For young black people to fulfil their potential, we cannot focus on racial inequality alone

We must address issues of class and social mobility that are holding people - of all colours and identities - back, writes Chuka Ummuna.

Chuka Umunna is shadow business secretary and MP for Streatham

For many Black History Month – which has just concluded – held special resonance this year, the 50th since Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed his Dream of a post-racial America.

Highlighting the gap between the promise and the reality of life in 1960s America, he spoke of a nation where his children would, “not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

In Britain, we lack the elevated prose of the US Constitution as a reference point for our national story. But we share the powerful desire for a society where all have the opportunity to achieve their aspirations regardless of their background.

Our unwritten social contract combines shared responsibilities with the promise of shared opportunities and shared prosperity. We understand that if we hold back one section of our society, we hold back our nation.

Here, we have made good progress, but a gap remains. As a nation, we are more than comfortable uniting in celebration at the success of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, and in our love for the music of Emile Sande and Tinie Tempah.

But black success in other fields – in the City, in our Boardrooms, in medicine and science – too often goes unnoticed: role models like Thiam Tidjane, CEO at Prudential who has more than doubled the value of the company over the four years he has led it; or Mo Ibrahim who went from began as a BT engineer before founding Celtel International, now one of Africa’s leading mobile phone companies.

If I am wrong about this, why do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US before they can get decent film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes?

This matters if we are to inspire young black people. How can we give hope to the next generation if they cannot see people who look like them editing our newspapers, sitting on the Supreme Court or running our great British companies?

And it matters because – while we have made progress on racial inequalities – a gulf still remains. Non-white Britons are still twice as likely to be unemployed as a white person. Young black graduates earn, on average, only three quarters of what white graduates earn. Those with African-sounding surnames have to send twice as many job applications just to get an interview as those with traditional English names.

This should give pause for reflection for all who believe in an equal society. But the truth is that if we want to see future generations of black British people go on and do better than the last we cannot focus on race inequality alone. We must address issues of class and social mobility that are holding people – of all colours and identities – back.

I have worked hard to get where I have. But I have no doubt that I would have had to work far harder if I had not come from a middle class background. Our goal is not only to eradicate prejudice in all its forms, but to create a society where if you want to get on – to move from your flat into a house, to start your own business, to progress from the shop floor to the board room – you can.

This is still a long way from our country today. The government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recent report could not have been clearer about the challenge: Britain remains a deeply divided society and economic disadvantage still strongly shapes life’s opportunities.

Progress on social mobility has stalled and the Commission worries that it could go into reverse. Austerity is hitting the poorest hardest, long-term problems from the costs of childcare to the quality of school in many deprived areas remain.

That’s why I called for a debate in the House of Commons – on government time – on how together we address the challenges the Commission’s report laid out with brutal clarity.

Dr. King in another speech, in 1967, spoke about how “tomorrow is today” – of the “fierce urgency of now” in addressing the problems of his day with “vigorous and positive action”. As a nation we will hold ourselves back if we put off until tomorrow the challenges to face today: of the stereotypes that constrain, of racial inequalities that persist, and if we limit opportunities for whole sections of our society based on nothing better than an accident of birth.

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6 Responses to “For young black people to fulfil their potential, we cannot focus on racial inequality alone”

  1. Aidan

    It is a commendable aim to offer young working class people, and young black people, an oppurtunity to become role models for the generations which succeed them. It is also an aim which will require sustained effort and long term vision. In the immediate term, we can serve to eliminate the negative portrayal of young working class, black people. This is not such a deep-seated social issue. It can be combatted on the floor of the House of Commons. Ian Duncan Smith has contributed to one of the most ill-informed, ill-researched and ill-educated examples of hysteria in his pontifications on gang-culture in London. Comparing London’s gang problem to that of Chicago or Boston would have you laughed out of any postgraduate social policy seminar and yet it is recieved with chin-rubbing and solemnity and credence by our elected representatives. Please be the person to stand up for truth, facts and transparency against this ludicrous, tabloid-courting, burlesque.

  2. Matthew Blott

    I was nodding my head until I came to this …

    “…why do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US before they can get decent film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes?”

    Is there any evidence of this at all? Afro-Carribeans compose just two per cent of the UK population as a whole. Two per cent! Yet watch any regular mainstream and it’s likely there will be a black character. We’ve had two police dramas with a black lead in recent years – 55 Degrees North and Luther – while on BBC3 we have a black female lead in Some Girls. That’s hardly a scientific study but I’m pretty sure if this was analysed it would be proven that black people are over represented on television. We even have black people appearing in historical dramas now. I don’t have a problem with this but I do have a problem with it being presented as a problem when it isn’t. The reason black actors struggle for work is the same reason white actors do – acting is a tough gig and parts are hard to come by. The reason they try their luck in the US is because it is much bigger and there are more parts available. America also has a far larger black population as a percentage of the population and therefore black people – to reflect this accurately – are going to appear more prominently on TV.

  3. Bye Jiminy

    I have said this before and I will say it again and again; if you tackle one prejudice and ignore another, then sooner or later they will all be sidelined. If you tackle racism, you have to tackle class too, and then all prejudices. The whole question is on the notion of privilege and who is allowed to prosper, and who isn’t allowed to prosper. At the moment, the equality loving Middle classes are obsessed with black rights, gay rights, immigrants rights and so on, but never mention white Working class people’s rights as if we don’t count. Any one with any real insight or intelligence soon becomes aware that white Middle class people couldn’t really care less for black people, gay people and so on as it is just more posturing to make themselves feel good and assuage their Middle class guilt and to take peoples minds off the reality that many white Middle class people get very affluent careers whilst many Working class people, of whatever colour skin or ethnicity, often get low paid dead end minimum wage jobs and now the real horror of zero hours contracts. More perniciously, I believe Middle class people are championing black rights to the exclusion of white Working class rights to turn the poor whites against the poor blacks and so cancel each other out, whilst they carry on getting affluent careers and the best housing and education and basically a future. I am cynical but this is how I feel. Also, I notice that many equal rights organisations tend to be filled and lead by privileged white Middle class people who never in any of their websites mention class as an issue. Check some of them out and see what I mean. Black people are being subtly played off against Working class white people and we are being brought into conflict; the old divide and conquer tactic yet again. Do black people on council estates living in poverty really feel that privileged white Middle class people care about them? And if so, in what way and why and for what purpose?
    The reality at the moment is that the rich don’t want to pay tax, the Middle class white people stay silent as long as they get their privilege and affluent careers and the rest of us poor people, whatever our colour are meant to stay poor and turn that anger on each other. I am fed up with it Chuka, and it all stinks to be honest. What is your party going to say about this and do about it if you get elected in 2015?

  4. swatnan

    I still think Morgan Freeman made the best Nelson Mandela; he has the age and the experience and the grizzled face. And it was Tim ablack guy that won the Apprentice a while back. Its in Business and in Commerce and Industry that Black People must start looking to to make their mark; not jus Music and Sport.

  5. Dave Stewart

    ” As a nation, we are more than comfortable uniting in celebration at the
    success of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, and in our love for the
    music of Emile Sande and Tinie Tempah.”

    This point has little to do with race and much more to do with celebrity. How many white scientists can you name that haven’t published a pop-science book? How many white CEOs can you name? I imagine not many and this is despite the fact that white people make up the vast majority of scientists and business people. As such it is unsurprising you can find few examples of such black role models when you consider as someone else has pointed out that black people make up a very small proportion of the population in the UK.

    We lack decent role models across the board in our society because the media is much more interested in presenting TV celebrities and sports stars as the only viable role models.

  6. Themadmullahofbricklane

    It depends what you mean by Black Mr Ummuna. I understand that the race relations industry defines it as anyone who isn’t white but Black History Month defines black as being people of African descent.

    Even within that category the failure seems to restricted to African Caribbeans. Black Africans, Asians, Chinese and other groups all seem to do well at school and university as well as in business and the workplace. It is just the West Indians who lag behind. There is nothing racial about this just the culture they come from and have generated here.

    I am afraid this article says more about you and your personal prejudices as well as your political ambitions than about the reality that I and others see every day.

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