Crises, identity and the future of democracy

By Clara Affun-Adegbulu, Researcher at Democratic Society.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the lack of resilience of our current economic and social arrangements and uncovered the inequities and inequalities that are inherent to our societies. While most people have been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities have been disproportionately affected. They are more susceptible to the disease, and they tend to have more severe forms as well as higher mortality rates. In addition to this, the measures taken to contain or mitigate the pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on these communities, they have, for instance, experienced and continue to experience more barriers to accessing education, health and social services, as well as higher rates of un/underemployment.

Addressing these inequities and inequalities will require action on their structural and social determinants. Given that these are shaped by macroeconomic, social and public policies, it is clear that the political representation of BAME communities in public policymaking processes is of vital importance. Yet, historically, political engagement among these groups is generally, relatively low (Gallego, 2007; Maxwell, 2010; Quintelier, 2009; Sanders et al., 2014; Simonsen, 2020), which means they are often under-represented in political institutions and unable to voice their opinions through legitimate organisations or representatives. It is therefore important to promote political engagement among these communities, so that they can be better represented in policymaking processes and contribute to the improvement of their well-being by pushing for laws and policies that further their interests. This will also have the added benefit of strengthening democracy.

The question then is how can we promote political engagement? A first step to answering this question would be to look at the determinants of political engagement among ethnic minorities.

One key factor, suggested by the literature, is identity (Fischer-Neumann, 2014; Masuoka, 2008; Scuzzarello, 2015; Valdez, 2011), which research has shown may be influenced by crises which contribute to the reconfiguring of personal and collective identities by disrupting dynamics of belonging, altering processes of homemaking, or changing the salience and primacy of ethnic, pan-ethnic and national identities  (Baser, 2014; Garcia-Rios et al., 2019; Hordge-Freeman & Loblack, 2020; Le et al., 2020; Peek, 2005; Pérez, 2015). Given the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing and often-fractious public debates about colonial symbols, racism, discrimination and migration, COVID-19 and reports that both the disease and measures to mitigate it are disproportionately affecting BAME communities, rising xenophobia across Europe, Brexit, the Windrush scandal, etc., it is not hard to imagine that many among these communities may be experiencing a shift in identities.

Tying all this together leads one to the next question, which is how are recent events influencing political engagement among BAME communities? As a black political scientist, I am particularly interested in answering this question from the perspective of the black community, which is also the group least likely to vote in the UK (The Electoral Commission, 2002). This is why, with the support of the Democratic Society, over the next year, I will be working a project titled “Un(B)elonging: Home, identity and the reinvention of democratic spaces in times of crisis and upheaval”. The project will attempt to answer the above question, by documenting the views and perspectives of members of the black community on how the ongoing crises may be impacting their identity, and how this in turn is affecting or may affect their political engagement.

While the overarching goal of the project is to improve representation, equality and equity for this community, in the short-term, it will contribute to the Public Square initiative which aims to improve participation at the local government level by gathering information from stakeholders on how to achieve this, and by testing and applying learnings from these information-gathering exercises. In the mid- and long-term, the project will contribute, more generally, to work on political engagement, since the learnings can be used by both the Democratic Society and other actors working on this subject matter, to inform the design and implementation of their initiatives.


Clara Affun-Adegbulu, Researcher at Democratic Society


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