One of my coping mechanisms during lockdown has been to increase my running distance and try different routes.
This newfound enthusiasm has led me to start my runs earlier in the day – 5:30AM to be precise. And I've noticed something. Every bus stop I've run past from my home in south east London to Victoria in central London has one thing in common – queues of black and brown people.
It’s not unusual to see people of colour in London (one of the most racially diverse areas in the UK) but to see so many ethnic minorities out and about at 5:30AM - especially at a time when the nation has been told to #StayHomeStaySafe, perhaps gives us a clue as to why the death rate from Covid-19 is so high in black and brown communities.
Last month the BBC presenter Emily Maitlis stated on Newsnight: "The disease is not a greater leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth that needs debunking. Those working on the frontline right now…are disproportionately the lower paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed.”
Ethnic minorities in inner city areas are disproportionately represented on the frontline. There are more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people working in the NHS (20%) than there are in the general population in England and Wales (14%), with 44% of all NHS medical staff being BAME. It’s no surprise then that 63% of all healthcare workers who have died from Covid-19 are also BAME. There is also a high rate of BAME staff working for London Transport (25%). While some of us have the luxury to work from home, many do not. Statistics show that it is black and brown people, particularly those from low socio-economic environments, that are suffering from Covid-19 more acutely than anyone else in the UK.
The full reasons for this connection are still to be explored, but there are some things we do know.
The Cabinet Office 2018 Race Disparity Audit showed a clear disparity between white and BAME people in the UK. In terms of poverty and living standards, the research showed that one in five children in black households were in persistent poverty compared to one in ten in white British households. This disparity runs through every area of life in Britain, and we know that there is a strong relationship between poverty and health outcomes.
The poorest are the most impacted by Covid-19, and poverty disproportionately impacts BAME communities
Life for many black and brown people can feel like playing for a football team in a continuous relegation fight, scrapping for survival, season after season. We can’t ignore that the poorest are the most impacted by Covid-19 and that in the UK, poverty disproportionately impacts BAME communities. As we look ahead, we must use this time to reflect on the structural and unseen barriers that have created such an unequal society.
So let’s address the elephant in the room – I’m not playing the race card and I do not have a victimhood mentality. While no one is immune, Covid-19 has shone a light on existing racial inequalities and is exacerbating their impact. Whether it’s the Windrush scandal, police brutality in the US or the increase in hate crime towards ethnic minorities since the emergence of Covid-19 – for white British people to ignore these injustices, to disengage with these inequalities in our society, is unacceptable.
Now is the time for radical solidarity and empathy
There is a conversation happening in the media and wider society on the link between Covid-19 and black and brown people - and the black Pentecostal church has a key role to play in the Covid-19 response, as highlighted by Prof Robert Beckford in his insightful documentary. However, parts of the Church remain silent. The silence of white Christians on race issues can be read as complicity; disengagement with racism feels like a betrayal, resulting in a breakdown of trust between black/brown people and white led/majority churches. So how should white majority/white led churches respond? Here are three ways:
1. Pray publicly on race issues
What is your church praying for? As John Onwuchekwa said in his book Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church “The prayer list – not the Sunday service elements, not the preaching style, not even the ethnic make-up of the leadership of the church - is often where the battle for diversity is won and lost”
Publicly pray against issues of racism in a corporate setting. This builds trust, empathy and compassion in your congregation.
2. Partner with ethnic minorities to promote diverse voices around the decision-making table
As the saying goes: “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is getting invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table.” Who is informing your thinking on Covid-19 and race? Have you asked the black and brown people in your church about the community temperature/feeling on this subject? How are these conversations informing the direction of the church?
In other words, ask and listen. How open are you to building cross denominational relationships? How can white led/white majority churches engage more effectively, support, and learn from the response of black led denominations?
3. Go beyond “I’m not racist” and become “anti-racist” in your words and actions
Psalm 82 says:
"Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked."
Are you and your church fighting for equality and justice in the context of racism? Are you prepared to go beyond social welfare (hand-outs) and engage with social justice (challenging unjust structures, systems and power dynamics)? Could white led/majority churches financially support black or brown grassroots organisations serving the community at this critical time who are under of threat of closure?
While writing the book We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches, I sensed that a time was coming when the UK Church would need to take a stand and be a voice against racial injustice. I could not have predicted Covid-19 but in the current climate, where our society is polarised more than ever on race issues – now is the time for radical solidarity and empathy towards those who are disproportionately impacted. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says: "If one member suffers, all suffer together."
Initiatives like the The UK Blessing show the hope and power a diverse, unified Church can bring in times of uncertainty. It would be wonderful to see the same spirit of togetherness to tackle racial inequality.
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