On Race: A Conversation with Dexter Dias QC

Dexter Dias QC

Dexter Dias QC is an award-winning international human rights lawyer who has acted in some of the most high-profile cases in recent years involving freedom of expression, murder, crimes against humanity, terrorism, FGM and genocide.  He is a prize-winning scholar of Cambridge University, where he remains a Visiting Researcher, and was recently Visiting Fellow at Harvard.  His bestselling book The Ten Types of Human is based on his research into the interface between human rights and human psychology.  He was chief author of a report to Parliament that helped change the law on FGM to better safeguard thousands of at-risk girls in the UK.  He is Special Adviser on human rights to UNICEF UK, and Chair of the Global Media Campaign to End FGM.  He is advising the UN on a global social justice project around Sustainable Development Goal 5, Gender Equality, and is co-presenter and co-creator of The 100 Types of Human podcast. Twitter: @DexterDiasQC.

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Dexter about the concept of race, and the reality of racism in our society.

Q:  Are we all racists? 

[Dexter Dias QC]:  For several years, I was Chair and chief lecturer for The Bar Council equality, diversity and inclusion committee. David Neuberger (who later became President of the Supreme Court) wrote a brilliant report about entry to the Bar and how professional structures historically operated to exclude swathes of people, not just based on ethnicity and ‘race’, but on gender, sexual orientation and a range of non-traditional backgrounds. We had to reconfigure how the profession sought to combat these difficult and seemingly intractable issues.

After court, I would go into a conference room at the Bar Council in Holborn. It would be me with sometimes a dozen, once around 50, always predominantly white barristers, and my task was to speak to them about racism. Almost always the first thing they would ask me (and I do think it’s a legitimate question) is ‘Well, are you racist?’ I think it’s an act of great arrogance and folly to imagine that in a highly racialized society that I would escape and not have racialized thoughts.

Here’s one example from my own life. I live in west London, and we have a large Polish population here, and just before I took a sabbatical to go to Cambridge, we had a fantastic cleaner – she was meticulous, extremely organized and carefully inspected the label and chemical components of each cleaning product.  She was great at her job. A day came when she told me she was going back to Poland, and I asked her why – it was a couple of years after the great financial crash of 2008. She said, ‘Well, things are bad here and maybe they are picking-up in Poland again, and I want to go back to being a chemical engineer…’ – just the look on my face at that moment, I felt so guilty about my reaction. She said, ‘Don’t worry.  I understand.’  You see very clearly there the intersectionality of my learned preconceptions around gender, nationality and perceived socio-economic group.  I try to be conscious of them, but their power derives from how they operate on an unconscious level through decades of inculcation – what at Harvard they call ‘implicit bias’.

Therefore we need to realise that all of us will have racialized views, circulated implicit assumptions about other groups, and as a society we need to start by understanding what race is.  It’s at the heart of so much we need to talk about.  But what is it?  How many people actually know?  I ask at lecture after lecture and constantly get the orthodox answer – which is the wrong answer.  Which is interesting, yet alarming.  Here’s the simple truth everyone should know: ‘race’ doesn’t exist.

What’s astonishing is that I went through my education without knowing that. In 1950, UNESCO held a commission with the world’s top evolutionary biologists, ethnologists and cultural anthropologists examining the scientific evidence for this so-called concept of ‘race’.  Their conclusion was clear: race doesn’t exist – there’s no evidence to support it. The next phase came in the 1990s when we began mapping the human genome and once again the conclusion was that race is not a scientific or biological concept.  It is one of the most important scientific findings in the life sciences in the last century, I would argue, and yet so few people know it.

In my own legal career, I saw this first-hand early on. In the late 1980s I was defending Anti-Apartheid protesters.  They helped me understand the extent that Apartheid was a system that rested on this racial myth where white-supremacists and a white nationalist government had used the lie of the racial superiority of white people to justify the exploitation of labour and the stealing of land from an ‘inferior’ black majority – of course, masquerading under the segregationist idea of ‘separate development’. The sequencing is critical.  Apartheid did not develop because of ‘race’.  Instead, race was used to justify the domination/exploitation of Apartheid.  Once you understand the order, the mechanism, you understand the purpose.

I practice in the law across several of the critical jurisdictions: criminal, family, civil, especially public law. In all these environments, in markedly different kinds of cases, you see various manifestations of conscious, deliberate racism and bigotry in society.  But that is really the tip of the iceberg. It is the structural reproduction of unequal and disproportionate outcomes that affects far more people.  In criminal justice, Black women are twice as likely to be imprisoned as White women for drugs offences; Black men are seven times more likely to be tasered; Black people are nine times more likely to be Stop and Searched.  Such outcomes are contributed to by a complex of institutional factors that infect education, housing, health, career prospects, income differentials, the care system – and particularly mental health.  At every stage these recurring results are exacerbated by the racialised perceptions we all have, which in turn are informed by the constant mass-messaging we receive. We are habituated to ways of thinking that are derived from the structures of social power in our world, and those same structures of power make it difficult to even speak about race and racism. And one of the undoubted triumphs of racism is how difficult it is to have an honest conversation about it.

Even for me as someone who has some professional success as a QC and lectures around the world, I felt ashamed somehow of speaking about my own experience of suffering racism.  One asks a series of damaging questions: perhaps I brought it on myself? Perhaps I am defective in some way and it was my fault? It’s so interesting how that works, how that messaging is internalised and that we, as the people on the receiving end of that racialised thinking, feel responsible and ashamed about it.

And racism is getting worse.  The statistics on racial violence and hate crime show that.  Even on a micro level, not that I would claim this is representative, but I’ve experienced more racism personally in the last couple of years than in the last 20 years.

Q: Why has racism got so much worse? 

[Dexter Dias QC]: It’s Michel Foucault’s inversion of the Baconian idea that knowledge is power.  Actually, and also, power is knowledge – Foucault’s idea of ‘power/knowledge’. The mechanism is that dominant power produces the truths for a society, and one of those ‘truths’ has been race and its implementation through the racialization of social spaces and domains. We went through a historical period that lulled us into a false sense of security. As I said, I did a lot of Anti-Apartheid work in the late 80s and then in February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released.  In the UK we got the first Labour government in a generation in ’97, and Barack Obama was not only elected but re-elected a decade later. People started talking about this ‘post-racial’ age, but I never quite believed it.  The reason was back in court I was doing all these cases where I would see the vast difference in outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people.

It’s no coincidence that this all started to get worse after 2008, and particularly in the second decade of the 21st Century. Whether it’s Brexit, Trump, Orban in Hungary, a fiercely anti-migrant government in Italy or the rise in generalised ‘everyday’ racism, I believe we can link it to a recession in the global economy, higher precarity, uncertain labour markets, post-industrialisation, deindustrialisation and massive population movements due to conflict, de-investment, underinvestment, chronic debt and climate change. All this, plus the changing complexion – quite literally – of certain urban centres, drives sections of the destabilised and insecure ‘left behind’ host population to believe racial extinction and ‘displacement’ narratives and seek affirmation of their identity in the nostalgic tropes of a ‘purer’ white nation.  This is happening across many Western developed countries.

Q: Why has it become so easy to dismiss racism?

[Dexter Dias QC]:  We must acknowledge the phenomenon of white fragility, which operates on two-levels. The classic analysis of such fragility is that white people find it difficult to talk about race because it’s cognitively uncomfortable, with some implicit kind of criticism behind the conversation that they are racist.  This manifests with comments like ‘Oh, do you have to keep banging on about race?  It’s a thing of the past… it’s not as bad as it was…’ or you end up in games of racial-oppression-top-trumps ‘It’s not as bad here as the United States… or would you prefer to live in Hungary?’ There is a defensiveness that comes from being part of the white majoritarian group which feels in part responsible for this historic oppression, and no one wants to be implicated in some of the greatest crimes in history in slavery and colonial exploitation and plundering, that necessitated not just the dismantling of resistant bodies, but of cultures, and kind of cultural violence is also transmitted transgenerationally and can be seen in the conflicted identities of post-colonial peoples now in the ‘West’.

So that’s entry level fragility – denunciation and denial.  The next level of white fragility manifests itself in the aggressive silencing of debate. In this case, it’s not just about being defensive, it’s the creation of a defence mechanism. We are highly sophisticated, complicated social organisms who defend ourselves and our niche, and one very effective defence mechanism is the silencing of meaningful debate and challenge. Governments have become adept at this by creating panel after panel, commission after commission without implementing any real change. They often speak of people experiencing a ‘sense’ of discrimination, a ‘sense’ of victimisation, as if it’s not real. Think of the very deliberate appointment by Boris Johnson of a special adviser to head up the cross-governmental commission on racial inequality who has spoken and written widely on how institutional racism is a ‘perception more than a reality’.  Of course, apologists for the government will emphasise her ethnicity and thus, by implication, her supposed special insight into matters of race.  But we have to remember what Foucault says about the modern modes of domination and governance.  They are effective because of the internalising of the dominant narrative.  Therefore these characterisations of structural racism as illusory, are a damaging gaslighting the problem.  Via this device, people who have lived with decades of racial discrimination, violence, threats and slurs have to just move on because supposedly they simply have a sense of victimisation that does not reflect the reality. This is an extremely effective adaptive response: it flips the problem and moves responsibility to the sufferers and victims, making it a problem not of reproducing structural inequalities in society, but one of their own personal hysteria and pathology. It’s a classic tactic, frankly.

Q: Why are people concerned that race issues are politicised? 

[Dexter Dias QC]:  People fail to distinguish between Black Lives Matter as a political movement, and as an aspiration. Undoubtedly, Black Lives Matter became a political movement after various groups coalesced from 2014 around the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the subsequent the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. So there is an organisation which is clearly political, but Black Lives Matter is also two other things: a hashtag and an aspiration. I’m not a member of the organisation, but I’m proud to say that I passionately believe that Black lives do matter. Black deaths matter – they shatter communities, not just in the United States, but here in the United Kingdom too.

I recently put together a list of cases in the UK, many of which in various ways I’ve been involved in as counsel or connected to through campaigning.  And what they map out is an alternative social history of modern Britain and our race relations. We have Cynthia Jarrett, a black mother who died in highly contentious circumstances in her home when the police searched it – Cynthia’s death led to the Broadwater Farm riotsRoger Sylvester, a black man in his 30s who died of brain damage and a heart attack when six police officers restrained him forcibly to the ground. Joy Gardner, a black mature student who died of asphyxia when officers from the Alien Deportation Group – think about the messaging – restrained her and wrapped 13 feet of tape around her headChristopher Alder, a 28 year-old black man – a former British Army paratrooper – who was taken to a police station injured, and police officers stood around him for 10 minutes, watching him dieZahid Mubarek, an Asian youth who was put into a prison cell with a known psychopathic racist who got up in the middle of the night and clubbed him to death with a table leg, and then drew a swastika on the wall with the rubber in his shoe … Gareth Myatt, a young BAME child of 15 who was restrained while holding a piece of paper with his mother’s telephone number on. Three prison officers restrained him while Gareth was saying, like George Floyd, ‘I can’t breathe…’ and Gareth diedSean Rigg, a black musician who died whilst being restrained by police for eight minutes in a restraint position we’ve known for years to be highly dangerousOlaseni Lewis, a black IT graduate who died of asphyxia while being restrained by 11 police officersAlton Manning who died when six prison officers held him in a horizontal crucifix position while the seventh clamped Alton’s neck between his forearmsCherry Groce, a black woman who was shot in the back by a police officer, in her home, in front of her children … That’s just a selection of the cases in the UK.  So don’t play racism top-trumps and compare countries; we have to look at what’s happening here, right under our noses, in a clear-sighted way.

Q: What is the importance of transparency in the justice system when it comes to race?

[Dexter Dias QC]:  One of the most unforgettable moments of my entire legal career was at the end of Alton Manning’s inquest. There was public funding for other parties, the prison officers, the police, the Prison Service, the private prison company had their own funds.  But Alton’s family had to find me to act pro bono for them.  They had no representation whatsoever through public means. After weeks of bitterly contested evidence, the all-white jury came back and they returned a death by unlawful killing verdict. Alton’s sister stood in the aisle and pointed at the prison officers shouting ‘You killed my brother, you killed my brother…’ I turned to Alton’s mother and said, ‘I’m so sorry for your family Mrs. Manning…’ and you know what she said to me? She said, ‘Mr Dias, you are family.’  And then she pointed at the prison officers who killed her son and said they are family, and she pointed to the jury and said they are family. She said that families bicker and fight, but we all must find a way to sort these things out. We had a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing by the jury but even then the Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute those officers, even for assault. We had to go to the Divisional Court, a branch of the High Court.  We were in front of the Lord Chief Justice, the highest judge in the land, and the argument we used effectively came to this. Imagine that same scenario in exactly the same prison, where someone was held in a horizontal crucifix by 7 other people, two on each leg, one on each arm and the seventh who held the victim’s neck in a vice-like grip between his forearms. Now imagine that it was a white prison officer and 7 black prisoners. Do you imagine, even for a second, that they would not be charged, even with assault, after a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing by a jury? The Lord Chief Justice quashed the decision of the Director of Public Prosecution not to prosecute, but they came back with yet another reason not to. Despairing that nobody would ever be brought to justice for killing her son, Alton’s mum sank into a deep depression and died. His brother, who sat on the court steps every day encouraging me, ended up broken, crushed by what had happened.  He died in a psychiatric hospital.

In every single case, whether it’s the Asian family of Zahid Mubarek, the Black family of Alton Manning, whether it’s an African family in another case, all these people of colour, all these families of colour, all they ever say to me is they are willing to be in court, willing to sit through listening to how their loved ones had died because they want to stop it happening to any other people.  And that’s where they get their remarkable courage from.  I take the terms ‘transparency’ in your question as a proxy for truth.  We don’t need x-ray vision, some social justice superpower.  We simply need to know the truth and much will follow.

Q:  So then how can we move the needle on racism?

[Dexter Dias QC]:  We have to start by understanding the mechanism that has made it so hard to move the needle at all on racial domination. One of the major logical obstacles that we face is the often-overlooked fact that there is one status-quo and numerous different possible futures.  One of the best tactics that dominant power uses is to divide and rule.

I’ve been thinking about why, with all the deaths in 2013 and 2014 of a number of Black men in the United States, why it was the death of George Floyd that sparked a global reaction, what was the difference? Firstly, we saw it all … in that 8 minutes and 46 seconds, we saw it all … we saw exactly what happened. I have worked on cases where it transpired that video-evidence had been deliberately wiped, but in this case, it was members of the public who had the tape – there was no question about what happened. What we’ve seen cannot be unseen.  We are also at a juncture post-Brexit, post-Trump, with rising populism where people understand that there is a problem with racism, and it has provoked many people to say enough is enough.

If you want to move the needle you have to, as the phrase goes, be ‘in it to win it.’ Václav Havel spoke about life in Czechoslovakia under communism and how people coped and survived when faced with hopelessness. One of the strategies they used was to go to a police station where, if someone had been arbitrarily arrested, and behave as if they would get answers. Those two words ‘as if’ are the magic – you have to act as if you can make a difference because that gives you the strength to make a difference. Despair is what crushes.

For far too long we have been faced with a binary choice of being racist (a reprehensible person) or not-racist (a good person). We are now at a historical moment where there is increasing momentum to make a third choice: to be anti-racist. We need critical proactive anti-racism – and that means interrogating our spheres of influence, our institutions, our politics, our schools, our universities, our employers – ourselves. We need to examine policies and data and start to look at how we can begin to have a more meaningful conversation and dialogue. We need to be honest.  I started a thread on my Twitter about the racism people of colour had experienced.  There were so many startling stories – desperate, wounded, heart-breaking.  But people were glad to be able to voice them, sometimes after bottling the pain up for many years.  Other people of colour were reassured.  They saw that they were not alone.  It wasn’t their fault.  They were not the only ones.

We right now have an opportunity that may not come about for another 20 years. We can do better.  Minority ethnic people deserve better. People of colour deserve better and everyone can be part of the change.  The question is whether we are prepared for another generation to let this myth of ‘race’ and the coruscating damage it causes to social cohesion and the lives of so many hundreds of thousands of people breed unchecked.  What we’ve made, we can unmake.  We must.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.