The poor and powerless minorities and the Grenfell Tower tragedy

The Grenfell Tower, London, United Kingdom, 2017
The Grenfell Tower, London, United Kingdom, 2017 (Photo credit: Instagram (@wearegrow))

In the year 1666, the Great Fire of London occurred, and, although only a handful of deaths were officially recorded, some historians believe the figure was probably larger and would probably have involved many of the city’s poorest people. Fast forward to 14 June 2017 when the world witnessed another fire in London. This fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London, at 00:54 BST. It caused 72 deaths, including those of two victims who later died in hospital. This time there was no mistaking or disguising the fact, that the vast majority of the victims were from the poor and powerless, consisting of people mainly from Black and other minority ethnic groups. In the same way that the wealthy elites in seventeenth century London chose not to reside in the city of London and were spared the destruction of the fire, so, when Grenfell Tower burned, the wealthy elites of London were not adversely affected. It was the poor Black and other ethnic minority groups who suffered.

The fire at Grenfell Tower helps to highlight both the housing as well as racial inequalities in the UK. Official reports into the causes of the fire have emphasised these inequalities. For example, Leslie Thomas QC, said the 2017 fire was “inextricably linked with race”. Furthermore, he urged the inquiry into the cause of the fire to be on the “right side of history” when considering how the issue contributed towards the deaths of the 72 victims. The main cause of the blaze was officially reported to be an electrical fault in a refrigerator, and the subsequent spread of fire largely exacerbated by flammable exterior cladding on the building. the Grenfell Inquiry has also heard that the building’s smoke extraction system was not working, and that work done on the lifts in 2005 and 2012-16 left them unfit for evacuating vulnerable residents and aiding the emergency response.

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Professor of Social Policy Anne Power, who is head of Housing and Communities at the London School of Economics, claimed that the fire at Grenfell was unique. It highlighted the “weaknesses in public services, particularly social housing”. She added that the fire underlined the gaping inequalities in our society, our lack of understanding of technical systems, our poor enforcement of standards, and a constant downgrading of low-cost renting, both social and private.

What makes these findings even more stark is the fact that of the total number of residents who died in the fire, 85 percent were from ethnic minorities. About 40 percent of people living in high-rise building apartments in the social rented sector are from Black and minority ethnic communities. Another official involved in the inquiry stated that there were “parallel themes” between the Grenfell fire, the killing of George Floyd in the US and the “disproportionate number of coronavirus deaths” among people from minority ethnic backgrounds.   

Regardless of the causes of the fire, one thing is clear. Most of the fatalities were either Black or from other ethnic minority groups and were also from fairly poor socio-economic backgrounds. One has to ask whether such a calamity would have occurred in this tower block if the majority of residents had been fairly wealthy whites. The fact that official reports have highlighted this worrying correlation, suggests this is not something to be taken lightly.

Going forward, however, serious changes in attitude towards the poor and the powerless in such accommodation, are needed. The government must maintain the highest levels of safety standards and regular inspections and ensure these are strictly adhered to. In addition, they must maintain regular dialogue with local residents and involve them as well as educate them about these standards so more people know what to do in these emergencies. Whilst we might not be able to house the people in better accommodation in the short term, if the poor and the powerless are continually ignored in this way, we will witness more Grenfell-like tragedies.   

Tony Talburt Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in Black Studies at Birmingham City University in  Britain.

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