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why the words 'minor gangsters' are so dangerous

Activist Athian Akec writes about how insidious and commonplace assumptions like these are for black Britons.

by Athian Akec
04 November 2019, 8:00am

Image via Getty

Back in the summer, Rory Stewart -- then in the running for Tory leadership -- approached three young black men on Brick Lane to be part of his series of impromptu interviews with the public. From the outset, the interaction was problematic. Stewart was fixed on finding out where the men, now revealed to be members of Irish hip-hop group Hare Squead, were from. “How long have you been here?”, “Did you always live around here”, “When did you move here?” This had all remained beneath the radar, until the other day, when The Guardian revealed that Stewart had branded the three black men “minor gangsters” in a speech.

From the Windrush scandal to the failure to acknowledge how the Prime Minister’s plans for 20,000 extra police officers will only lead to the mass incarceration of ethnic minority communities, it’s clear that the class and cultural isolation of Britain's politicians are failing us right now, and that a pervasive ignorance has our political system in a chokehold.

By labelling the men “minor gangsters”, Rory Stewart is linking blackness and criminality. Black men are so often blamed for the problems of our communities. Drill music, black father absenteeism and “black culture” are regularly cited as the primary causes of knife crime. Its real causes -- namely austerity, inequality and institutional racism -- are swept under the rug. This has the effect of eroding solidarity and isolating communities. Rather than recognise the common struggles of different groups in British society, this rhetoric drives those affected by similar economic conditions further outside.

Everyday the world’s three largest money managers, the CEOs of Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street, who jointly hold $300 billion of investment in fossil fuels wear suits -- not tracksuits -- to work. None of us look like the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis; none of us are the investors who have driven homelessness by turning housing from a necessity to a money-making investment. And yet, the suit is viewed as a symbol of respectability, while those of us who wear tracksuits are viewed as criminals.

Focusing solely on Rory Stewart’s statement, bad as it is, would be a mistake. Twitter, in its capacity as a comment box for the world, has already done a decent job of highlighting this racist mess. But sharp moral criticism of one person doesn’t make any changes. Instead, we must look at the systemic foundations for these perverse views.

The racism at the heart of Stewart’s statement is the scathing, bruising and blatant racism that young black men have grown accustomed to. We walk around with a cloud above our heads, constantly aware that society perceives us as threats, deserving of near-constant suspicion. It drives the police to stop-and-search us at a disproportionate rate, the media to paint us as villains, never victims, and schools to exclude us at a rate far higher than our white peers.

If stop-and-search does have a result, it’s primarily the arrests of young black men for non-violent drug offences, rather than removing knives from the streets. And the media’s portrayal of everyone from Stormzy to Raheem Sterling as criminal, despite them being leaders in their respective fields, only further fuels the racist fire. Excluding us at a higher rate than our peers ultimately closes the door to any gainful employment: combined with the pressures of poverty, many are simply forced to criminality.

The twisted logic behind Rory's statement isn't benign, it ruins lives.

athian akec
Rory Stewart