Alfred Zack-Williams, a published author and an emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Central Lancaster in the United Kingdom, spoke at “Policing the Crisis: Black Lives and Anti-racist Development,” a March 17 virtual event hosted by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management’s Center for Global Development and Sustainability.

Zack-Williams began by discussing African history and the ways that this history has been shaped by colonization and slavery, asking “What would our destiny have been if Christopher Colombus’ 1492 project had not materialized?” Prior to Columbus’ expedition that led to the colonization of the Americas and the slave trade, Africa had been doing well in terms of development, Zack-Williams explained. He gave the example of Mansa Musa, the king of Mali in the early 1300s. Considered the richest man in history, Musa generously shared his wealth with his citizens, leading to inflation in the country. At this time, African nations had been developing at a similar pace to the rest of the world.

However, “the image of Africa was destroyed” due to European interference, which impacted both African development as well as people’s perception of African people, Zack-Williams explained. As a result, he said, many African nations are behind in development, and racism remains widespread. “The slave trade transformed the world,” impacting “what Africa is, what Africa has been and what Africa could be,” Zack-Williams added.

The perception of African history has also been impacted, Zack-Williams continued. He explained that his students had been asking to learn more about African history, but as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said, “the history is only of Europe in Africa.” By this, Trevor-Roper meant that European-influenced history is what has largely been documented and taught. As a result, much of the available history of African countries is centered around European dominance through colonization and the slave trade. Zack-Williams also said that schools should add more African history into their curriculum, but that this must be organized by people who are invested in taking on this educational project and doing it correctly.  

After gaining independence, Zack-Williams said countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya and Sudan have violated human rights in numerous ways, seen through ongoing war, enslavement and dictatorship. These conflicts are exacerbated by the way in which these countries developed after the colonial period and slavery, he explained. Zack-Williams also mentioned that in Asia, nations such as Myanmar, North Korea, China and India have all been violators of human rights as well. 

Racial discrimination and the violation of rights can be seen worldwide; however, Zack-Williams zeroed in mainly on U.S. and U.K. examples of police brutality targeting Black people. He spoke first of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by police officers last May. Floyd’s death was the “greatest stimulant” in reviving the Black Lives Matter movement and pushing for an increase in Black representation. Similar issues of racial violence have occurred throughout the U.K., Zack-Williams said, referencing the 1993 murder of Stephan Lawrence. He explained that Lawrence was attacked and killed by a group of white racists, and when police responded, they were “incompetent and racist.” This murder led to the creation of the MacPherson Report. Deemed “the watershed of race relations,” this report outlined 70 recommendations for anti-racist development within the police department. The recommendations include themes such as increased police accountability and training, the redefining of “racist incidents” and how to persecute them, and the mitigation of racism through education.

Zack-Williams participated in the implementation of these new government policies himself, working with the Merseyside Police to create anti-racist strategies. For instance, he worked to ban “stop and search” because police were disproportionately searching Black youth without reason. He also established and chaired a community center for mental health called the Mary Seacole House. Another strategy was the creation of a Black civilian-led unit specifically targeted for handling racial incidents, Zack-Williams added.

Anti-racist development is important in international organizations as well, Zack-Williams said, but he questioned how this framework would be developed and who would lead it. He said that, most importantly, such a framework would need to be established with the help of those who would benefit from it. “Otherwise, we don’t know the needs of the people we’re supposed to help,” he said. “You cannot set up an organization where the people running it don’t have the empathy or the understanding that they need to conduct it.”

Looking ahead to the future, Zack-Williams said that he has seen a positive trend in the increase of representation of Black people. There have been more stories shared including Black voices, and there has been an increase in their employment as well, he explained, noting that there has been a difference even in the last six months. Zack-Williams expressed hope that by continuing to implement anti-racist development into policing and education, progress will continue in the right direction.