Seeking Justice: George Floyd’s Death and Structural Racism in the UK

For more information on our response to the ongoing events:


On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was suffocated by a police officer in Minneapolis, while three other officers looked on. This tragic murder was not a one-off or something that can be attributed to a rogue officer: George Floyd has joined a long list of black men, women, and children who have been killed in recent years by police officers in the US. (Here is a list of some of the names of black people killed by the police since Eric Garner's murder in 2014 and George Floyd's murder this year.) Protests have since erupted all over the world, not only in response to George Floyd’s murder, but also in response to the systemic racism that has devalued black lives, and has left black people vulnerable to police brutality and inequality. In the UK, Black Lives Matter UK has organised countless protests in towns and cities across the country: people have taken to the streets in their thousands to not only demand justice for George Floyd, but also to call for an end to systemic racism.

This Teaching Idea is a guide for teachers to begin conversations with their students about George Floyd’s death and the events that surround it. Such conversations are always difficult for teachers to facilitate, and distance learning presents added challenges to teaching sensitive material. Despite these challenges, it’s critical to make space for students to process the difficult and deeply painful events of these past weeks and the protests and social unrest that have followed.

  1. Start with Yourself

    Self-reflection is important preparation for facilitating sensitive conversations with our students. As educators, we have to process our own feelings and become aware of the way our own identities and experiences shape the perspectives we hold.

    In order to create a classroom environment that can effectively support difficult conversations, we must start by striving to model constructive civil discourse ourselves. We have to be aware of our own strongly held beliefs, political positions, emotional responses, and biases and be thoughtful about how they influence what we say and do when the headlines enter into the classroom. Remember that you are not a neutral participant in your classroom, and take ownership of the lens that you bring to the classroom community. Students may have experiences that are similar to, or different from, yours that inform their responses.

    Read the first few paragraphs of the blog post After Eric Garner: One School’s Courageous Conversation by Facing History and Ourselves staff member Steve Becton, stopping at ‘We all need to be in conversations where we feel safe sharing our most vulnerable emotions, raising our most troubling questions, and listening to others’ perspectives, and are encouraged to act responsibly.’ Then reflect on the following questions:

    • What emotions do the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd raise for you?
    • What perspectives will you bring to your reflection on these events with your students?
    • What can you do to ensure that students with a range of perspectives are supported in your reflection?
    • As this story develops, how will you continue to learn alongside your students?
  2. Prepare for Teaching

    A remote learning environment poses particular challenges for difficult conversations. These ideas will help you to plan a sensitive and effective conversation with your students:

    • Plan where and how you will hold this conversation. Will it be a live discussion on Zoom or another platform? Will you use a moderated discussion board or other platform that students can add to at different times?
    • If you don’t regularly meet with your students online, consider setting up office hours when students have the option to call or message you to discuss their thoughts or feelings about the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed.
    • Tell students ahead of time what to expect from your conversation about the events surrounding George Floyd’s death, so that they can emotionally prepare. For example, let your students know if they will be assigned to break out rooms or other discussion forums. Consider giving students the opportunity to opt-out of talking during the conversation, in order to provide students who need it space to process what they are experiencing and learning.
    • Determine whether you might be able to refer students to school wellness staff for additional support if needed.
    • Consider communicating with parents and caregivers about the conversation you are planning to hold. How might you help to bridge and support connections between school conversations and those happenings in students’ lives outside of school?
  3. Create Space for Student Reflection

    In the midst of traumatic and violent events, it can be beneficial to focus first on emotional processing, addressing the ‘heart’ before the ‘head.’ Give yourself and your students space to reflect on your emotional responses to the event.

    • Let your students know that their learning environment is a safe space. Begin with a brief Contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space in your distance learning environment. Invite your students to add to or modify the contract to support this conversation. Then follow with an acknowledgment of the event and its emotional impact.
    • Consider sharing a resource from a trusted news outlet to establish baseline knowledge of the events and dispel misinformation. You might choose to share an article, such as the article 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds from the New York Times that explains how George Floyd was killed in police custody, or you might choose an article from a local news source to focus on the impact of his murder in the UK. (Many students may have watched the video of George Floyd’s murder. We do not recommend showing this graphic video to your class, in part because it risks retraumatising students.)
    • Give your students an opportunity to reflect individually in their journals. Students should have the option to keep their journal reflections private. Potential journal prompts include:

      • How is the news of the few past weeks, including the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests, affecting you?
      • What would you like others to know about what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing?
      • What do you need from others to understand, cope, process, and be safe as this story continues to unfold?
      • What can you offer to others to support them in how this story is impacting them?
    • Invite students to share any reflections they wish to, but also give students the option to keep their reflections private. Possible ways to share include:

      • One-on-one or small group office hours with teacher
      • Small group discussions among students on a video or chat platform Voice recordings (sent directly to the teacher or shared in a student forum)
      • Excerpts from journal entries, chosen by students (sent directly to the teacher or shared in a student forum)
  4. Go Deeper: Reflect on the Anti-Racism Protests and Structural Racism in the UK

    Play Sky News’ video Black Lives Matter: Why do the George Floyd protests resonate so strongly in the UK? for your students.

    Then, reflect with students:

    • Over one hundred thousand people have taken to the streets in the UK since the murder of George Floyd. What reasons do they give for doing so in the video?
    • The journalist interviewing people asks a woman about why people are protesting during a pandemic. What is her response? What does this tell us about racism in the UK?
    • In the video, people discuss how racial discrimination plays out in the UK. What do they say about this? What impact does such discrimination have?
    • Angela Davis’ statement ‘in a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist’ has been widely circulated during these protests. What does this tell us about what needs to be done to challenge injustice? Whose responsibility is it?

    Then, share the following information concerning the systemic racism in the criminal justice system and police activity in the UK:

    The systemic racism in the UK impacts the lives and opportunities of all ethnic minorities, but black people, in particular, appear to be at greater risk of being targeted by police. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, black people in London were twice as likely to be fined for lockdown breaches than white people.1 This biased policing of black people on the streets is also evident in how stop and search is deployed. Black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts: a recent publication from the Ministry of Justice showed that in 2018-2019 in England and Wales, there were ‘4 stop and searches for every 1,000 White people, compared with 38 for every 1,000 Black people.’2 During this period, then, black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched. Given that 17% of stop and searches lead to arrest and 13% to some other kind of action, this bias puts black people more at risk of entering the criminal justice system than their white counterparts.3 It is no surprise then that black people are disproportionately represented in UK prisons. In 2017, the Lammy Review found that there was ‘greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons [in England and Wales] than in the United States.’4 Despite accounting for just 3% of the population of England and Wales, black people accounted for 12% of the UK prison population.5 Distressingly, black people, as the 2017 Angiolini Review highlighted, are also more likely to have died in police custody as a consequence of being subjected to ‘dangerous restraint techniques and excessive force’ than white people.6

    In addition to the discriminatory deployment of stop and search powers by police and the, as highlighted by the Lammy Review, ‘overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system,’ black people also experience discrimination in other areas, which leaves them more vulnerable to ending up in prison. Black Caribbean students are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts.7 This is concerning in and of itself as young black people are losing out on education, but it becomes all the more concerning when you learn that, according to a 2012 report by the Ministry of Justice, the majority of people who end up in the prison system have been excluded from school.8 Another area that impacts the disproportional representation of black people in prison is social deprivation: according to a 2018 publication by the Office of National Statistics, ‘Black people were most likely to live in the most income-deprived neighbourhoods (23.3% lived in the most income-deprived 10% of neighbourhoods) and White people were least likely to (8.7% did so).’9 Growing up in poverty is another factor which increases one’s chance of going to prison.10

    As is evident from the above statistics, systemic racism in the UK is a deeply ingrained problem that greatly reduces the life opportunities for black people and leaves them at greater risk in the hands of police. This oppression needs to be actively addressed or more people will continue to live in fear and to suffer for something as arbitrary as the colour of their skin.

  5. Use the following questions to reflect on the information above with your students:

    • How has it made you feel learning about the statistics concerning systemic racism in Britain?
    • Is there anything that you found particularly surprising or troubling in the reading?
    • What impact has the reading had on how you view the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in the UK?
    • People have been campaigning to challenge systemic racism in the UK in a range of ways. Some organisations have focused their efforts on schools: The Black Curriculum, for example, is a social enterprise that campaigns for black British history to be taught in schools, whilst Show Racism the Red Card is an educational charity that has delivered workshops to students and used high profile footballers to spread its anti-racist messages. Other organisations have focused their efforts on putting pressure on the government: for example, the Runnymede Trust, a charity and independent race equality think tank, has conducted research and analysis on race inequality in the UK to start debate and policy engagement.

      What do you think should be done to challenge systemic racism in the UK?

    You might also have students synthesize what they have learned from this reading by having them create an iceberg diagram. At the top of the diagram, students can write ‘disproportionate number of black people in prison.’ Next to the bottom part of the diagram (under the water), students should write their answers to these questions:

    • What are the causes of the disproportionate amount of black people in prison?
    • What does this tell us about society and the opportunities available to black people in the UK?

    Finally, ask students to share their diagrams. (If students drew their own diagrams, they can take a photo to share.)

Additional Resources

To see more about how people have united to challenge racism in the UK, watch the following video: How London United for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter (The Guardian)

To read more about systemic racism in the UK and the steps we can take to challenge it, see the following articles:

Citations

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