When I arrived in the UK in the early 1980s, there were race riots in Liverpool and London. When Stephen Lawrence, a promising black student, was killed by five young white men, who can only be described as “thugs” in the mid-1990s, all five were initially acquitted in court, even though the murder took place on a busy Saturday afternoon in high summer and was witnessed by several people passing by on a bus (many of whom were later intimidated by one of the boys’ fathers’ criminal friends).
No, Britian wasn’t racist at all.
But, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin controversy, which is only now just receiving airplay in the UK, it seems that racists and racism of all sorts are now crawling from the woodwork.
Well, as Gomer Pyle would say, “Soo-PRISE soo-PRISE.” The Guardian has actually admitted something that, probably, a lot of people already knew.
Whoda thunk that?
In fact, according to the article, successive British governments have consistently failed minority ethnic groups in the UK – which is tantamount to saying, if you’re white and British, you’re all right, Jack, fuck the rest.
A paper presented on Friday at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Leeds shows that in the last three recessions, unemployment among black British men was up to 19 percentage points higher than among those in America.
Yaojun Li, professor of sociology at Manchester University, told the conference that in Britain black male unemployment reached 29% in the early 1980s recession, 36% in the early 1990s and 22% in 2011. Unemployment figures for black men in the US were 22%, 17% and 22%.
Black women in Britain were also worse off than those in the US. Unemployment for black women in Britain in the three recessions reached 25%, 26% and 17%, compared with 20%, 12% and 13% in the US. Overall, one in 12 black Britons are unemployed, compared with one in 16 in the US. Li, who examined 2.7m responses from three datasets in the UK and US, said: “There is greater ethnic inequality in Britain than in the USA for both sexes … If you are black you are more likely to be without work in the UK.”
The US had long recognised that black people faced entrenched discrimination in the job market, Li said, and had intervened to level the playing field. Britain, he added, had experienced a much more “abrupt and extensive deindustrialisation than the US”. Despite this, Li points out, Britain had no equivalent of affirmative action or “federal procurement policy which requires institutions to have staff representative of the population”. “These have really helped reduce the unemployment rate among black people there,” Li said.
Please notice the highlights, especially the bit about the British division of The He-Man Woman-Haters’ Club being just that tad bit racist as well.
Although many job adverts in various papers tout being an “Equal Opportunity Employer,” there are no affirmative action programs designed to bring more qualified people of colour either into the workplace or into the higher education sphere; and in many cases, employment of ethnic minorities, especially black people, is actually tacitly discouraged.
I well remember my first boss here in the UK, back in the 1980s, being positively offended that an employment agency had sent him a (qualified) black candidate for a job opening. The interviewer told him she was helpless to tell the agency not to send black candidates. Indeed, he only thing they could do was interview the person and not hire them.
OK, this was an older generation of Brit, and both those people are long dead; but I work every day with people who are under forty, and not a day goes by that I don’t hear — at best — the word “spade”, at worst the actual n-word when speaking of people of colour.
All this so-called subtle racism is now happily skipping out into the open under the guise of “freedom of speech” (a concept which is an anomaly in Great Britain as much as in that they have no written constitution as they also have laws regulating hate speech).
The Guardian reported last month that the current recession had left almost one in two young black people without a job. Li agreed with the analysis, pointing out that the trend had been noted in 2010. “You have to discount those that are economically inactive, including those in education. The student population is very high. Once you just looked at those who are unemployed, then you see that young black unemployment runs at about 50%.”
Diane Abbott, the Labour MP whose recent article in the Guardian highlighted the looming crisis in jobless black youth, said the figures were alarming. “Britain is undergoing a jobs crisis, with unemployment at its highest level in 17 years. This research tells the story of the inequality time bomb that Britain is going to have to face up to.”
There has been growing disquiet among charities and companies about the “slow response” from the government, especially given ministerial claims that the coalition would shield the most vulnerable from the effects of the downturn.
“I think that there has been a lack of awareness about the fact that so many black people are starting from such a low economic base that their life chances are so affected,” said Tunde Banjoko, chief executive of the welfare-to-work charity Local Employment Access Projects, and an adviser on race to the Department for Work and Pensions.
“In the US there is affirmative action and people do get in on those programmes. But once in they rise on their own merits.”
Of course, there is a way of rising above one’s race in the UK – the celebrity system in sports and entertainment.
Years ago, I read Paul Theroux’s book The American Embassy, a series of short stories about minor American diplomats living in the UK. The main protagonist, a young white American, is friends with an older, black diplomat, who explains the British methods of determining what “rank” a person of colour holds.
If the person is an Olympic gold medalist or someone who’s won an Academy Award or is at the top of his/her field in sport or entertainment, they are referred to as “British.”
If they’ve won the odd silver or are mildly successful in sport or entertainment, they’re regularly referred to as “West Indian.”
If they’re failures, they’re simply called “black.”
But even with all this revelation, supported by fact, there are still those so blind that they will not see. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the commentator, MacNara, who (as he says) is British:-
And in any case, a priori, one might expect blacks to be treated better in the US than the UK, since they have been around a lot longer than the British black population, and can claim to be just as much a founding group of the modern US population as anyone whose ancestors came off the Mayflower, and share a culture and language with white Americans. On the other hand, my personal experience of (mainly very educated) white Americans suggests that prejudice based purely on skin colour is much stronger in the US than in Britain (I’m from Britain), despite the fact that a much higher percentage of black people in Britain is foreign-born and has different cultural values that the British white population.
I don’t doubt that there are racial problems in Britain, but on a person-to-person level, on average, Britain is ahead of every country I have been in. Even in Africa, I have heard comments from one black person about people of another tribe that would get you put in prison in the UK if made about someone of a different colour. And contempt from well-off Indians about other Indians less fortunate than themselves are off the scale of vileness. And I think a lot of the tension in Britain is about cultural differences, not skin colour. And tough economic conditions are bound to emphasise feeleings of differential entitlement.
I would like to add that I think positive discrimination based on skin colour is a recipe for stirring up trouble in the British context, even if it were the case that black unemployment, allowing for the factors I have mentioned, is higher in the UK than the US. Remember the US had legal apartheid until the 1960s, and de facto apartheid much later. Britain was never like that.
That last sentence is an obvious lie. When the Windrush immigration of Afro-Carribbeans began in the late 1940s (to do the jobs white Britons wouldn’t deign to do), many hotels and boarding houses openly posted notices prohibiting blacks from occupying rooms. Apartheid may not have been “official,” but it certainly was and is de facto, with that singular British signature of subtlety to boot.
And as for MacNara, was there ever a more obvious example of subtle British racism and moral superiority than this commentator. Makes me think of a Beatles’ song …