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The Black Lives Matter era is over. It taught us the limits of diversity for diversity’s sake

By Nesrine Malik

If 2020 was the year that Black Lives Matter went mainstream, 2024 was the year it died. Quietly, without even the customary whimper, the trappings of diversity so frantically sought and flamboyantly brandished after those protests four years ago are being discarded.

Like so many of the promises and pledges of the pandemic era, those of its accompanying racial equality movement have been swallowed whole by reality. But it’s worth remembering how large, how global, how fashionable it all was at the time. There were big, iconic moments, such as the removal of statues in Europe and the US, that triggered soul-searching about our history, and which opened up productive avenues of reappraisal. And there were others that four years later you cringe to remember: the black squares on social media, Nancy Pelosi taking the knee wearing kente cloth, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner also taking the knee while looking soberly into the camera.

When it came to institutions and corporations, this mass movement was translated – or, rather, flattened – into a question of representation; of quickly incorporating more Black people, rather than any kind of root-and-branch reform. A movement that had been triggered by police brutality, and whose main demand was reforming policing and the safety of marginalised Black communities, spread across the world and resulted in more Black faces on the cover of Vogue magazine.

In a way, it could only have ever been thus. If you are to measure the success of the movement through its most high-profile adoptions, then the initiatives that came out of this period, those that emphasised diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce, were already stillborn. Bringing more people of colour into pre-existing structures is far too narrow a route to systemic racial equalisation – it could only ever, at best, replicate those systems in a broader palette.

At worst, it was exploitation for reputation-management purposes. Take the BBC’s former head of creative diversity, Joanna Abeyie, who left last July after a year and a half in the role. She loved the job, she says, but that wasn’t enough. “These roles can become untenable when autonomy, influence and decision-making is minimal to absent,” Abeyie wrote. “When there is no sign of improvement and the role is created because optically it’s the right thing to do.” The role she reported to, that of director of diversity and inclusion, was quietly killed off when the person who held it left in early May after less than two years in the position.

It is part of a global slowdown. According to Revelio Labs, a workforce data company, the rate of attrition for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions has been about double that of other roles. Outgoing DEI executives report not only an unsupportive work environment, but active hostility. And even before that, despite the big 2020 heave-ho, progress on employment and retention has been stubbornly slow, patchy or easily clawed back.

The BBC is still falling short of the BAME leadership target that it set in 2018. The overall impression is of organisations assuming that this would be easy and would not require proper budgets, or uncomfortable transparency about salaries, seniority of roles and who ultimately calls the shots and makes the big decisions.

But it’s not easy. The work of racial diversity is not about expansion, but rebalancing – the former is about supplementing an organisation; the latter is about redistributing its resources. One implies gains, the other loss. It’s no surprise that to organisations that live and die by the bottom line, even the gains are beginning to seem as if they’re not worth the effort. The legacy of Black Lives Matter cannot be worked out within the balance sheet of a tech company.

Especially as the moment has passed, colossally so. The backlash began before the kente cloth had come back from the dry cleaners. Black Lives Matter immediately entered the realm of culture war, included in the package of “woke” and radical causes that are to be summarily sneered at by rightwing parties and the rightwing press. It’s not just an unfriendly climate. The backlash has brought with it potent, chilling legislation.

In the UK, Black Lives Matter was described as containing “partisan” political views that “must not be promoted to pupils”, in government guidance about political impartiality in classrooms. In the US, a spate of contentious anti-DEI lawsuits by rightwing groups and individuals, recently encouraged by the supreme court ruling against affirmative action, have targeted small businesses and large established ones, prompting several to pre-emptively water down their diversity and inclusion policies.

One of the organisations sued for policies discriminatory to non-Black people is North Central University in Minneapolis. Legal Insurrection Foundation, a far-right advocacy group, accused the university of violating the Civil Rights Act by reserving a scholarship for Black or African American students. The scholarship, in a neat encapsulation of the onslaught against the spirit of 2020, is the George Floyd memorial scholarship.

Meanwhile, there is a growing demonstration across the political spectrum that diversity and politics are two different things. Rishi Sunak’s appointment as prime minister came with not only the same policies of crackdowns on strikes, protest and even human rights laws, but also a bitter bonus of using the promotions of Black and brown people to positions of power to scold us. We’re here, aren’t we? Sunak says, living proof that you should stop griping about racism.

Whatever residual, misty-eyed longing there was for people of colour to reach the highest offices was surely dashed by a brown multimillionaire endlessly bleating that he is here to “stop the boats”. Personally, little has been more helpful in removing the scales from my eyes than the notion that Kemi Badenoch’s rise is something to be celebrated.

That doesn’t mean all of those models we have been offered so far amount to naught. Racial minorities have the right to bad or self-interested politics, and they have the right through diversity initiatives, whatever their motivations, to make more money and have more opportunities within whatever career they choose. It is not their responsibility to calibrate their role in nudging along the cause of better policing or maternal health when they just want to make movies, work in Stem or – to be fair – be on the cover of Vogue.

And this is all progress that is meaningful, broadly redistributive, and even potentially fruitful in terms of coming close to meeting those broader political and economic goals in the long run. But it seems that even that window is closing in favour of brute “meritocracy” – which means, increasingly, closing the door to all those who don’t already have a head start.

Which is why there must be something else that broadens the definition of equality beyond meeting liberal criteria of success for the Black individual. Away from the corporate world, that something is happening. BLM UK has for three years been disbursing funds to people affected by deaths in police and psychiatric custody, and to groups combating the hostile environment. It’s on a much smaller scale than the sort of mass adoption of diversity as the answer we saw in 2020, but in it there is a committed understanding of racial justice as a goal that can be achieved only by tackling, in a focused way, the policies that fall sharply on the heads of the most insecure and hurt their health, safety, dignity and even basic participation in social and economic life.

Black Lives Matter as a mainstream taking of the knee may be dead; but in a more modest, targeted and, we can hope, sustainable way, it is still very much alive. And perhaps that’s as it should be.


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