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Where is the British answer to Martin Luther King?

INSPIRATON FOR A GENERATION: Dr Martin Luther King Jr at the Lincoln Memorial giving his ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963

BLACK BRITONS need to wake up and reignite the passionate activism of the 1960s, 70s and 80s to progress the battle against inequalities, say community leaders.

Politicians, trade unionists, activists and representatives from the voluntary sector met at The Voice’s Editor’s Forum on race on June 5 at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) London headquarters to tackle the Big Question: “Has race been taken off the political agenda?”

The discussions exploded into heated debate. But the general consensus was that race equality has been sidelined which has had devastating consequences for the UK’s black population.

“What we are being told by mainstream media, parts of government and political parties is that we are in a post-racial Britain, and I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Zita Holbourne, co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC).

UKIP’s Winston McKenzie added: “We need to get real [and] realise that we are no further than we were when we came here in the early Fifties.”

But sponsored features editor of The Voice, Jacqueline Asafu-Adjaye insisted race “has never been more central in the minds of all parties.”

It is the “language”, Asafu-Adjaye said, that has changed. She said: “Where we talk about race, the Government talks about social cohesion. Where we talk about Black History Month, now local government talks about cultural awareness week.”

TUC race equality policy officer, Wilf Sullivan, argued that the change of language had shifted the focus from key issues.


‘WRONG FOCUS’: Wilf Sullivan

“Race may not be on the political agenda but racism is. The focus on dealing with discrimination has disappeared. What you have is a culturalisation of the agenda. It means that the real problems that people experience in terms of jobs, whether they’ve got a house, access to benefits, whether their children are going to get a decent education, don’t get addressed.”

The forum described the Equalities Act 2010 as a “watered down” version of the Race Relations Act and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), whose budget will shrink to £26.8m in 2014/2015, a 70 per cent cut from its 2007 budget of £70m, as “weak.”

Meanwhile, Labour councillor Patrick Vernon claimed the real issue is a lack of political representation. He said: “There was a time when black politicians, in particular MPs, were very vocal about the black agenda.”

He added that only a few politicians have persisted with this fight against discrimination, and it has left a “vacuum”and resulted in the community losing out.


POLITICAL ACTION: Patrick Vernon

However, according to McKenzie, the problem is the community’s reluctance to become politically involved. He said: “There are many groups advocating for our purpose, for our cause, but the fact is that we are not there where it matters.

“Unless we can put aside this apathy for voting, nothing will ever happen. We will never succeed.”
Holbourne pointed out that there was a lack of confidence in politicians and stressed the importance of encouraging the black population, especially young people, to have a political voice – if only to keep political extremism on the sidelines.

But the chief executive of the Tutu Foundation UK, Alexandra Ankrah, disagreed.

She said: “We don’t have proportional representation, so in many areas our votes count for diddly squat...but what we can do is be consistent without our message, and consistent with our hope, and consistent using digital media and the pages of newspapers, to get to those who have the influence.”


‘NO PROGRESS’: Winston McKenzie

Ekaya Housing Association founding member Maggie Scarlett agreed:“I don’t think any one political party is going to help black people...because we are not one person, we are a race of people with complexities.”

These complexities, Scarlett said, had to be identified so a diverse but focused agenda can be created.

Ankrah raised some burning questions: “Why is it in some areas black women are six times more likely to die in their pregnancy? Why is it in places like Croydon people are less likely to be referred for help with depression? Why is it that there are people in Croydon who don’t have food in their belly and their children seem to be on the near malnutrition list?

“When we start asking those specific questions and proposing the answers ourselves, we put race back on the agenda and people stop being apathetic.”

Scarlett pointed out that it was crucial for the black community to remember where it is coming from and the impact of slavery on its “mindset” and progress.


‘POST-RACIAL MYTH’: Zita Holbourne

Ankrah stressed the importance of “making space to ensure that, as a community, we are heard into healing.”

As the panel continued its focus on solutions, Scarlett said that “race will only be on the agenda if we put it there.”

Sullivan added that following the example of the Windrush generation with concerted community action is the only way forward.

He said: “We have lost the belief that we can change things through organising ourselves. It isn’t just about representation. We ended up thinking if we get a few more black faces in high places it would be their responsibility to change things for us. That’s where we really went wrong because, actually, that’s not what it’s about.”


BIG QUESTION: Voice front cover

Councillor Vernon warned that we have “lost the dialogue with our young people.” He urged the black community to start an “intergenerational” discourse to reignite the past passion for the race agenda. He also talked about the ability of African-Americans to express their struggle through a “creative narrative.”

He said: “We all have the same anger, but sometimes we have to articulate that anger in a way that’s effective.”

Winston added: “The campaign of Dr Martin Luther King happened on the other side. We need something on the European side.”

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