This time last year, the nation watched on as flames engulfed Grenfell Tower. The pain and anguish on the faces of local residents was palpable for all to see. Lives were lost, families were torn apart, and a community was left traumatised. As homes were destroyed and people were left displaced, important questions were raised. Could this have been avoided? And who or what was to blame?
In the tabloids, immediate attentions were turned to the perennial folk devil: the racialised ‘Other’. This time, it was the Ethiopian taxi driver whose “faulty fridge started the inferno”. Such a short-sighted analysis would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. That so many on the right rushed to warn against ‘politicisation’ seemed to belie the inherent political implications of such racist scapegoating.
To fall back on the racialised scapegoat is a purposeful tactic that undermines movements for meaningful change. It occludes the culpability of those who ignored residents’ concerns leading up to the fire, and distracts us from the demands for justice and accountability that residents have made since. Most importantly, it distracts us from the socio-structural inequalities that create fertile ground for events like Grenfell. Instead, it feeds a burgeoning climate of racism, xenophobia, and hostility towards the ‘Other’.
It is unsurprising that the right were desperate to avoid a reckoning with a system that benefits the privileged few. But let’s make no mistake: Grenfell was an undeniable affront to society’s meritocratic pretence. Amid the unrelenting misery, deep-seated inequities were laid bare for all to see. As well as those structures that produce class inequalities, Grenfell reflects back at us a society underpinned by white supremacy. Its modes of articulation are numerous and ubiquitous.
Many of those who lost their lives in the fire were from racially minoritised backgrounds. This is neither random nor coincidental. Whilst many promulgate the myth that we live in a ‘post racial’ epoch, duped by the apparent symbolism of the royal wedding, evidence points to the abiding presence of systemic racism in housing generally, and the allocation of social housing particularly. Racially minoritised people are far more likely to experience housing deprivation and disproportionately more likely to live in tower blocks. As Danny Dorling notes, most children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks in England are black or Asian. This was a disaster to which, from the outset, Black and Brown people were always more likely to fall victim.
The Grenfell fire followed a sustained attack on social housing by Conservatives governments of recent years. The number of social housing lettings now available to new tenants is at a historically low level. Social housing has been sold-off, demolished or allowed to deteriorate. The Grenfell Action Group have rightly pointed to how these processes constitute a deliberate attempt to socially cleanse poor areas, often under the guise of ‘urban regeneration’. Meanwhile, the largely unregulated private renting sector has driven up the cost of private lets to unprecedented levels.
It’s particularly galling that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest areas in Europe. Some of the most expansive and expensive housing in London sits side-by-side with clusters of poor social housing. As the rapper, social commentator and local resident Akala suggested, there’s a pervading sense that cheap and flammable cladding was only applied to the outside of Grenfell tower because it was an eyesore for the rich people who lived opposite. Not only that, but Kensington and Chelsea council is one of the few ‘cash rich’ local authorities in the UK, with reserves of £274m stockpiled in March 2017. We must remember that it was the council’s choice to prioritise tax rebates for the rich over the safe renovation of Grenfell Tower and the safety of its residents.
Racist and classist housing conditions were not only salient in the conditions that created the disaster but, to add insult to injury, those inequities re-emerged in responses to the fire. We’ve seen a deplorable lack of urgency in finding permanent housing for those made homeless by the fire. A year on, less than half of those displaced have been permanently rehoused. This is a failure that, as North Kensington Law Centre has argued, compounds the frustration and trauma of Grenfell survivors. The inaction is demonstrative of the state’s flagrant disregard for the basic human needs of Black and Brown people.
In the weeks following the fire, in the search for emergency housing for Grenfell residents, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for the requisition of Kensington and Chelsea homes left vacant by overseas investors. Unsurprisingly, these calls made the right (and the majority of the nation) balk, revealing the ubiquity of the selfish logic of capitalism. That housing should be distributed according to wealth (‘you deserve it because you can afford it’), rather than according to need (‘you deserve it because you need it’), is grossly immoral. It’s this neoliberal logic that has seen the wealth of the elite rise alongside rates of homelessness. The rich get rich whilst the poor get poorer. There’s no prize for guessing at which end of this trend Black people are clustered.
Cognisant of the ways in which race and racism pattern life in Britain, Imran Khan QC – a lawyer acting on behalf of victims and survivors – recently urged the Grenfell public inquiry to examine the impact of “institutional racism” on the fire. He’s right to draw attention to how the deeply entrenched nature of white supremacy within our social, economic and political systems is (re)enacted by and within our core institutions. Evoking the intersectional nature of systems of dominance, Khan noted that “there is grave foreboding among our clients that the race, religion or social class of residents may have determined their destiny.” There seems little question that had Grenfell residents comprised the Conservative council’s core constituency demographic, their pre-emptive concerns would have been more difficult to ignore. As one resident puts it, were “white upper middle class people residing in the tower, the fire and the measures taken beforehand would never have happened.”
Whilst we should welcome the attention Khan draws to the potential for institutional racism within Kensington and Chelsea council, the Tenant Management Organisation, and/or the emergency services that attended the fire, we should recognise that racism extends far beyond these institutions. That is, racism is structurally embedded within our society, manifesting across a range of institutional and interpersonal settings: not least within the legal system itself.
With residents’ warnings of the safety risk being largely ignored before the fire, legal process might have offered an avenue through which residents could hold those (most directly) responsible to account. Yet as the president of the Law Society Robert Bourns contends: “Tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts”. Conservative cuts to legal aid have created a situation in which the right to legal process has become the preserve of those who can afford it.
Survivors have also raised concerns over the notable lack of ‘diversity’ on the inquiry’s expert panel, and the suitability of the chairman who “lacks first-hand experience of the complex social and cultural factors that helped shape the disaster”. Consistent with her litany of inadequate responses, these concerns have been ignored by Theresa May and her government, which seems more concerned with the perpetuation of its ‘hostile environment’ agenda.
Just as the race of victims is no coincidence, neither is the fact that many had migrated to the UK. This has to be understood within the broader context of the contempt that the UK Government shows towards people who migrate. Through its ‘hostile environment’ agenda, the Conservative Government has made abundantly clear the disdain with which it treats Black, Brown and migrating people. Seemingly ignorant to how UK foreign policy has given rise to the conditions that have pushed people to seek asylum in the UK, the Government has shown a callous unwillingness to assure Grenfell survivors and their families of their ‘right to remain’. The 12-month immigration amnesty offered by the Government to ‘undocumented migrant’ survivors has been labelled ‘meaningless’. As Jolyon Maughan QC contends, “the low number of people coming forward evidences the cynical and unattractive offer that was made by the Government to a number of people abysmally let down by the establishment.” On top of this, there are justifiable concerns over the limiting timeframe for applications, and the implications that deportations could have for the public inquiry.
In the pervasive anti-‘migrant’ currents surrounding Grenfell, there are clear connections to be drawn with the recent scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation (a situation that existed long before the recent media attention). Both are inextricably tied up with wider historical and socio-political processes that produce terrorizing consequences for Black and Brown people.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, terrorism describes ‘the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective’. Is this not precisely what we see in the treatment of Black and Brown people in both the Grenfell fire and the Windrush generation? Is this not what we see in the inhumane detention of Black and Brown women in centres like Yarl’s Wood, and in the harassment and abuse that Black youth face from the police? Is the political objective in all of this not the maintenance of white supremacy and colonial oppression?
This is not mere rhetoric. The reality is that contemporary understandings of terror are mediated by the same white supremacist power structures that produce such violence. Racist discourses are quick to construct Black and Brown populations as a threat, particularly those that are also Muslim, but ignore how the power structure systematically terrorises racially minoritised people. We should not be afraid to call out these acts of state terrorism.
The role played by this power structure leading up to and surrounding the Grenfell fire must be central to the ongoing public inquiry. It is no doubt only right and proper that questions should be asked about the failings of key organisations: Kensington and Chelsea the Tenant Management Organisation; Rydon Ltd, the company that won the contract for implementing the renovation; and the London Fire Brigade, whose ‘stay put’ policy has been widely criticised. But it is essential that the focus remains on the failures of the state. Successive Governments have privileged profit above people, let us not forget that.
After all, we have seen an ongoing commitment to the ripping up of ‘red tape’ in recent years. It is this deregulation that allowed flammable cladding to be used, despite warnings of its fire risk. It is this deregulation that means sprinkler systems are optional in high rise buildings rather than obligatory. And it is this deregulation that has ultimately killed more people around the globe than terrorism – at least, as it is popularly conceived.
In stark contrast to the lack of support offered by the state, the local community and faith-based groups rallied around survivors of the fire in its immediate aftermath, and in the weeks and months since. The silent commemorative marches that have taken place on the 14th of every month since the fire demonstrate the sense of collective spirit that has emerged following the disaster. Whilst the failures of our broken system are manifest for all to see, Grenfell has shown the potential of grassroots and community organisation that works to transform our society. Those of us interested in a better world must not let the victims of the fire die in vain. Instead, to honour their memory, we must continue to fight for radical social transformation. As we do so, we should recognise the interconnectedness of our struggles against white supremacy. Most immediately, we should support the important work of justice4grenfell.