The British invented racism, the Americans perfected it

Samuel Etienne

Samuel Etienne

In the United Kingdom, we tend to look at the United States with smug contempt over the police brutality and overt racial injustice on display there. Yet, Black people account for 3 percent of the population, but 8 percent of deaths in custody in the UK. Moreover, since 1990, just one police officer has been convicted for their role in the death of someone in their care. This, despite almost 2,000 people dying in police custody, or otherwise following contact with the police, in England and Wales during the same period.

For all of the diversity initiatives, government reports with limited actionable outcomes, and box-ticking exercises that have followed them, racial discrimination continues to permeate throughout British society. Research shows ethnic minorities in Britain are facing rising and increasingly overt racism, with levels of discrimination and abuse continuing to grow in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Racism in the UK is systemic. It is daily. It is tiring. We see it both in the language and methods used for dealing with anybody who is labelled “other”. It was evident in the Windrush scandal and the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Brexit vote. It is evident in the education system, employment market, and the healthcare system. It is evident in England’s higher BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) COVID-19 rate. 

So the UK is in no position to look at the other side of the Atlantic with contempt. As the saying goes, “The British invented racism, the Americans perfected it.”


As a Black man who served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, where ethnic minorities make up just 2.5 percent of all officers, I experienced British racism first-hand in its many forms.

In its most common form, it was masked by humour.

Ask any British soldier who “Leroy” is and what he does. Their response will be the same. Leroy is a mythical, hulking, Afro-Caribbean bogeyman, equipped with a larger-than-life appendage, who “will sleep with your partner while you’re away”.

I was “introduced” to Leroy for the first time at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where most of my white colleagues considered jokes about this hypersexual, deviant, Black male figure normal. It was an accepted everyday trope there.

Perhaps the myth of Leroy was born out of the indignation some English men and women felt when the first wave of post-war Afro Caribbean migrants settled in the UK and found English partners. Or maybe it is a representation of the even older white nationalist fears about Black people mixing with a white population and “sullying the blood”. The same fears that surfaced when Prince Harry married, and had a child with, Meghan Markle, an African American woman.

On one occasion, I recall hearing of a woman leaving her soldier partner for another man. “Well, at least he’s not Black” was the lotion offered by the soldier’s white colleagues for the burn of being ditched. In British society in general and the British military in particular, a hidden but commonplace sense of white supremacy places Black and brown people at the bottom of the social pecking order. For many British soldiers, being replaced by a Black man, a “Leroy”, is an insult worse than any other.

It is just banter, get on with it

Much of what the military does is behind closed doors for operational reasons. Beyond the battlefield, this culture of concealment allows behaviour that would be deemed anachronistic by wider society to continue unabated within the military bubble. 

British society reached the consensus that blackface is unacceptable some time ago. But the armed forces apparently did not get the memo. Just a few years ago, a colleague attended a costume party supposedly impersonating me, with their skin covered in black shoe polish and red golliwog lipstick. Senior commanders at the event looked on amused, awaiting a fiery response from me. These commanders preached the importance of moral courage, yet were complicit in normalising inappropriate behaviour steeped in racism under the guise of banter.

Later, when photos surfaced online, the blackface aficionado begged to have them instantly removed. They knew what they did was wrong and feared exposure to the judgement of those outside of the military bubble.

In the military context, the onus is often placed on the person who has been aggrieved to make light of the situation and “get on with it” – we see this in recent UK military discrimination cases won in civilian courts, having been originally quashed by internal investigations. Individuals are being forced to go outside of the bubble of their organisations to seek justice.

A recent investigation found that within the last five years, just more than 17 percent of racially aggravated crimes investigated by military police resulted in guilty verdicts at court martial. The Ministry of Defence admitted the number of cases investigated by military police services for the army, navy and air force was already low. Not many people dare to report racially motivated crimes in the military, because personnel who issue a formal complaint mark themselves an outcast from their colleagues.

And things are not getting any better.

Just last year, the service complaints ombudsman for the UK military, Nicola Williams, stated that within the UK military “incidents of racism are occurring with increasing and depressing frequency”.

Black Lives Matter, UK

Britons are not in a position today to watch the protest over George Floyd’s killing, and the wider Black Lives Matter movement in the US and say “we are beyond all this”.

Those who fail to recognise racism, just because they benefit from it and see it as the norm, cannot negate the experiences of the Black and brown citizens and residents of the UK who have to deal with overt and covert racism on a daily basis.

To eliminate racism, the UK first needs to acknowledge that it exists, that it is systemic, and that it is affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of Britons on a daily basis.

The British military prides itself on reflecting the best elements of society, but in reality, it also harbours some of the worst. It cannot continue to preach morality, justice and loyalty while allowing racism to fester within its barracks, academies and offices under the guise of “banter”. It cannot continue to allow racially aggravated crimes to go unpunished.

Today, as said many times before, it is not enough to not be racist. One needs to be actively anti-racist to help defeat systemic racism – both in the US and the UK.

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