OPINION4 November 2020

Has Black Lives Matter changed awareness of history?

Opinion UK

Samuel Tholley analyses the results of ICM research to explore whether the Black Lives Matter movement led to learning more about black people’s role throughout history.

Black lives matter protest_crop

Black lives matter… and so does black history, right? To mark Black History Month and to follow up on similar data findings recorded by ICM Unlimited in 2019, we asked a representative sample of the British public a series of questions to gauge their awareness of black history, explore attitudes towards history curricula and unearth opinions about race relations.

There is an assumption that the prevalence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, especially after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, may have encouraged many to learn more about the experiences of black people, their contributions to society and how systemic racism has affected them historically.

In June, polemic anti-racist rhetoric and trending hashtags in response to Floyd’s death were rife on social media. Despite the international reaction, our results suggest that mass support for BLM in Britain did not necessarily mean that more people were impassioned to learn about black history.

In fact, just one third ( 34%) of the general public said they have learned more about black history since Floyd’s death and the BLM protests, while the same proportion ( 34%) said they have not. This suggests that socio-political events pertaining to the black community do not always have a unanimously positive attitudinal change regarding British people’s engagement with black history.

Despite 90% of the public saying they are aware of black and minority ethnic (BAME) people’s contributions throughout British history, less than a fifth ( 18%) would say that their knowledge of black history is strong, indicating that more in-depth knowledge about black history is not commonplace in Britain. The marginalisation of black history in the collective British consciousness is further evidenced by only a quarter ( 26%) of people stating they are satisfied with the amount of black history they learned in school.

Nevertheless, our data also indicates that across Britain there is a desire to learn more about black history. One in three ( 33%) people do not think that the amount of black history taught in schools is enough and two in five ( 42%) would like to learn more.

Indeed, the importance of learning black history is illuminated by the answers to true/false statements posed to the British public.

When asked if the statement that ‘no Africans had learned to read or write before Africa was colonised by other countries’ is true or false:

  • 13% believed this to be true, while 38% did not know
  • Half ( 49%) of the public correctly stated this is false.

Additionally, the highest score of doubt across the statements tested pertains to whether there has been a black lord mayor of London:

  • 31% believed this is false and 41% did not know
  • 28% correctly stated this is true (James Townsend, in the 1700s).

Overall, the results imply that many Brits think there is social cohesion between ethnicities and that opportunities for success are equal for both black and white people. Over two-fifths ( 43%) stated that there are equal opportunities for both black and white people in the UK and over half ( 53%) said that people from different ethnic/cultural backgrounds living in their local area are well integrated.

However, over half ( 57%) agreed that there is racism/discrimination against black people in Britain. Black people were more than twice as likely to disagree that there are equal opportunities for black and white people in the UK ( 69% compared with 31%).

The nation is split in its opinion on how the government is dealing with systemic racism. A third ( 34%) did not believe the government is doing enough to tackle it, compared to 31% who think it is doing enough.

Despite this year’s demonstrations, in many ways the British public remain polarised. Although the BLM protests did not lead to all (or even most) Britons suddenly becoming interested in black history, the results still show that many desire to learn more – which is encouraging.

There is still much work to be done to achieve racial equality in Britain and introducing a sufficient amount of black history into the school curricula is one step. Black History Month is vitally important, however, ensuring that more black history is taught in schools all year round would drive the broadening of the public’s perspective of what black people have contributed to Britain and the world.

Samuel Tholley is research executive at ICM Unlimited. Outside work, Samuel is archiving the stories of African-Caribbeans throughout history via an online archive (@_hiddenpages on Instagram and Twitter).