The new radicalism of black Britain

If mainstream politicians don't deliver justice, smart, fascistic Farrakhans will develop messages of hate
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The Independent Online

There is a new radicalism among black Britons. After decades when black politics have moved gradually towards the polite mainstream - towards Trevor Phillips - a radical fringe is once again raging and growing. The black separatist group the Nation of Islam boasts a burgeoning membership of over four thousand, and they even run two schools. The Black Panther Party has a new British chapter. A significant and swelling section of black British opinion is, it seems, seriously angry and looking for alternatives to a slow, mushy multiculturalism.

There is a new radicalism among black Britons. After decades when black politics have moved gradually towards the polite mainstream - towards Trevor Phillips - a radical fringe is once again raging and growing. The black separatist group the Nation of Islam boasts a burgeoning membership of over four thousand, and they even run two schools. The Black Panther Party has a new British chapter. A significant and swelling section of black British opinion is, it seems, seriously angry and looking for alternatives to a slow, mushy multiculturalism.

Angelina Muhammad welcomes me to this new mood. She is dressed in white velvet. Her head is covered; her gloved hand shakes mine. As hundreds of people stream past into a rally for the Nation of Islam, she waves me through to be frisked for weapons. Eight hundred people have gathered here in Broadwater Farm, north London, to hear the movement's leader, Louis Farrakhan. The male devotees wear a uniform of suits, bow-ties and bowler hats; the women, like Angelina, are fully covered.

I am the only white guy in the room except for a Norwegian TV journalist. There are some quizzical looks, but no hostility. Farrakhan has been denied a visa to Britain over the past five years for inciting racial hatred, and there seems to be some technical problem now with the satellite feed beaming him to us from Washington DC. "They're frightened. They're trying to stop us hearing him," says one man, to enthusiastic nods.

A young woman wearing jeans is sitting near the front. While we wait for the minister to appear before us, she explains why she is here - and her answer reveals the cause of this rejuvenated black radicalism. As an IT consultant, she is a member of the black middle class frustrated that she cannot progress beyond a stained-black glass ceiling. The Nation of Islam was not for her about the religion or spirtuality, which she waved away dismissively. "It's that Farrakhan is the only person I've heard who reflects the ordinary experiences of me and my friends," she says.

The Nation of Islam has - perplexingly - nothing to do with the growth in radical Islam since 11 September 2001. Its members glare contemptuously at Arabs, and follow a strange creed created in 1930s Detroit by a clothing merchant named Wallace D Fard. He said that the Koran was the lost holy book of slaves kidnapped from Africa. According to Fard, white people were devils, created six thousand years ago by a black wizard and, someday soon, black people would restore the world's natural order and rule the earth. Malcolm X became a famous recruit in 1952, followed soon after by Muhammad Ali.

When Minister Hillary Mohammed, one of the UK branch's leading figures, takes to the stage, it becomes even more clear why so many people here admire Farrakhan. "How many black men do you know who are feared by the British government, brothers and sisters?" he asks. "Well, they're afraid of the Right Honourable Louis Farrakhan, and that's why they're trying to block us from hearing him," he says.

He then launches into an articulate speech, outlining grievances about stop-and-search and poor schooling for young black men. "Why is this area called Broadwater Farm?" he asks. "They don't call it the Hamptons. They don't call it a boulevard. What were the architects and the council thinking, when they called an estate for black people a farm?"

So far this all feels comfortable - stirring, even. There's nothing here a white liberal can't nod aggressively to. Hillary Mohammed asks the audience, "Who here sees Britain as their home?" There are seven hands. Seven. "Who here sees Africa and the Caribbean as their home?" All the other hands rise as one. Then Farrakhan fizzes on to the screen in front of us.

"Every single Jewish person knows about the Holocaust. They hear about it every day and they say, 'Never again.' When we hear about slavery, do we cry, 'Never, never again?'" he asks. "Africa was raped of black people. Some say 15 million were ripped out. WEB Du Bois says it was 50 million of us. And we are supposed to be comforted now that Oprah and Colin Powell and Bill Cosby sit in their palaces. We're supposed to think we could get ahead in this racist society. Oprah, sister, you are a nigger who escaped... a mannequin in the shop-window of democracy, used to sell a lie to the ghettos of America."

In the audience, gloved hands applaud hard. This message resonates clearly with young black Britons: they have been told they can achieve anything, but when they try, the old prejudices still lock them out. The audience mostly consists of twenty-and-thirtysomethings; many are whooping.

And then Farrakhan mentions the Jews again. "No Jewish person who reads their history will come away saying their hands are clean of the stain of slavery," he says, waving a book that has been widely discredited as an anti-Semitic screed. Children are crying in the hall now, and the air is ugly. People are cheering bizarre Jew-hating theories. Farrakhan reads sneeringly from the Torah. For the first time, these people I recognised - people I grew up with - look frightening.

And it hits me: if mainstream politicians don't deliver justice for ethnic minorities fast, this is our future. Smart, fascistic Farrakhans will develop messages of rage and hate nuanced for British ears. The ghettos of tomorrow will not be passive and defeated, nor should they be. They will be angry and fighting, and they will have a distant smell of Nuremberg.

This new radicalism is the product of the failure of mainstream politics to integrate black communities into the British mainstream. Even after the Steven Lawrence inquiry and everything that followed, black Britons still feel they confront institutional racism on a daily basis. The young men here are overwhelmingly victims of stop-and-search, a tactic which is seven times more likely to be used against black people than whites. Many of them have been pulled over by police for "the crime of being black in possession of an expensive car", as one man puts it. Almost all feel they have been failed by an education system that leaves black men trapped in the worst sink schools.

As we leave the conference centre, the audience is energised, beaming, excited. I begin talking to a man my age and express some of my qualms. "Would you like us to whimper and plead for your white liberal pity?" he snaps. "Yeah, well we saw our parents do that for 30 years and they're still treated like shit in this country."

The ban on Farrakhan is a mouldy sticking plaster; it cannot mask the wound beneath. The fact that so many black Britons want to hear him should tell us something. His foul radicalism must be met not by silencing him but with an authentic and progressive radicalism of our own. It would mean abolishing the racist practice of stop-and-search, investing heavily in schools in black areas, and introducing positive discrimination across the public services. We need to deal with black Britons' real grievances now - or they will mutate into ideologies we cannot appease.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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