Last month, Labour leader Keir Starmer announced that all Labour staff members, including himself, would undergo compulsory unconscious bias training. This comes after the criticism he received following a BBC Breakfast interview where he described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment” and dismissed one of the fundamental aims of the movement — defunding the police — as “nonsense.”
This was a missed opportunity at a critical time when black people worldwide are campaigning against systemic racism and racial inequality and for the liberation of all black lives. Following the death of George Floyd, calls to defund the police have gained momentum in the United States and the UK. While no one expects a leading politician to come out staunchly in support of abolitionism or the defunding of the police, the fact that Starmer flippantly dismissed the notion as “nonsense” while restating his strong support for the police was thoughtless and insensitive. Especially in the same week it was revealed that two police officers took selfies with the dead bodies of black women.
There was nothing “unconscious” about Starmer’s strategic choice of words. His choice of words was conscious in its attempt to appeal to a subset of white voters, particularly those in the so-called red wall seats that the Labour Party lost at the last general election. But not only these — the rhetoric was surely calculated to appeal to more than a few columnists at right-wing newspapers as well. Unsurprisingly, it received the endorsement of Nigel Farage.
Starmer could have used this as an opportunity to start a constructive political conversation about police and criminal justice reform. After all, it is the racist nature of these systems that provoked calls for reform and abolition in the first place. And this view is not something Starmer should be unaware of. David Lammy, a member of Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet, indicated in his report — “The Lammy Review” — that racial biases are prevalent in Britain’s criminal justice system.
Starmer’s dismissal of one of the central aims of the Black Lives Matter movement came just a few weeks after he posted a picture of himself on Twitter taking a knee allegedly in solidarity with the movement. This points to a wider problem. Clearly, the Left of British politics is crucial to anti-racist organizing. But while all legislation aimed at tackling racial discrimination has been passed by the Labour Party, the party has a checkered history on race and racism. As the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act shows, it has not always been at the forefront of the struggle for racial justice.
Unconscious bias training has emerged as one of the key responses to racism in recent years. The appeal of the concept of unconscious bias can be partly explained by the fact that individuals are absolved of any blame for their own racial prejudices and discriminatory actions. It provides a convenient excuse for people who do not want to admit that their prejudicial behavior might be the result of conscious thoughts and feelings.
The ubiquity of unconscious bias training is also justified by the logic that overt manifestations of racism are a thing of the past, due to increasingly progressive social norms; it is argued that subtle, more discrete forms of racism are increasingly prevalent instead. However, this narrow framing of racism and the use of unconscious bias training as the fundamental way institutions or organizations seek to address racial injustice obscures focus from the procedures and operations in place within those institutions that lead to systemic oppression and racial discrimination.
The novelist Ambalavaner Sivavandan argued that the idea that attitudes and values can be changed through training is based on the assumption that discrimination and prejudice are solely about an individual’s mindset. This is an oversimplification, as what also needs to be addressed are the legislation and policies, power structures, and institutions that allow these prejudices to exist. Attempting to address one without addressing the other is pointless. Introspection does not always necessitate a willingness to change.
It is useful for us to question and examine the way we view the world, and how this is framed and colored by our individual prejudices. But unconscious bias cannot be blamed for the very consciously devised racist policies that have plagued the British government — from Windrush to the Hostile Environment. Nor are these policies just the preserve of the Conservative Party. Anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and Islamophobic policies were commonplace under the last Labour government.
Unconscious bias cannot be blamed, either, for the disrespect that two police officers showed to the dead bodies of two black women when they chose to take and share selfies with them. Nor can it be blamed for the fact that black people are more likely to be stopped by police, to have force used against them by police, or to die in police custody in Britain. Fundamentally, unconscious bias is not the reason why a police officer in the United States knelt on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds while watching life slowly ebb away from his body with three of his colleagues standing by and doing nothing.
As the government continues to show a belligerent disregard for the lives of black Britons, Starmer and the Labour Party have a duty and obligation to provide effective, active opposition. They should be at the forefront of opposing policies like the Hostile Environment — but also the less well-known but equally insidious policies that lead to racial inequality across all aspects of British life. In attempting to make the Labour Party a party of government again, Starmer must not take for granted the party’s black members. Token measures won’t do.