Skip to main content

Paper Promises

By Perry Miller
22 April 2021

By Perry Miller

Do Black Lives Matter? Apparently not so much if they were lost on a field in Flanders during World War One.  That is the damning conclusion of an inquiry by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CGWC), which has today apologised for what it calls ‘pervasive racism’ that had led to predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died in that conflict, not being properly commemorated. Indeed, it found that some had not been commemorated at all. By the report’s estimation, this was the fate of somewhere between 116,000 and 350,000 mostly African and Middle Eastern casualties.

David Lammy MP used another word to describe what had happened, in his eye-opening Channel 4 documentary, Unremembered (2019), which was the trigger for the CWGC investigation. He called it ‘apartheid’ as he gazed down on the well-tended graves of white service personnel in a graveyard in southern Kenya, and then looked beyond the perimeter to the overgrown shrub where the unmarked burials of black servicemen had taken place.    

Archived CWGC documents from the 1920s reveal the prevailing attitude towards the commemoration of Black African service personnel at the time: ‘I consider the erection of individual headstones would constitute a waste of public money.’ The documentary noted that a letter signing off on the plan of non-commemoration was written by the then chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, Winston Churchill.

To be fair, the CWGC notes in its report that ‘the events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now.’

We can tell ourselves that such a thing would never happen today. And it’s likely true that such brazen, official discrimination has had its day. But before we take self-congratulation too far, there’s another report out, from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

As part of its work, it looked at the 25 previous reports commissioned by the Church of England into racism and racial injustice and found that the vast majority of recommendations made had been ignored.  It describes the number of ethnic minority bishops as an ‘alarmingly retrograde trend’ and recommends that there should be at least one candidate from a minority ethnic background on shortlists for bishops and other senior roles.

The two Archbishops have today committed to implementing five of the 47 recommendations in the report, although shortlisting was not one of them. The report also suggests that the Church should not ‘unconditionally celebrate or commemorate people who contributed to or benefited from the tragedy that was the slave trade’.

On that point, Justin Welby has noted that he is ‘committed to contextualisation’ for controversial statues in churches but said that ‘99.99% will stay’.

It’s perhaps no wonder that the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent declared earlier this week that the UK Government’s recent race report was ‘a tone-deaf attempt at rejecting the lived realities of people of African descent and other ethnic minorities’ in Britain.

So many reports and inquiries, seemingly such little progress.