Britain, Race, & the Challenges to Black Leadership

The election of the first Black US president Barak Obama in 2008, crystallised a sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic that we finally become a post racial society. Obama’s presidency, so it was argued, signified that this most intractable form of division had finally been surmounted. The political landscape has shifted tremendously since Obama left office. This short editorial considers where we are, as regards race and Black leadership in Britain today.

Black Leadership & It’s Challenges

What difference can a Black candidate make in terms of structural inequality? What difference can they make to the treatment to institutional racism. Can they mitigate against micro aggression? Can they challenge the narratives of Britishness that many Black Britons find so irksome. These may be the issues that Black Britons wish to see challenged but where do they sit within a wider political context dominated by Brexit and austerity?

Black political leadership can become an impossible balancing act. To be elected to parliament the Black candidate must appeal to a broad base of support beyond that of the ethnic minority group into which they were born and way have once been a core support base. Failing to do so may give rise to the suspicion that the candidate has little interest in or concern for the wider needs of their constituency. However failing to identity with their heritage and birth community can give rise to a charge of inauthenticity – a veneer of Blackness over a white mask.

Joining a political party or organisation is to embrace a new set of loyalties. Sitting in a place of leadership is to have oversight over the very institutions that are noted for unequal practices. How then does the Black political leader manage the operation of the service, they now command with the demands of the public including a Black public? It is far more difficult to be a political firebrand when one is no longer on the margins. Bernie Grant won the affection of Black constituents when he remarked after the 1981 London Broadwater Farm riot – ‘the police got a bloody good hiding’ but was vilified by many of his fellow MPs.

Moreover political/personal loyalties are but one aspect of governance. Presiding over local, regional, perhaps one day national strategies for health, industry, transport may lead to decisions that are injurious to one’s support base. The demands of office the need for a broad based appeal, loyalty to the party begs the question what can the Black leader meaningfully deliver.

Talk of Britain’s Black Prime Minister are less prevalent now than they were during Obama’s presidency. Brexit Brexit Brexit and Brexit consumes all political discourse. Today, conversation has switched to the lesser aspiration of inclusion within Government. But the foundations are being laid both within Labour’s shadow cabinet and within the junior ranks of the Conservative party for this to one day occur.
Ultimately perhaps this is not the most pressing issue the question is whether acknowledged or not in the current climate Black political leadership, is doomed to disappoint. Yet arguably disappointment is an inevitable consequence of the political life: reconciling competing loyalties, projected or experienced, only intensifies this feeling.

Black Community Discontent & Black Leadership

The last decade has seen a renewed upsurge in Black radical campaigning. “Black Lives Matter” “Rhodes Must Fall” “Why is My Curriculum So White” Texts such as Nikesh Shukla’s (ed) The Good Immigrant, Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race.’ Reni Eddo Lodge, Claude Rankin’s Citizen explodes the notion that we are far from post racial.

Black History Month October 2017 and the young panellists on the subject of Black Britishness concur with voices from the floor in disputing that such a thing exists. ‘ I don’t feel British.’ I feel no affinity with that flag’. I have no affinity with this country.

The current intellectual and activist wave of challenge is the latest expression of a Black British tradition of critical, if not antagonistic notions towards Britain’s professed liberalism.

During the 1970s a second generation of Black Britons born to New Commonwealth parents looked to Africa as a life affirming source of identification. Crucially however this is not a campaign based upon zionistic withdrawal.

Black discontent is a response to continuing structural inequality. In nearly every aspect of British life Black Britons are under represented in senior leadership roles, and over represented in the criminal justice system. As in the 1970s Black unemployment rates including among graduates far exceed those of white peers. Police community tensions have been a flashpoint catalysing long term discontent into civil unrest as demonstrated through a wave of urban riots in the 80s, 90s and in 2011. The factors are complex but clearly create a strong sense of dissonance between the rhetoric and reality of life in Britain.

The gap between rhetoric and reality was spectacularly underlined by Brexit. Ostensibly the architects of Brexit sought to limit freedom of movement from Europe which had seen the rapid growth in new communities in Britain. But by employing the language of ‘invasion’, ‘swarms’, they harked back to the discourse surrounding New Commonwealth migration raising once again the sense that Britishness is based upon a notion of generational belonging. Moreover post Brexit the upsurge of physical and verbal abuse against second and third generation BME groups seemed to suggest that a more generation backlash against post war migration was at stake.
Needless to say the election of Donald Trump has been another powerful blow to the notion of a post racial modernity.

Black Political Leadership 2017-2018

Other than the humbling of the May machine, the 2017 election was also memorable for the record number of ethnic minority MPs were returned to Parliament: 52 ethnic compared to 41 in the 2015 previous. Of that number, 32 were Labour candidates 19 Conservative and one Liberal Democrat. Although short of a figure that reflects the populace this is indeed a significant trend upwards from the landmark 1987 which saw four Black MPs Bernie Grant, Diana Abbot, Keith Vaz and Paul Boateng enter Parliament. As significantly the previous year saw the major cities of both Bristol and London vote for the Black mayors Marvin Rees (Bristol) and Sadiq Khan (London) respectively.

Whether members of parliament or Mayors these leaders must have enjoyed the support of their White constituents in order to enter office. It is then a small step to suggest that in modern Britain we no longer see those who look like us as more worthy of our support. One might infer that the previously vexed questions of race and belonging have slipped into the dust bowl of history.

According to a recent Government survey Britons at least share a common sense of national identity It’s findings indicate that 85% of white people reported a sense of belonging, 84% of Asian respondents and 81% of black people also agreed to strong feelings of Britishness.

No Blacks, No Dogs No Irish

This is far cry from the reception Black and Asian migrants received during the key migration period of the 1950s & 60s. There could be fewer more visceral rejections of a migrant group by a host society than the written slogan No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish a sign that greeted many of the newly arrivals from Britain’s former colonies as they searched for accommodation during the 1950s & 60s.

Migration especially migration by people of colour exposed the sharp divide in British society between what might be termed a liberal progressive strain open to and protective of those considered the underdog and a reactionary protective nationalism suspicious of foreign influences and wedded to notions of purity, superiority and natural order.

It is tempting to see the tension as being dramatised through the left and right of British politics – historically Labour and the Conservatives. But this simplification omits the swathes of support among working class Labour voters for demagogues such as Enoch Powell author of the infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, and indeed that owing to widespread support among its voters Labour has maintained Immigration controls imposed by Conservatives. In sum both Labour and Conservatives parties are on race, ethnic or national origin, immigration a broad church.

However, that said, racism has galvanised Britain’s liberal strain into transformative action. The genteel hospitality ‘meet a migrant’ style networks of the 1950s and 60s, were superseded by more urgent displays of solidarity such as the anti fascist concert series Rock Against Racism.

Combating racism led to a legislative revolution in British politics. The right to discriminate previously seen as a private matter was swept aside by anti discrimination act of 1965. The Act made illegal discrimination on the grounds of ‘race, ethnic, or national origin.’ Successive Labour governments refined and extended the 1965 legislation. The 2010 Equalities Act now covers a range of protected characteristics including gender, sexuality, and faith.

Black activism has spurred on its White liberal counterpart. The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, the work of pressure group the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) were deeply instrumental to the creation of the first Immigration Act . As importantly, such activism, has been an important stepping stone into civic engagement for a range of Black activists.

A Post Race Nation Bakes a Black Prime Minister?

The statute book has helped to make those once considered extreme Others less so. Not only this but through talent and perseverance Black Britons have become union jack wearing exportable icons of British identity. The sporting theme plays to the known stereotype but the same cannot be said of that most quintessential British pursuit- baking. The nation wept with pride Nadiya Hussain was voted winner of the BBC’s 2015 Great British Bake Off.

But it is one thing to win medals, bake a cake, several to be exact, it is another to rise to the most prominent position in British politics. In 2002 Paul Yaw Boateng became the first BME MP to serve in the cabinet as Secretary to the Treasury. At that time Lee Jasper, chair of the campaign group Operation Black Vote: offered “This gives hope that black youth too can be MPs, ministers, or indeed the prime minister.” (Guardian Today 2002)

There has since been little to suggest that this might occur since Boateng’s entry into politics. Once described as Britain’s Barack Obama former shadow business secretary Chuku Ummuna seemed most likely to reach to the highest Office but his career has stalled since his withdrawal from the Labour leadership contest of 2015 and the Party’s movement to the left of centre under the contest’s winner Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the realities it is fair to say Britain is no longer the land of No Blacks No Dogs No Irish.