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Is race equality being taken off the political agenda?

A TIME OF CONFLICT: The 1980s saw black Britons force the country to take race seriously

CONGRATULATIONS, BLACK Britons, things are going so well for African and Caribbean communities that the race agenda is an unnecessary and outdated thing of the past.

As a result, race relations legislation is being watered down and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the statutory body charged with protecting and enforcing those laws, has had its budget slashed to the point of rendering it useless, according to some critics.

In the words of one politician who spoke to The Voice, “the lights are on, and that’s about it.”

But if the future is looking so bright, what does it matter?

The reality, of course, is that it does matter. Desperately.

One need only look at the depressing statistics that place black communities proportionally worse off in almost every single area of society: redundancies, unemployment, education, health, mental health, the criminal justice system and even access to funding to start our own businesses.


Furthermore, the long-hard gains fought for by activists over the past four decades are being lost at a time when they are needed most.

In times of austerity, evidence suggests that the need to protect marginalised and minority groups is even greater.

Because of public sector cuts, the EHCR budget for 2014/15 is estimated to be £26.8m, a 62 per cent cut to its 2007 budget of £70m.

Poornima Karunacadacharan, equalities project office for Race on the Agenda (ROTA), said: “Measures that protect equalities should not be cut in times of austerity. In fact, it becomes more important that equalities are considered in all decisions they make.

“Evidence shows that’s not happening. The message coming down from Government is very negative. By saying things like, ‘you don’t have to do Equality Impact Assessments any more’; that it’s a burden and it’s bureaucracy, it allows organisations to overlook their duty.

“But when ministers meet with voluntary sector, they claim to fully support equality.”

The first Race Relations Act was introduced in 1965 in response to the growth of Britain’s African Caribbean community, who arrived to rebuild the country following the Second World War but faced hostile racism.

In 1958, riots in Notting Hill broke out when racists attacked the homes of West Indian migrants and the following year Antiguan-born Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death by a group of skinheads.

Across the Atlantic, the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) was in full effect.

The Act aimed to protect against racial discrimination, but was relatively weak and applied mainly to service in restaurants and hotels. As a civil law, it did not make discrimination a criminal offence.

Organisations like the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), of which author CLR James was a member, helped pressure the Government to take action.

The laws were tightened in 1968, and further strengthened by the Race Relations Act 1976, which has been replaced and superseded by the most recent Equality Act 2010.

TURNING POINT: Doreen and Neville Lawrence following the Macpherson Inquiry

But the EHRC – which came into being in 2007 and amalgamated the separate Commissions for Race Equality, Equal Opportunities and Disability Rights has been condemned as largely ineffective in enforcing the legislation, particularly when it comes to race.

A recent report from the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, found the move had a detrimental effect.


The group claimed African and Caribbean people were still subject to rampant inequalities and although data existed to evidence this, the Government was doing nothing. Ministers have until September 2013 to respond to the claims.

A positive outcome looks unlikely.

When the Coalition Government came into power in 2010, one of their first moves was to set themselves the Red Tape Challenge, which has led to equalities being pushed off the agenda.

It has angered activists who claim the Coalition Government is ‘colour-blind’ and does not see race as important.

Indeed when one of the recently-appointed ministers for equality, Conservative Helen Grant MP, a black woman, was challenged over having no strategy to address the disproportionally high levels of unemployment faced by young black men, she said targeted support would be “wrong…since everyone needs help.”

On top of that, a key component of the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty (PSED), is already under review despite only coming into effect in 2011.


The measure was a key legacy of the Macpherson Inquiry and asks all public sector organisations to consider the impact of its decisions on nine protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation) to eliminate unlawful discrimination.

Longstanding community activist Lee Jasper, said the actions were the “most sustained political attack on the principle on race equality that I’ve seen in 30 years.”

He added: “There has been a sustained campaign to marginalise race equality at local authority, regional and central government level resulting in race being rendered almost invisible in relation to policy and service delivery.”

Jasper, a race advisor to former London mayor Ken Livingstone, said racial equality had grown and the gap had gotten wider.

ACTIVIST: Lee Jasper

“When people say things have got better, they’re engaging in the politics of the right, not reality,” he told The Voice.

“The monitoring [data collection and analysis] that started rigorously following the death of Stephen Lawrence has been abandoned. Doreen Lawrence has complained about it. Other black activists have complained about it. But the Government calls it ‘red tape’, which shows their lack of interest in promoting equality.

“We’re now in a position where we can’t even assess the extent of racism.”

The 1999 Macpherson Inquiry, the Government investigation into Shephen Lawrence’s murder, is considered a significant turning point in Britain’s approach to race relations.

It came six years after the 18-year-old’s racism murder in Elthan, south London, in the midst of the UK’s early 1990s recession.

Jasper believes the timing was significant, citing it was evidence that in times of austerity, racism thrives.

By 1985, the late Bernie Grant became the first black council leader in Haringey. Linda Bellos OBE, was elected leader of Lambeth Council in 1985, when the race agenda was being taken seriously.

Black people were joining the Labour Party, standing for political office and changing the “complexion and character of town halls”, said Bellos.

Around the same time, the first race advisors were appointed, Lord Herman Ouseley in Lambeth, and Liverpool-born Dorothy Kuya in Haringey.

It was a response, in part, to civil disturbances in Toxteth and Brixton in 1981 and again in Tottenham, north London, in 1985.

Bellos said: “At the time, black people were consistently harassed and that still happens today. Eventually, they [the political class] started to recognise that we weren’t going back on the banana boat any time soon. Labour and Conservatives both thought the same way. But it was not until Stephen Lawrence’s murder that things really changed.”

She added: “The Tories did not respond to calls from Doreen and Neville Lawrence for an inquiry into Stephen’s murder and why there wasn’t a prosecution.”

“The laws changed, there was some more progress, but now nothing happens. Today, we may have an Equality Act but no part of our government is taking any notice of it. It’s the same tactics we’ve seen time and again.”

Sutton councillor Lester Holloway, a former editor of black newspaper the New Nation, has been lobbying his own Liberal Democrat party to start getting serious on race.

He told The Voice: “What we are seeing now is 30 to 40 years of blood, sweat and tears being taken away under the Red Tape Challenge and unfounded claims that there is a race relations industry. The Government has not had the courage to abolish the EHRC altogether, although the rumours suggest that’s what they want to do. To some degree, the Lib Dems are taking the wrong approach by trying to pacify the Tories. In terms of numbers in the House of Commons, it is carefully balanced enough for the party to take a risk. If the Tories want to abolish the EHRC, let’s argue it out in public alongside other left-leaning parties like Labour.”

But what has happened in reality, explained Holloway, is that “the commission has been reduced to such a level that it’s merely just keeping the lights on.

“There has been huge cuts to staff, the helpline has been outsourced, the legal department has been cut down and, therefore, does not have the resources to take up test cases to strengthen legislation through the courts.”

Holloway also raised concerns about the abolition of the questionnaire employers must fill out following race discrimination tribunals.

“What’s happening, in my view, is really quite appalling. The entire message coming from Government is that race equality is not a priority. Slowly but surely, it is rolling back our equalities framework. People might not miss it at first, but it will have a lasting impact over time.”

RACE ADVISOR: Lord Ouseley

Simon Wooley, director of political empowerment group Operation Black Vote (OBV), was also one of the highly-respected commissioners at the EHRC who has since been made redundant as part of a restructuring exercise.

He said: “For me a critical area of the fight back, must be political. We have urgently got to become more politically-minded, it’s the only thing the political class respond to.

“For some time now the politicians have sought to focus on class inequality and ignore race. They seem to think if they don't talk about it, it doesn't exist. The truth is, of course, the race inequality gap widens when you don't confront it.”

Jasper agreed.

He said: “Some people say politics doesn’t make any difference, I beg to differ. If you compare what was happening in London under Ken Livingstone to today, there were four non-controversial black deaths in custody per year. Now there are 28, and they’re all controversial.”

He added: “In the absence of us building our own businesses, schools and health centres, politics is the next best thing. To sit on your hands is an act of suicide. No vote, is a vote for racism.”

Bellos said now was the time for African Caribbean communities to return to the methods of the Eighties, when minorities of all ethnicities banded together, and said it was also vital to reach out to the white working class rather than letting the Government play people's fears off against each other.

“We have quite a lot in common,” she added.

“We are being made redundant together, for a start. The sale of council housing is affecting both black and white. The ruling class have always played divide and rule.”

OBV is currently working with black-majority churches to get their congregations registered to vote.

Jasper has also helped organise a three-day residential workshop on race relations to be held in September at Manchester Metropolitan University.

At ROTA, Karunacadacharan works to train voluntary and community sector organisations on how to use the equality act in order to hold public authorities to account.

She said: “This is a democratic country after all, we should have transparency and accountability.”

She added: “Tackling inequality is not about criminalising and criticising people, it’s about changing public attitudes. It’s a gradual process that takes time. Right now, we are taking steps backwards.”

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