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George Floyd remembered. Reflections on the past and hopes for the future

Professor Nick Braisby, Vice-Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University

This Thursday 25th May marks the anniversary of the death of George Floyd. A moment in which to consider the history that led to this shocking event, what it might mean for the UK, and what those of us in the Higher Education sector can do to tackle racism.

Perhaps we should start back in the February of 1865, when the state of Minnesota ratified the 13th amendment to the constitution of the United States of America. The amendment, in effect, put the abolition of slavery, the goal of the Union states led by President Abraham Lincoln, beyond legal challenge. 

In April of the same year, Lincoln was assassinated, and by May the brutal American Civil War had come to an end. The amendment was formally adopted in December of that year.

The 13th amendment and its preceding Emancipation Proclamation changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans, granting freedom to people like Hillery Thomas Stewart.

Hillery spent the first eight years of his life enslaved in North Carolina, working tobacco fields. As a free man, he built up personal wealth and accumulated more than 500 acres of land.

But while enslavement may have been outlawed, it was replaced by a different form of pernicious, economic bondage. Hillery lived during the Jim Crow era, in which state and local laws enforced racial segregation. His land was ultimately seized by White farmers and his descendants became sharecroppers.

Whilst most of us will not have heard of Hillery Thomas Stewart, we will have heard of his great-great-grandson. Born in 1973, also in North Carolina, his name was George Floyd, a man whose own story is now tragically well known since his murder on 25 May, 2020. 

Of course, the brutality such as that seen in Minneapolis, Minnesota three years ago is not unique to the United States. 22nd April of this year marked the 30th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Stephen was killed whilst waiting for a bus in South-East London. His assailants were quickly identified having previously been involved in racist knife attacks in the same locality. But delays in arresting them and searching their homes meant that the Crown Prosecution Service declared there was insufficient evidence for an initial prosecution.

The complex legal case that ensued and subsequent analysis of Stephen Lawrence’s case revealed the impact of centuries of racism imbued within our institutions. The resulting Macpherson report labelled the Metropolitan Police Service ‘institutionally racist’ and cited numerous fundamental errors including failure to give Stephen first aid, to follow obvious leads, and to arrest suspects, all compounded by a failure of leadership within the organisation.

I was honoured to attend the 30th anniversary memorial service commemorating Stephen’s death last month and the service had a profound impact on me.  Not just because of the terrible circumstances of his murder or the devastating impact on his family but, more than anything, because of how little has changed in the intervening 30 years. Stephen’s community, family and their supporters are still asking for the same thing they looked for all those years ago – justice for Stephen, an end to racism, and institutions that work for everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin.

It is this racism that denied George Floyd and Stephen Lawrence the right to just be, to live their lives and to realise their full potential. What's more, we know that at an early age George Floyd had talked about wanting to be a Supreme Court justice, and Stephen Lawrence wanted to be an architect. So imagine a world where this had been possible? What positive impact might they have had? What contributions might they have made to the world? Sadly, we will never know.

In my view, this is where the Higher Education sector has an important role to play. To truly understand the murders of George Floyd and Stephen Lawrence, and so many other victims of racism, we need to understand the past, for it is there that the seeds of racism were sown.

Yet at the same time we must look to the future, and the change that is possible with an enhanced focus on the power of education to encourage cultural and societal change.

Higher education is driven by the transformative impact of unlocking human value and potential, enriching our society and helping people to lead fulfilling lives. The very existence of our universities is designed to make this a possibility. Yet racism and discrimination undermine their historic mission making eradicating them one of the most important challenges for the sector.

Yet, universities themselves have often come under attack for seeking to address deep-rooted discrimination. In June 2022 the then further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan wrote to university Vice-Chancellors asking us to reconsider signing up to Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter – a scheme which aims to help universities identify and address the barriers facing global majority staff and students, while also providing a framework for action and improvement.

We at BNU chose not to heed Ms Donelan’s request and have been a member of the race equality charter since 2019.  But the fact that a Government minister should seek to discourage universities from taking such important steps is a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to tackle racial discrimination.

These two tragic anniversaries remind us of the need to redouble our efforts, within whatever organisations we may work, to challenge our customs, practices, policies and procedures, to challenge our culture, and to ask ourselves difficult questions.

At Buckinghamshire New University, our work on the Race Equality Charter will receive new impetus this year. We are championing Buckinghamshire’s Stop Hate UK helpline, raising awareness around the 75th anniversary of the 1948 voyage of the HMT Empire Windrush, and working with local charity SV2G (St Vincent and the 2nd Generation) to support High Wycombe’s population of Vincentians, the largest in the UK.

We will also continue to unpick our curriculum to ensure our students and staff receive a rich, challenging and diverse experience, one which is anti-racist and which embeds a culture of inclusion and equity at BNU.

We will work with our students, staff and local community to create and take part in conversations that will help us to understand what we can do to dismantle racism and discrimination inside and outside our own organisation. We will continue to play our part in sharing best practice within the higher education sector, as we did when BNU became the first university to create a definition of Islamaphobia.

And if all institutions take similar actions to ours, we can together begin to build a lasting and appropriate memorial to George Floyd and Stephen Lawrence and the many others who have suffered a similarly tragic fate. A memorial of hope and change.