Common inhumanity

Written By: Dawn Butler
Published: April 7, 2017 Last modified: April 10, 2017

On March 21 1960, at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, police turned their guns on protesters and started shooting. They killed 69 people and injured hundreds more. Each year, the international community comes together to observe this day. In South Africa, it is Human Rights Day, a public holiday to commemorate the lives lost in the fight for democracy and equal human rights. I hear people say all the time: “I’m not racist; I have black friends. I haven’t got a racist bone in my body.” We need to wake up. We are witnessing a surge in intolerance, lack of understanding of different communities and dehumanising of individuals.

Dehumanising a person makes it easier to justify inhumane actions towards them: “They’re not like us. They’re different. They have different colour skin. They have an accent. How can we trust them?” We should be embracing differences; they make us stronger, not weaker. We should be fighting poverty and global warming, not other human beings.

I sometimes wonder what UKIP expected when it published that awful “Breaking Point” poster depicting a crowd of brown-skinned refugees. Racist views have increased, along with hatred and violence. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-refugee sentiment  – all the tools of hate – are on the rise.

We must stand up for the rights and dignity of all. An attack on one minority community is an attack on all communities. Every person is entitled to human rights without discrimination. Protecting somebody else’s rights does not in any way diminish our own.

Hate crimes have spiked since June 23 2016. Reported hate crime rose by 57 per cent. Seventy-nine per cent. were race hate crimes, 12 per cent were sexual orientation hate crimes, 7 per cent were religious hate crimes, 6 per cent were disability hate crimes and 1 per cent were transgender hate crimes.

However, those are just numbers, which do not tell the full horror of those hate crimes, so here are a few examples of incidents that have occurred over the past few months. Anti-Semitic stickers were plastered on a Cambridge synagogue. Three young males racially abused a US Army veteran on a Manchester tram, telling him to go back to Africa. A British Muslim woman was grabbed by her hijab as she was having dinner in a fish and chip shop. A letter was sent telling Poles to go home as a fire was started in their Plymouth home. An Edinburgh taxi driver from Bangladesh was dragged by his beard. A 40-year-old Polish national was killed because he was allegedly heard speaking Polish. A 31-year-old pregnant woman was kicked in her stomach and lost her baby. On Valentine’s Day, a gay couple were attacked by five men for falling asleep on each other.

Some racial discrimination is from unconscious bias, but some is overt. There are elected people who hold overtly racist views, such as the councillor who argued that she was not racist – even after proclaiming that she had a “problem” with “negroes” because there was “something about their faces”. You could not make it up! Racism and intolerance take various forms, from denying individuals the basic principles of equality to fuelling ethnic hatred. At their worst, they can turn people to violence and even genocide. They destroy lives and communities and poison people’s minds.

My parents were migrants who came to this country and suffered racism. Actually, I like to call them expats, because they left their home in the warm, sunny climes of Jamaica to come to cold England, full of smog and fog, to help the country to rebuild after the war. When we speak to our elders, we are acutely aware that racism and hate are not necessarily new. We must also remember Britain’s part in the slave trade, which is the foundation of much of our national prosperity. It was justified by the empire and the language of racial superiority, but that is not what defines us. It is a part of our shameful history, but surely there must come a time when it stops – when it no longer matters that a person is different from us and when we appreciate what we have in common.

When we see only hate, that hate becomes so great that it transforms into something else, where the problem is not just the colour of someone’s skin, but their accent orthat they are committed to fight for someone else’s rights.At the height of the xenophobic atmosphere, an MP and leading migrants advocate, my friend Jo Cox,  was murdered. The murderer gave his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Even after the hateful, despicable crime by that terrorist, her family wanted us to “love like Jo” and repeat her mantra that “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”.

Dawn Butler is Labour MP for Brent Central. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate