Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: At last, some cheering news to celebrate

More than 45 per cent of Black Britons are now in managerial and professional jobs
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The Independent Online

These columns are, I admit, often perplexing and confusing. The opinions can appear inconsistent, dilettante and unreliable. They don't stick to a single line; my allegiances are not pre-set and like many others on these pages, the responses are not binary or "loyal" to any constituency. One truth often argues with another, and stories compete for ascendancy. My views on race relations are thought to be especially baffling.

One day I state racism is getting worse in this country and just a few weeks on I feel we are winning the battle for equality. I claim to love England and London but am unenthusiastic when the Ashes are won, because of anxieties about white English nationalism. Watching the forsaken black victims of Hurricane Katrina, I pronounce that such naked racist indifference would be hard to imagine here and yet I have often said this country still keeps us down and out of the top echelons, unlike the US where there has been irreversible penetration by people of colour into all levels of every institution and the establishment itself.

These are not the mood swings of an unstable witness. Narratives on race, ethnicity and identity are always a mixture of good and bad; of progress and regression, of winning and waning, of relative success and idealistic dreams, of patience and restless longings. In most places though, slowly and after centuries of struggle, you see a real shift in behaviours and shafts of light break through the obstinate walls of inequality.

Today elation fills our home. For the first time, we have impeccable evidence of economic success among those who have waited a tragically long time to get their due. I met my husband in 1988. Our first conversation was about racial injustice and the rage it had generated among black men, still the group most feared and excluded in our country. I was editing a section on race for the irreplaceable magazine New Society. He had carried out a major research project on race discrimination for the Policy Studies Institute and had concluded that some Asian communities were doing better than black Britons because they had opted to go into small business instead of jobs in the poorly paid public sector, and they had circumvented some barriers by supporting each other with capital, jobs and strong networks.

Black Britons, who had come over with skills and aspirations for themselves and their young were almost wholly dependent on state employment, which left them more susceptible to discrimination. I used this research and the report that was written with such empathy and understanding, I thought the writer had to be a judicious old Caribbean man (it turned out he was a blue-eyed, young Englishman).

Eventually, inevitably, bitterness froze the expectations of many black Britons. Remember one reason for the recent flare-ups in Birmingham was that Asian shopkeepers are seen to have and not care about the black have-nots - as ever this is a mixture of perceptions and facts. We know all too well the dreadful figures that show black men over-represented in prisons, in certain crimes which include murders of their own and the trading in drugs.

Now, however, a new study funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that Afro-Caribbean and African Britons have become socially more mobile and less likely to be working class than at any previous time. More than 45 per cent of these citizens are now in managerial and professional jobs and going up, man. Yeah.

The research involved a critical examination of government information and other sources. With an increasing middle-class base, the children of these black Britons will finally inherit security and possibilities to protect them forever from the vicissitudes of a hostile economy, although not always other people's negative assumptions. Racism doesn't vanish when you make good. It can even get worse the higher you aim. However it is less able to demolish your hopes and desires.

This achievement is entirely self-propelled, without nice, flush uncles to provide cash. Some of the most impressive success stories are of people who had nothing going for them. This summer at the Edinburgh Festival, I met Alex Wheatle, a sensitive, black British novelist whose own life is the most devastating story of parental abandonment, no qualifications, prison, you know the score. His novels - Island Songs and East of Acre Lane, two must-reads - grab your heart, not with pity but wonder that such beauty can come from such a life. There are new barriers to break down, though. His books, like those of other "street" black men, hardly ever excite the media. He ruefully told me: "I can't accept the indifference of the literary mafia, as if we are not there. We are expected to mug, not write books, I suppose."

If black men are not supposed to be novelists they are thought even less likely to be brainy Mastermind winners (Shaun Wallace) or sharp entrepreneurs (Tim Campbell who won a job with Alan Sugar on the TV show The Apprentice) or showbiz columnists admired by the likes of Nicole Kidman (Baz Bamigboye) or lawyers (Courtney Griffiths QC). Black women from working-class backgrounds have done exceptionally well, overthrowing multiple disadvantages and walking the corridors of power with scary confidence.

So, did this country finally give them the opportunities or was it an indomitable drive within black people that led to this flowering? Both. We are now increasingly living in a meritocracy without colour bars. Globalisation opens up the world and shakes up old structures. Black and Asian Britons have become more hungry for rights and success and they refuse to stand aside for white privilege. Policies and race laws are delivering results.

That other group of maddened and excluded Britons - Muslims - are, like black Britons, capturing the moment in spite of Islamophobia. My friend Asif, a high- flying self-made banker, told me last week that there are now 600 Muslims in the fast and high world of financial markets. It will take years before the most disadvantaged Muslims move up, but they will too; although only if they are led away from self-destruction and the hatred of others.

French politicians see their rioters as "scum"; no elected politician in this country has ever sunk so low. Given hope, ambition, respect, these angry young men could do what black Britons have done. But, says Karim Derrouaz, a wealthy French chef of immigrant background, people like him get chances in Britain that are unimaginable in France, still an "aristocratic" country. I will always hold my country to account, but I thank the gods that I live here and not anywhere else in Europe. Some of you may wish otherwise.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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