Tuesday, 17 April 2012

"Britain must find its own way to overcome its racism"

Last Friday, Tony Sewell and I were asked to appear on Radio 4's Today programme to discuss a new study detailing the catastrophic situation of young black male unemployment.
While I was waiting for someone to come and meet me, a young black male security guard at the BBC desk came up to ask what I was going to talk about. I had barely finished my reply when he launched into his own story and that of his brother. Both had MBAs, both were unable to find work in their home country.
His brother had emigrated to America, where he had not only found work in his field, but ended up being sent back to advise Tony Blair. In Britain, by contrast, the guard couldn't even climb up the security job ladder at the BBC.
On the show, I suggested that he be allowed to take my place at the mic, being better qualified to speak on the topic than I was, but of course that didn't happen.
I have many friends and acquaintances who have moved to America, most of them men, and all have found work and are thriving. They are succeeding in spite of the horrific unemployment rate among young African American men, including my own nephew with his university degree.
During the broadcast, I was asked if I thought that affirmative action – positive discrimination – was the answer for the UK. My answer is that I don't think that it is a solution suited to Britain.
Affirmative action came into being mainly because the body politic and the government of the day had to respond to the civil rights movement and the clear injustices that it had revealed. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US constitution, which render discrimination unconstitutional, and various court rulings handed down over the years, provided the solid legal underpinning to the coach and horses that had to be driven at top speed through centuries of racist custom and practice.
The America of the 1970s had common agreement about what being black in the US meant. Now, 40 years later, even though the situation is much more complex, a tragedy like the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of his alleged murderer, who is not black, can still churn up a common vision of the old horrors.
A common vision is not quite the case in the UK, as judged by many of those who commented last Friday in The Guardian. Here is a selection of what was said:
"Moving to a racist free society is not something that government can impose from the top down. Rather it requires a cultural shift among the people themselves. Race legislation only delays this shift, because of the resentment it causes…".
"I grew up on an estate in London with many racial backgrounds surrounded by crime and poverty and this had nothing to do with race but economics, class and more importantly social deprivation..."
"I think the blame lies squarely with our UK education system, badly thought out racial UK discrimination acts, and so on. Even positive discrimination can fail if the person is not up to the job in the first place…."
"Am I living on a different planet or what? I am Black English (Nigerian father, English mother), have lived in various parts of the UK and been employed in many fields as everything from post room op to lead programmer and branch manager. I have had contact with the police, both as victim and suspect, and have yet to experience any racism from anybody in any position of authority or influence whatsoever"
"The more highly educated you are as a black person the more injustice you will face and always told that one is 'overqualified'. I know many black folks with degrees, masters, PHD, lawyers, doctors etc. who are either struggling to find a job or work way below their abilities just to survive. And that is seen as fine because that is the normal status of their lot in society."
What's the answer? All I know is this: we certainly are facing a ticking time bomb. But to my mind, it is an intertwined, uniquely British one. Time to face one another and find our own solution. Fast.


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