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'Black History Month is not a politically correct luxury'

WARNING: Diane Abbott

AS BLACK History month (BHM) comes to an end, new research reveals spending on the commemoration by London boroughs has dropped by almost half.

This is striking because almost half of Britain’s ethnic minorities are in the London area and local authorities might have been expected to take it seriously.

The worst examples of these cuts include Camden, Greenwich and Westminster Councils who have completely scrapped their BHM budget.

Others, such as Islington, Lewisham and Wandsworth have decreased their budgets by almost 70 per cent since 2009.

Some might say that, in a time of austerity, spending on this special month is a “PC” luxury that hard-pressed local authorities can ill afford.

But many are arguing that the collapse of interest in Black History Month reflects a more serious issue.

Local authorities feel free to slash spending on it because racial diversity is taking a back seat when it comes to public policy.


To understand the political significance of Black History month, it is necessary to understand its history. The first BHM event was organised by the Greater London Council in 1987.

It was also the year when the first four black MP’s were elected to parliament. But BHM wasn’t just an isolated celebration. It was part and parcel of a successful push to fight racism and push racial equality up the political agenda.

Members of the current black great and the good, such as Lord Herman Ousley, Baroness Valerie Amos and Lord Boateng, all made their name as young black radicals in the local authority politics of the period. They argued for and implemented a whole range of policies on racial equality, most crucially around employment, housing and the voluntary sector.

Honouring Black History month was part and parcel of a wider political push around equality.

And, without that political campaigning, London might have fallen victim to the entrenched political inequality and separatism that characterises so many northern towns.

The BNP found it much harder to get a foothold in London than in the industrial north. This is the legacy of the anti-racist campaigning of the nineteen eighties in which BHM played an important, if symbolic, role.


It is no coincidence that, when Tory Boris Johnson became mayor of London, one of the first things he did was to slash spending on BHM by 92 per cent, completely eliminate funding for Africa Day and remove the funding for London’s Anti-racist festival Rise. The symbolism was unmistakeable and was not lost on London’s black population.

The cuts in funding for BHM are relatively easy to research. What is harder to document is the picture that is gradually becoming clear of millions of pounds of public sector cuts which are falling most heavily on ethnic minority staff and the ethnic minority led voluntary sector. This is inevitable.

There is the old American saying “Last to be hired; first to be fired”.

And BME workers, particularly at a management level, are a relatively recent phenomenon in the white-collar public sector world particularly at a management level BME workers, particularly black women, are heavily over-represented in the public sector.

One of the reasons for this is because local authorities – precisely because of the political campaigns of the eighties – have been more willing to adopt fair and transparent employment policies.

Some of the left react badly when the argument is made that the cuts are falling most heavily on the black community. The argument is made that it is wrong to “racialise” the effects of austerity.

But a wilful refusal to even consider that the cuts may fall most heavily on BME communities is dangerous.

When those communities explode it is too easy to see it merely as a law and order problem rather than to look at the underlying economic issues.

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