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Chuka Umunna: 'Give young people something to aspire to'


LAST WEEK, Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, gave the key note address at the end of Black History Month celebrations at Herbert Smith Freehills LLP in which he touched on various themes including race, class and aspiration. His speech sparked a series of debates among various radio talk programmes in which the question was raised as to whether the broadcast and film media have a tendency to stereotype black people suggesting they can succeed in sport, entertainment and music, but not in other fields. Today we carry some key areas of his address.

It is worth reflecting that when I started my legal career at Herbert Smith in 2002, I was one of just three black fee earners.  So I’m pleased to return to find the firm has made good progress in increasing the number of black fee earners but there is obviously more room for improvement.

And I am delighted to be speaking to a room full of black City professionals.  There was a time when the numbers of black City professionals would barely have filled this room – when we all knew each other so well because there were so few of us.  That is no longer the case and that says to me that despite all the obstacles black people have faced, we are making progress.

And when I say “we”, I actually mean Britain – all of us – whatever our race, in every walk of life. 

Because I think there is a powerful desire in this country to live in a society where people have the opportunity to achieve their dreams and aspirations regardless of their background.  A social contract: shared responsibilities should mean shared opportunities and shared prosperity. 

Because if we hold back any part of society – in this context black Britons - then we hold ourselves back as a country. And that’s something we can’t afford to do at a time when, as Ed Miliband has said, we need the talents of everyone to help shape our future in this modern, complex and competitive world.
So progress is vital for individuals – and it is vital for us as a country.

The progress we have made is now deeply embedded in the British psyche. Emile Sande and Tinie Tempah have provided the soundtrack to our lives over the last few of years.  Zadie Smith is a regular fixture on our kindles. The entire country celebrates whenever Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis-Hill cross the finish line.

That is one view of progress – and an important one.

But there are other perspectives on progress too, which can no longer be ignored. Pick up a copy of the Powerlist – the annual list of Britain’s most influential black people – and you will also see those achieving excellence in other fields: like here in the City, in our boardrooms, in medicine, in science and other areas – where black people are not so prominent. 

So you’ll see Thiam Tidjane, CEO of Prudential, in the Powerlist Hall of Fame. He became CEO in 2009, and under his leadership the value of the company has more than doubled. 

You’ll see Mo Ibrahim, who came to this country from Sudan in 1974, started working as a BT engineer and ended up founding Celtel International, one of Africa’s leading mobile phone companies.  With over 24 million subscribers in 14 countries, Celtel was sold in 2004 for $3.4bn. That’s not a bad return!


You see, it’s so important that we use Black History Month not only to celebrate those on whose shoulders we stand who broke down the barriers in times past – but also those who are pioneering a new future today. Both are vital to giving our young people the confidence and inspiration to back themselves and go after their ambitions and dreams.

If young black people can’t see people who look like them editing our newspapers, sitting on the Supreme Court or running our great British companies, how can we give them the hope that if they work hard, they can make it too?
You see, shining a light on our role models is crucial because too many of them are ignored.  

One of the reasons is because our broadcast and film media have a tendency to stereotype black people, to present an image of black British people that suggests we can succeed in sport, entertainment and music, but not necessarily in other fields.

If I am wrong about this, then why do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US to get decent film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes?  Too many in the British film and television industries simply don’t cast black British actors in certain roles that fall outside those stereotypes. 

It’s often only after they’ve made it big in the States that black British actors get more – and more varied – roles here. That is unacceptable and has got to change. As a society, we cannot allow people to default to lazy stereotypes.


I think we all recognise that though we have made great strides towards a more equal society, we still have a long way to go.

As a non-white person in Britain today, you’re twice as likely to be unemployed as a white person.  If you are a young black graduate, you’ll earn on average only three quarters of what a white graduate earns. If you have an African-sounding surname, you need to send about twice as many job applications as those with traditional English names – not even to get a job – but just to get an interview.

And I am being generous here. I haven’t gone into the over-representation of black people in the criminal justice and mental health systems - or the disproportionate numbers of young black Caribbean boys, say, being excluded in our schools.

So the message is clear. If you believe that we are all created equal and ours should be an equal society – then we cannot let up. Our commitment cannot waver. We cannot be complacent.

We want to create a society in which the son of a bus driver can go on not only to run but own the bus company. A society where the teenager working the check out at Sainsbury’s in Streatham Common can become its CEO. A society where the budding Richard Bransons and Mo Ibrahims growing up on the Tulse Hill Estate, in one of the most deprived wards in my constituency, can turn their ideas into thriving businesses and make their first million. 

We must celebrate the progress of black people in every field, and we must tackle the race inequalities that still hold people back. But we must also seek to achieve greater social mobility, to make ours a more equal society and more prosperous nation.

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