If the Grenfell inquiry ignores racism, there will be no justice

With the Grenfell inquiry resuming last week, it brings awful memories from that night three years ago back to the forefront of our minds.  

The images of the tower block ablaze were haunting, the fire truly horrifying. I feel a tear come to my eye when I remember it.  

I went to the site discretely and helped to pack boxes for the residents who had lived there because I felt so helpless, and I wanted to feel like I was doing something useful. 

I will never forget. I see the tower every time I leave my house to go to work, or into town, and it is hard to think about – but not as hard as it is for those who survived it. The least we can do is face it in order to fight for justice. 

At the time, I thought to myself, how on earth did this happen? How was it possible that people’s homes, which are supposed to be a safe place, could be covered by flammable material that eventually led to so many tragic deaths? 

Shortly afterwards, it transpired that on numerous occasions prior, people living in Grenfell had expressed their concerns about the material that had been placed on their building.

Likewise, concerns were raised after a fire that killed six in 2009 at Lakanal House, a tower block in Camberwell, were not acted on. The coroner in the case warned about fire safety in high-rise accommodation, as did MPs such as Harriet Harman, in whose constituency the Lakanal House fire occurred. 

Why was their input not taken on board? Everyone should want to know the answer to this question. I can’t help but wonder if those in charge too often have the mentality of ‘you should be lucky that you even have a roof over your head’.  

I wonder if building owners and managers listen to people in tower blocks like they would listen to those in penthouses. Tower blocks are home to people of so many different nationalities and are made up of predominantly BAME people – maybe the authorities think these residents should just be quiet and be grateful? Because why else would they ignore them?  

I don’t know if the bias we so often see towards people living in blocks like these is conscious or unconscious, or if it was deeper in the case of Grenfell, but that is exactly why the inquiry needs to examine whether institutional racism was a factor.

If the inquiry does not, I fear we won’t get the truth we need. Or be able to ensure it never happens again. 

Leslie Thomas QC, who is representing bereaved families, said the 2017 fire was ‘inextricably linked with race’. It is a hard proposition, but one that must be explored in full.

As a black woman, I say that it is time our voices are believed and listened to – black women are five times more likely to die in child birth than white women, partly, it is said, because our concerns are often not taken seriously. 

There have been passionate calls from Grenfell’s survivors and the bereaved for the inquiry to look at institutional racism as part of its scope, and also to scrutinise whether racial stereotyping and unconscious prejudice affected the actions of the local authority and the emergency response. I wholeheartedly agree – it must look into both, along with class.

The inquiry must investigate whether there was something structural at work that meant a certain group of people’s voices were ignored and silenced. Because if that is the case, we have a serious problem.   

It would serve as evidence of the grave consequences that come about when some people’s views are seen as unimportant. History is sadly littered with people whose voices were discounted and we know that it often leads to catastrophic outcomes.

We cannot let it happen anymore. Inaction fuels discrimination, so it is time we all took action. If George Floyd’s brutal killing is going to lead to systemic change, then the Grenfell inquiry needs to be on the right side of history, too. It can still be done, and it is never too late to do the right thing.  

To ignore race, to ignore bias, to ignore class, to ignore conscious or unconscious bias, is to disregard not only the elephant in the room but to wilfully ignore the call to change – which is, to do better in how we treat all people, especially Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who are so often discriminated against.   

We simply have to build a better future where nobody goes unheard. Where no one is made to feel inferior because of their accent, the country of their birth or their colour of skin.   

To do that, we must address the injustice of Grenfell. The Conservative Government’s inaction since the fire has been truly shameful. Some of the most vulnerable survivors are, incredibly, still waiting to be permanently rehoused three years later.  

There are still too many tower blocks covered in the flammable cladding. And sprinklers are still missing from a large number of tower block homes.

This inquiry may not be able to force the Government to act humanely and fairly on all those issues. But what it can do is ask the tough questions and give people the truth.     

It should allow survivors and family members into proceedings, but also consider race and class contributory factors. 

I am asking for the inquiry and those in charge to show compassion so that survivors and bereaved relatives can be given the answers they so badly deserve, and for a system to exist that does not discriminate.

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