In my summer holidays between the ages of 19 to 23, I volunteered on a holiday club for kids run with local churches in Islington in London.
Growing up in more suburban areas, going into the ‘inner city’ was like venturing into another world.
I helped run a group for 11-14 year olds who lived on or around the Marquess estate (pictured). At that time the Marquess had a notorious reputation. A combination of poor architecture and social deprivation created a haven for violent crime. It had only been built in the 1970s but by the late-1990s the decision was made to pull most of it down.
After I finished studying, the local Baptist church, the Marquess Christian Centre, asked me if I would move into a flat above the church-community centre they had just acquired on the estate.
It was not a particularly attractive offer. My older brother had been beaten up there a few years before and being honest, I never felt comfortable or safe on the estate. Also I was living with two great mates at the time who had graduated with me. Life was good.
But despite this, I felt a very clear sense I should take up the offer. So I left my mates and moved into the studio flat above the church. In all, I lived there for 2½ years until the estate’s demolition started in 1998. It was one of the most significant periods of my life.
In my first week living there I phoned up the local Dominos to have a pizza delivered. They took my order but when I gave my address, they said ‘Sorry mate, we don’t deliver there’ and just hung up the phone.
This relatively unimportant incident had quite an impact on me. As a middle-class person, it was the first time I was denied something purely based on where I lived. It helped awaken me to the reality of other people’s experiences.
I have lots of vivid memories of my time living there.
The intimidating teenagers who sat on the wall right outside my flat drinking and urinating; the bangs of torched cars exploding in the underground parking underneath and the kids who ran over the top of parked police cars as the officers were dealing with incidents.
And being part of the fragile church fellowship who tried to reach out with hope into the chaos.
The main thing I learnt during this period was the reality of structural disadvantage.
The estate had structural problems which were deeper than simply the behaviour of individuals, families or groups. People living there were caught in a web of disadvantage which compounded the challenges they faced. It was deeper than just material poverty: it undermined their relationships with each other and how they perceived themselves.
The killing of George Floyd has had global significance. It was a single incident but one which exposes a structural or systematic reality which is deeply unjust.
This is why a phrase like ‘institutional racism’ has become important because it refers to behaviour which goes beyond just individual acts and describes discrimination which has become embedded in a culture.
In his book We Need To Talk About Race, Ben Lindsay says
‘Race and class are very much interwoven. It is impossible to separate the two in discussions about structural inequalities…Many of the white people I talk to are not actively racist. They do, however, often struggle to acknowledge the privileges that come with their whiteness or perhaps have never considered them.’
People like me: white, male, straight, university-educated and middle class need to accept the inter-linking factors which have formed our privilege. Sure, many ‘people like me’ have worked hard and used their skills, but we have generally lived in contexts where even a modest amount of effort is well rewarded.
Life is simply not like that for many people.
And the systems and structures which serve privilege and maintain injustice need to change.
It has been eye-opening listening to Black colleagues this week sharing their experiences. I have heard stories of people going for jobs interviews and being greeted by ‘Oh I didn’t think you were Black’, or of sons who no longer drive because of how often they are stopped by the Police. It is very similar to stories told by many of the young Black men in my youth group.
There are few things more cringy and pointless than middle-class guilt. I cannot do anything to change my background or who I am. But I can choose who I listen to, who I spend time with, who I develop relationships with, who I care about and who I speak up for.