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10 June 2020

By Rachael Lindsay

As Black Lives Matter protests take place around the globe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, I have been thinking about the racism inherent in Britain’s housing and homelessness crises.

“Not staying silent”

I long debated the merits of writing this article as I am a white person who has benefitted from white privilege all my life. But I firmly believe that white allies of the Black Lives Matter movement have a duty not to stay silent in the face of racism.

I posted a black square on the Glass Door Instagram feed on #blackouttuesday as part of my role as communications officer. I felt this was an obvious way for our organisation to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But many black activists and influencers pointed out that taking two minutes to post a black square on your Instagram on one day of the year is simply not enough.

If we are white, it is our duty to look at ourselves and our society to identify and root out the structural racism that we may unconsciously perpetuate.

The racial housing divide

The statistics on homelessness and home ownership show how race and homelessness are linked:

  • The 2017/18 figures on statutory homelessness record that 14% of all homeless households are Black while Black ethnic groups only make up 3.3% of the population. A statutory homeless household is one that is unintentionally homeless and is considered a priority, often because there are dependent children.
  • According to the 2011 census data, Black African households are 75% more likely than white British households to suffer ‘housing deprivation’ such as overcrowding.
  • According to the UK’s latest ethnicity facts and figures, 68% of White British households own their own home compared to only 20% of Black African households. In every socio-economic group and age group, White British households are more likely to own their own homes than all ethnic minority households combined.

If you own a home then you are far more likely to accrue wealth, power and opportunity for you and your family. Thus, the cycle of white power and privilege continues.

A history of disadvantage

Trustee of race equality think tank Runnymede Trust, Farah Elahi, explains that Black households are under-represented in homeownership and overrepresented in homelessness figures due to the economic disparity between black and white communities.

Black and minority ethnic communities are more concentrated in London where the house prices are the highest in the country and home ownership is the most out of reach for those on low incomes.

The perpetuation of inadequate housing for Black households is intertwined with poverty and the lack of affordable housing, particularly in London.

And this is nothing new. Systematic racial disadvantage in housing has a long history. Rules regarding council housing in the 70s and 80s tended to discriminate against those from ethnic minorities. Several reports indicate that private landlords continue to discriminate to this day.

Considering the horrors of colonialism and slavery committed by our white forefathers, should we be surprised that the legacies of racism continue today?

JT Flowers, a 26-year-old American rapper, student and activist living in the UK, puts it simply:

Black lives aren't valued in the same way that white lives are.

Turning the tide

I often feel fatalistic about all this: I despair that black lives aren’t equally valued by white communities and I question why the racial divide has not been bridged after centuries of struggle. But I think it is dangerous to assume that there is nothing we can do.

As Olivette Otele wrote this week in the Guardian:  

The task now is to translate this despair and rage into commitment to work together towards racial equality.

An obvious start is to work towards ensuring adequate housing for all. Safe shelter should be a human right and nobody should have to sleep on our streets. Allowing street homelessness to exist in the 21st century maintains the vicious cycle of racial and economic disparity. Ending homelessness may not be an easy task but I firmly believe it is possible.

But, if we are white, we also need to make this personal, to look at ourselves and our own lives and examine our privilege.

According to black activist Katie Pettit:

“A good ally looks like someone who’s really done their work around understanding what white supremacy is, how it’s played out in their lives and how they’ve benefitted from it”.

Opening our eyes to the impact of the past and of white-led institutions on communities of colour is also vital to enable non-black people to be true allies in this movement.

If we don’t understand the way white privilege has helped us and hindered others then how can we even start to turn the tide?

Sources and useful links:

On being an ally and white privilege : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-52892949

On #blackouttuesday: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/blackout-tuesday-instagram-was-teachable-moment-allies-me-ncna1225961

On racism in Britain’s housing crisis (from 2017): https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2017/jul/06/britain-housing-crisis-racist-bme-homelessness