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The history of moments and movements

KEITH FLETT looks at how social movements like Black Lives Matter can effect systemic and lasting change in society beyond removing statues and taking the knee

A YEAR after the murder of George Floyd, there is no longer any question that Black Lives Matter is a movement and not just a moment in historical time.

That removal of doubt applies both to those who oppose racism in all its forms and those who see nothing fundamentally wrong with discrimination continuing to exist.

Arguments remain over statues, with the fallen statue of slaver Edward Colston now on display in a Bristol Museum awaiting a decision on its final resting place.

Black Lives Matter has never been centrally about statues, much though Culture and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden thinks it has.

Sport is a rather more significant matter. It is watched and played by huge numbers and instances of discrimination and racism are far from unknown.

Taking the knee in football matches has been a feature over the last year and cricket, while less consistent on this, has seen statements of intent from ruling bodies to root out racism.

It’s clear, though, that a year on there is much work still to do.

The booing by a minority of those present at the England v Austria football match when the knee was taken led England manager Gareth Southgate to ponder whether the practice should be dropped.

However, in consultation with the players, the team will take the knee in Euro 2020.

Meanwhile the usual “keep politics out of sport” apologists popped up, avoiding the reality that this in itself is a political statement.

Meanwhile the first cricket Test match of the summer at Lords was marred when racist and sexist tweets that England bowler Ollie Robinson had made as an 18-year-old came to light.

He apologised but it points to a culture in the sport that still needs to be confronted and changed.

The wider historical question is whether or not social movements like Black Lives Matter can effect real change in society — and if so, how.

There is a considerable amount of writing on social movement theory that addresses this, though not always in a historical context.

Advocates of one model suggest that movements can achieve some change. When the arguments have been won, they claim that it’s “job done” and they often take up institutional positions to implement the change.

Others argue that minor change is not enough, but they often grow disheartened as the movement splinters.

In short, existing market capitalist structures have the ability to accept minimal change while remaining much the same.

Trevor Phillips, it might be argued, represents this in the current day.

Long associated with the Labour Party and anti-racist politics, he has been sceptical of Black Lives Matter and currently sits on a government committee whose aim is to enforce the retention rather than the removal of controversial statues like that of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford.

The ever-present question, historically and now, is whether institutionalised racism can be assimilated into a government process and largely neutralised.

Boris Johnson certainly tried it. The recent Sewell report concluded that officially directed racism was a thing of the past.

The conclusion was much derided because the recent experience of the Windrush generation and Priti Patel’s approach to asylum-seekers suggested that it was out of line with the reality for many people.

Black Lives Matter is often called Marxist by Tories — a familiar charge against effective social movements over many years.

It isn’t, of course, but it does underline why its so important for socialists to be involved.

First, because pressure can bring real and positive change.

Second, because creating division is so fundamental to how market capitalist society works that ultimately equality is something that cannot be fully resolved within existing structures.

Keith Flett is a socialist historian.


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