The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted systemic racism in our social systems. As a social worker, I have witnessed the financial disadvantages that people of color have suffered, often working low paid jobs during their working lives and then moving into retirement with little financial security and assets.
The Windrush Generation of the UK.
I recall a gentleman who was from the Windrush generation — David* had emigrated from the Caribbean, to work and help rebuild Britain in the post war era. He was 83 years old and had a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. I was his mental health social worker and visited his home to support him to remain well.
David lived in darkness in a third storey council flat. One might have assumed he was paranoid as he didn’t open the curtains. However, it was to blot out old and broken furniture that he had moved to the balcony many years ago. He didn’t have the money or anyone to help dispose of it, so he put it there out of sight, stacked up against the window. He lived alone, occasionally cooking on the stove top, using his one small saucepan, and getting a hot meal at the local cafe when his legs allowed, and the budget stretched. He couldn’t afford a TV licence or a TV so he listened to the radio. He had very little, no family, and knew no one. He was totally alone.
He was living on a retirement pension of £90.70 per week and I could see he wasn’t getting the Pension Credit or the Disability Living Allowance. He was reluctant to claim what he was owed and I couldn’t understand his reluctance. His income barely covered his bills and years of poverty had left him deprived of basic needs. The bristles on his toothbrush had frayed years ago and his bed had no sheets, the mattress was stained and sagging. I took him a leaflet explaining the benefit entitlement, hoping to change his mind. There was an awkwardness as he lowered his gaze. He apologised that he couldn’t read. His shame met my guilt and I realised I had not taken the time to understand his situation.
He told me the story of his marriage. He loved his wife, although she had wanted a child. Having experienced racism himself since arriving in Britain, David could not bear the torment of seeing his child suffer the same abuse. He sacrificed his marriage, his only family, and chose not to bring another child into this world. His wife left him. His loneliness, the price to pay for the overt, insidious and relentless racial abuse that he had suffered. The penalty he continued to pay for being black; the loss of family making sure he was safe and had enough to eat, the joy of grandchildren never felt.
It was after his wife left that David developed Schizophrenia. Sitting with David, I felt a sense of his sadness, loss, and fear. A gentle, kind man who was grossly disadvantaged by his skin color. He felt a burden, like he didn’t belong. He took very little and gave so much. He owed nothing.
A Universal Basic Dividend can fight systemic racism.
Yanis Varoufakis describes how the welfare system is a “weaponised system against the poor” that causes shame and forces claimants to prove that they need income support in order to survive and risk eroding a person’s dignity. One solution to this would be a Universal Basic Dividend, (UBD), as advocated by DiEM25. It would be set up as a basic right to a minimum income and remove the degradation so often felt when applying for benefits. One of the issues that he Windrush Generation faces is that they are often denied access to benefits — this has been considered a scandal for many years. A UBD, which all peoples would receive, would act as a direct payment.
David did eventually agree to claim the full benefit entitlement and his income increased. A new bed was bought, the old furniture was removed and he started to open his curtains. Yet this isn’t a happy ending. My role as a social worker in enabling David to maximise his income was just a small part of the solution.
The Hostile Environment Policy designed to curb immigration, has deported many of the children from the Windrush Generation as they never obtained citizenship, after travelling to Britain on their parent’s passports. When I heard of this, I thought of David and remembered his foresight of future generations having to continually suffer systemic racism. The deportees could have been his children or grandchildren. Elderly members, who have only ever known the UK as their home, have also been deported.
Black Lives Matters has highlighted how slowly change occurs and that racism continues to be perpetuated through systems and policies. Each time David steps out onto the street he is still a black man in the UK. He still suffers from racism.
Social work has taught me to be aware of my biases, because they are there, as they are in us all.
As a social worker, I am frequently reminded that you can’t meddle with people’s lives — a good intention can cause harm if it isn’t considered with the other person at the center of finding solutions. As a white woman telling the story of a black man, I became starkly aware of my desire to finish the story on a light note, by glossing over and denying the reality of David’s life. Driven by the urge to make right my guilt with a story of benevolence, made necessary due to limitations of systems that are systemically racist.
In watching news of the recent protests, I felt enraged with the injustices and could no longer sit on my sofa feeling angry and helpless. It moved me into activism and supporting the work of DiEM25. We need to collectively keep talking about and address the countless issues at the intersection of systemic racism. At a macro level, the UBD is one solution in removing such power differentials and respectably acknowledges the role of the majority in earning dividends for wealthy companies.
For guidance on having conversations about racial equality see the links below:
Communicating for racial justice
Our role as non-black people of color in disrupting racism
Lessons: Talking about race, racism and racial justice
*The name of the person has been changed for the purposes of this article.
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