in lockdown; maybe people are out of sight, appear to be compliant in general but they are still watching, taking note and think of what is happening.  What will happen next is everyone’s guess.    

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