We have seen a considerable prevalence of the question of racism and the protection of human rights in recent weeks following the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Many in the UK have taken part in a protest of solidarity with people of colour in the United States, and racism has emerged as one of the most important political debates of 2020. Even amid a global pandemic, people are coming out to the streets in force to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the question is, are civil rights and liberties adequately protected in both the US and UK?

Civil liberties in the UK

Civil liberties are essential to a thriving democracy and guarantee citizens’ rights. In the UK, a Bill of Rights enshrines these rights in law. Furthermore, Acts of Parliament help to extend rights where necessary. Some civil liberties include:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of religion
  • The right to a fair trial
  • Freedom of association

The three most important Acts of Parliament concerning civil liberties in recent years are the 1998 Human Rights Act, 2000 Freedom of Information Act and 2010 Equality Act. Concerning recent developments in the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2010 Equality Act is the most relevant.

The 2010 Equality Act combines previous legislation to make discrimination and unequal treatment illegal. It identifies 9 ‘protected characteristics’ that are free from discrimination:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender
  4. Marriage/Civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy
  6. Race
  7. Religion/Belief
  8. Sex
  9. Sexual orientation

The protected characteristics mean that employers, service providers and public bodies cannot favour certain groups in the workplace or broader society. Clearly, in recent weeks, the question of discrimination over race has been thrown into question as a result of police brutality against people of colour, so does more need to be done to protect certain groups? Does the 2010 Equality Act do enough to prevent discrimination against these ‘protected characteristics’?

An article written in 2018 for the Fawcett Society believes that more needs to be done with the Equality Act, and talks about the discrimination faced by women every day. Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu gives some examples of where the Act falls short for certain people:

“For example, a Pakistani Muslim wearing a headscarf covering her head and neck in accordance with her religious beliefs who goes to work but is suspended and then dismissed for doing so under the pretext of fire and safety measures should be able to bring multiple discrimination claims of race, wrongful dismissal and sex.”

At this time, a violation of the Act only considers one ‘protected characteristic’, but the above example shows how multiple can occur at the same time. This example shows where the Equality Act begins to break down, and there are calls for more changes to adapt to the multicultural society that the UK has become.

Racism and civil liberties in the US

There are vast differences in the protection of civil liberties in the UK and US. There are many ways in which the US protects civil rights, including:

Politics of the United States is heavily influenced by racism, as a result of its history of slavery and segregation. There have been many movements in recent American history about reaching racial equality:

The 1950s/60s: Civil rights movement: this movement demonstrated the power of pressure groups and campaigners to push for meaningful political change. It utilised direct action, which showed the issues they were bringing up, including police brutality and white citizens against black people in the campaign. Black lives were also threatened by the murder of African Americans including Emmett Till in 1955, at just 14 years old, along with the failings of the criminal justice system to imprison those responsible for crimes.

The 1960s: Affirmative Action: this is the use of positive discrimination to favour racial minorities. Liberals believed this balanced the inequality that people of colour were experiencing; however, Conservatives argued that this placed the disparity at the opposite end, which would lead to discrimination against white people. A 2016 Supreme Court ruling stated that affirmative action was legal if met by specific criteria.

1965 Voting Rights Act: this made it much easier for African Americans to vote, particularly in the South of the US. Turnout shot up among black voters, particularly in Southern states where they faced racism such as Mississippi and Louisiana. Politicians began to push their campaigns towards black people as they were the new group to try and persuade to vote. However, in recent years more robust voter identification has been required, meaning that Hispanic and African American votes started to fall, but overall turnout has remained very similar.

2010s: Black Lives Matter: the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began trending on Twitter in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. President Obama expressed concerns at the racial discrimination within the US, and many street riots have been occurring in recent weeks as a result of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

Are civil liberties effectively protected in the UK?

YES

  • The Human Rights Act ensures that rights are set out and detailed.
  • Our judiciary is active in ensuring that rights are respected.
  • Pressure groups, such as Liberty, can help to stop the government undermining rights.

NO

  • There is a restricted right to protest near Parliament.
  • The media portrays the Human Rights Act as restricting rights.
  • As the government seeks to protect the UK from terrorism, citizens have seen a restriction of their rights.

Are civil liberties effectively protected in the US?

YES

  • The Bill of Rights sets out protections of rights, such as free speech, which the Supreme Court can uphold.
  • Affirmative action has helped to address the imbalance in racial equality in the US.

NO

  • The recent killing of George Floyd has reignited beliefs that there is limited racial equality.
  • There are still fewer numbers of people of colour and women in higher political establishments, such as Congress and the Supreme Court.

Essay Questions

Edexcel

Paper 1: Evaluate the view that civil rights and liberties in the UK are effectively protected. [30]

Paper 3: Examine how the US and UK protect civil rights and liberties. [12]

AQA

Paper 1: Explain and analyse three ways in which the UK protects civil rights and liberties. [9]

Paper 2: ‘Racism has had a huge impact on American politics since the 20th century.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. [25]

You can find more resources on civil rights and racism in the US on our revision playlist.