Now more than ever we need our Black elected politicians to speak out about race inequality. As always, during an economic downturn the challenges that Black people face become more acute. Challenges include; a worsening relationship between Black communities and the Police, much higher levels of unemployment, and a potential mental health time bomb which is already blighting many Black families.
The question is “Why aren’t more of our Black politicians, elected or otherwise – speaking out about race inequality in any forceful way?” Not only are too many keeping silent, but some such as Shaun Bailey and Chuka Umunna, are almost allowing themselves to be misquoted, because they themselves seem to suggest that class, not race, is the real barrier for most people. In that infamous David Goodhart Radio 4 programme Shaun Bailey stated: “Being seen as an angry poor criminal sat in the corner, is the problem of Black people … I think we are a community that has been raised on a dependency culture. We are the chosen victims, and I will change that.”
More recently in an interview with The Times, Umunna argued that his own middle-class upbringing ensured he had fewer barriers than someone from a Black working-class background, adding that he felt the ‘elephant in the room’ was class. The problem with Chuka’s articulation is that he ignores the fact that many middle-class Black people still face barriers of race inequality. Furthermore, he fails to mention that he has been a beneficiary of campaigners fighting for greater race equality in Parliament and beyond. In his interview with The Times, he could have much more forcibly stated, for example, that being Black and poor is a double whammy because you are still affected by racial prejudice and class barriers too.
Without careful and explicit acknowledgement of persistent racial barriers, the media and our politicians tend to believe that the real progress made on race equality somehow means that, “we have just about done with race now, so let’s move on”.
But all of this still doesn’t fully answer why our politicians almost refuse to talk about race inequality. The simple truth is if they do, the ‘dogs of hell’ are let loose on them and what too much of society see as a ‘bleating’, ‘chip on the shoulder’ Black community. For any ambitious politician therefore, raising these issues is tantamount to political suicide.
Take Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, for example. She spent the most part of her career towing the party line, and at times to the disdain of many Muslim individuals. She often argued that “we must listen to the concerns of the BNP voters”, and that Muslims should be more British. After demonstrating that she was a loyal political servant, Warsi felt she had earned the right to be listened to if she raised the issue of rising Islamaphobia. “In polite society” she argued, “it seems fine to rubbish Muslims”. All hell let loose. Party grandees called for her to resign. Her Cabinet colleagues, including the Prime Minster distanced themselves from her comments. She kept her job, just, but the flack that she received will ensure she won’t be raising the issue anytime soon.
The vast majority of Black politicians today know if they want to get on in that Westminster bubble, they’d better not talk about race inequality. Black writers and activists know too, that if they dare to raise these issues, they will unleash a response that only the courageous and brave will endure.
I don’t always agree with the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but she is without doubt the most racially abused woman in Britain today. Her crime? Well, last week she stated that Britain had become a moral leader when it came to race equality and that’s why FIFA chief Sepp Blatter had been forced to apologise.
Although clearly, a compliment to what our nation has achieved, it still brought out the most wretched racial abuse towards her. Abuse which, sadly occurs on a weekly basis. Others who have dared to speak out, such as footballers Anton Ferdinand, Stan Collymore, and the Nottingham Black villager who spoke out about the Far Right connotations with the Union Flag, all received death threats. It’s easy, therefore, to understand why our politicians are cautious, but if they become afraid of their own shadows and simply cannot defend us, what’s the point of having greater Black representation?
During the summer’s civil disturbances it felt like it was open season to abuse Black people. And whilst we all condemned the criminality, particularly those who endangered lives, most Black people wanted our Black politicians to say, “Yes but, can we stop demonising all Black people.”
In Salford where majority White youths took part in the riots, it was seen as a social issue not racial.
Out there many Black people just didn’t feel protected by the media excess and the savagery of David Starkey, and Paul Ross, who characterised the disturbances as primarily a ‘Black problem’.
My guess is that socially and economically the situation for Black communities is going to get worse before it gets better. Therefore, we are going to need our politicians more than ever to raise those uncomfortable truths of persistent and growing race inequality. Tottenham activist Stafford Scott recently lamented that we have “too many politicians who see themselves as politicians who just happen to be Black”. He may be right.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had a significant number of Black politicians who exuded a Black consciousness with the reverse refrain – that they are Black, but just happen to be a politician?
By Simon Woolley,
Operation Black Vote Director