Far from the promised land

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The Independent Online
If Colin Powell's parents had emigrated from Jamaica to Southampton rather than New York, their son's life would have been rather less exalted. "I might have made sergeant major in a modest British regiment, but not likely British chief of defence staff," General Powell explains in his autobiography, A Soldier's Way.

This is a depressingly accurate observation about a country that likes to think of itself as relatively free of racism. Many gloated last week at the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial, citing it as evidence that the United States in general, and its judicial system in particular, is poisoned by racism. This week, as General Powell visits these shores, we should take a careful look at ourselves.

Britain's most senior black or Asian officer is a humble colonel. General Powell, once the top soldier in the racially divided United States, was one of several black generals. It is sobering to consider, as General Powell sets his sights on the US presidency, how unlikely we are to elect a non-white prime minister. John Major, once rejected as a bus conductor, is now the premier. But the doors of power are virtually closed to blacks and Asians.

If membership of the House of Commons reflected demography, there would be 35 MPs from ethnic minorities: in fact, there are just six, none of whom hold ministerial position. In the 1992 general election, only 22 blacks or Asians were among more than 2,000 candidates put forward by the main parties.

The picture in areas of life where would-be politicians win their spurs is no more encouraging. Recent research at Warwick University found that just 360 out of 23,000 local councillors are black or Asian (1.6 per cent of the total compared with 6.9 per cent of working age British citizens who are non-white).

The professions, where future MPs are frequently nurtured, are hardly more welcoming. Look at photographs of directors in annual company reports: a sea of white faces. Journalism, particularly the print media, remains overwhelmingly white. Figures from 1994 record no blacks or Asians among the 95 High Court judges, 29 Lord Justices or 10 Lords of Appeal. There is no equivalent of Clarence Thomas, the black US Supreme Court Justice. Things are improving, but slowly: 4.6 per cent of barristers are from ethnic minorities.

Why is the United States so much better than Britain at admitting black people into positions of authority and political power? Beyond the extra numbers - more than 12 per cent of Americans are black - there is an important cultural factor. The US is a land of opportunity: immigrants can rise to the top in a generation. It is an open society in which hierarchy does not obstruct mobility. Britain is full of barriers to halt the advance of those beyond the pale: schooling, accent, background - and the greatest hurdle, colour - are all used to exclude people from the elite.

Many people are so accustomed to these obstacles that they are often not even conscious of them. Seeing General Powell astride the world stage is a reminder of how closed and discriminatory Britain remains.