Photography via Creative Commons / Flickr Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Trevor Phillips has made quite a name for himself in black and brown communities, not for championing race equality – as he’ll have some of us believe – but for doing the exact opposite. The self-confessed “advocate of both equality and diversity”, and former chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, has more than outdone himself in proving that he vehemently disregards the nuances and experiences of people of colour in the United Kingdom.
Over the years this man of contradictions has created outrage among the many communities of colour for his brand of “anti-racism”. He positions himself as an anti-liberal, relying heavily on drawing binaries between the “model” vs. the “delinquent immigrant”. His performance goes so far as to join the slew of Islamophobic rhetoric that seemingly goes without consequence, perhaps met with reward, by a certain government.
It’s no surprise then, that when Public Health England (PHE) announced their appointment of Trevor to review the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on the UK’s “black, Asian and minority ethnic” population, this drew mass criticism from public health professionals, academics and others. Time and again we are shown that black and brown lives do not matter in the arena of UK politics. Now, we’re seeing this in relation to a global pandemic.
“Time and again we are shown that black and brown lives do not matter in the arena of UK politics. Now, we’re seeing this in relation to the pandemic”
This decision has been rightly branded an “insult” to the thousands of people of colour who make up over 16% of all fatalities so far – a number that is likely to increase. On 27 April, 16 “BAME” medical organisations, who represent thousands of medics, wrote to PHE, calling on them to revoke their appointment and replace him with someone “who has authoritative knowledge of medicine, epidemiology, culture and discrimination” in addition to having “the trust of the communities this review seeks to understand”. By contrast, the Labour party have appointed Doreen Lawrence, a pioneering anti-racism campaigner, to lead the party’s own version of the review.
As recently as March 2020, Trevor was suspended by the Labour Party pending an investigation into Islamophobia. In a previous interview, he dusted-off some text-book othering by branding Muslims as “see[ing] the world differently from the rest of us” and being “unlike others in Britain” – rhetoric that has upheld systemic oppression for half a millennia and in some cases had fatal consequences for minority communities.
When political figures such as Trevor openly discriminate, it emboldens right-wing Islamophobes – inviting them to become openly loud, proud and racist. Take Boris Johnson. In 2018, he likened the appearance of hijab and niqab-wearing Muslim women to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”. Following that, Islamophobic incidents rose by 375%.
“By appointing Trevor Phillips to investigate a circumstance that would undoubtedly include the tragic passing of Muslim doctors, PHE makes a mockery out of their sacrifice”
In the context of Covid-19, the first doctors in the NHS to die of the virus were those of Muslim faith, their names were Alfa Sa’adu; Amged el-Hawrani; Adil El Tayar and Habib Zaidi. By appointing Trevor to investigate a circumstance that would undoubtedly include the tragic passing of these doctors, PHE makes a mockery out of the sacrifice of these men. In any other context, would it be appropriate to hire someone who is under investigation for discriminating against the very communities that an review seeks to support? No, would be the short answer.
In addition to the medics’ letter to Public Health England, InfluencHer, a collective of 100 black British women, wrote to PHE also calling for his replacement. The collective reference an extremely dismissive, and fundamentally uninformed argument by Trevor in his 2016 essay titled Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence. In it, he wrote: “Any attempt to ask whether aspects of minority disadvantage may be self-inflicted is denounced as ‘blaming the victim’. Instead, we prefer to answer any difficult questions by focusing on the historic prejudices of the dominant majority. In short, it’s all about white racism… it is dangerously misguided”.
This statement clearly demonstrates his willingness to undermine anti-racism efforts. He has offered himself as a martyr for racism deniers and keepers of white privilege, as someone overtly comfortable with painting people of colour as abusers of racial tensions, who do not take ownership of our oppression.
“Trevor Phillips claimed that schools are ‘too afraid to help white boys’ defended the use of the slur ‘coloured’, accused anti-knife crime ‘liberals’ of ‘grumbling about poverty’ and inferred white privilege does not exist”
More recently, in December 2019, he decided to further demonise people of colour in an article for the Daily Mail. He used the platform to claim that “progressives” have a “neurosis” when it comes to understanding structural racism, asserting that they use “guilt” to “condescend” organisations into change. Once again, he berated those who are examining the nuances and pervasiveness of structural oppression, proactively using his platform to work against and attempt to discredit (albeit weakly) well documented and widely experienced forms of racism.
In one fell swoop, Trevor claimed that schools are “too afraid to help white boys,” defended the use of the racial slur “coloured”, accused anti-knife crime “liberals” of “grumbling about poverty”, inferred white privilege does not exist and accused people of colour of misusing the Equalities Act (2010) as a “be nice to blacks” charter. All in all, he produced a disgraceful piece of “journalism”.
In the cases of the Windrush and Grenfell Tower inquiries, we have seen how essential it is to be able to trust in the investigations that purport to obtain the truth where state violence has occurred towards people of colour. It is not only incredibly insensitive to appoint a person with such a track record of discrimination, but it is also a direct hindrance to the depth, nuance and importantly integrity of the Covid-19 review. I mirror the words of these organisations in calling on PHE to revoke Trevor Phillips’ appointment and to heed the call of the communities most affected by the pandemic.