Ghetto blast: It's time for the black middle class to make a noise

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Whew] Well wicked, crucial and thank God for no violence. The four-day Carnival which every year has west London either 'wining' - Westindian for dancing, not drinking - or running for cover was peaceful this time as it has been for most of its history. Yet news bulletins and pub gossip still carry a simple unspoken, insulting thought: will they be holding party banners or petrol bombs?

However, this weekend has become a convenient way for Britons, black and white to measure the state of race relations. It is, of course, profoundly unfair to the revellers (the majority of whom are white), the organisers and to Carnival itself. The event was never set up as anything more than an annual bacchanalia; and its cultural roots - calypso and home-made costumes - are now well camouflaged under a topsoil of ragga and jungle music and big deal arts sponsorship.

But why should Carnival have to bear this burden? One simple reason: for the other 361 days of the year black people as a group are invisible. No one knows who represents us and who speaks for us. So Carnival becomes the annual equivalent of the anxious parent's check on what they hope is a child quietly sleeping in an upstairs bedroom. Only if the child chooses to wake and announce its dissatisfaction with the state of things by bawling its head off will anyone pay any further attention. Short of a major riot, we are without voice, without weight and without influence.

But we are not the only minority which faces discrimination or disadvantage. So why should our impact on British politics be so feeble? To try to find an answer I've been talking to some of Britain's most influential black voices, for a radio documentary in BBC Radio 4's Talking Politics series to be broadcast this Saturday morning.

There's little disagreement that Black Londoners do have something to worry about. The disproportionate number of exclusions of black youngsters from the capital's schools; the rising number of sad black victims of the 'care in the community' programme wandering the streets; and, above all, the growing threat to our young people, and indeed the areas we live in, of the organised drugs trade. And there is the continuing evidence of widespread discrimination in jobs and housing, much of it documented by LWT's The London Programme this year. These are all real issues. Despite the view held by Darcus Howe, the eloquent host of Channel 4's Devil's Advocate, that there are few real differences in the conditions facing white and black Londoners, I think that the facts bear out a bitter certainty that every black Briton feels in his or her heart: whatever heights he or she reaches in their lives would have been more easily achieved had they possessed a white skin.

In theory this ought to be fertile ground for black leadership. There is, of course, a long tradition of black protest both here and in the USA. There are three MPs of African Caribbean origin - all of them elected in London.

There are black churches through which to organise, and black caucuses among the professions - lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers. There is a strong base in the black churches. Yet the symbolic result of vigorous activism - a body of elected black officials - is pretty thin on the ground.

The Runnymede Trust, the race relations think-tank, recently published a survey of the last council elections which showed that London's black population was under-represented by almost half on the capital's local councils. And this isn't just a case of white voters refusing to vote for non-whites - the proportion of councillors who are of Asian origin virtually matches their representation in the population at large.

Part of the reason lies in a simple lack of enthusiasm for conventional politics - black people are among the least likely to vote of any group. But, unlike Asians with their mosques and temples, or Jews with their synagogues, the black community has few points around which to organise. It is this that is provoking a fierce debate among the city's black activists.

Some, like the MP Bernie Grant, argue that the West is hopelessly biased against us and that black people must set their eyes firmly on Africa as the key to salvation and the restoration of pride.

Others, like Lee Jasper of the National Black Caucus, think that if not unrealistic this is simply a long-term option for a few people. Instead they want to create a network of black organisations which together create a powerful lobby nationally. Yet others, like Darcus Howe, insist there is no single collective view or need to bind black Britons together - it's every man or woman for themselves in this particular jungle.

For my own part, I think that the contenders in this argument may have their sights trained in the wrong direction. Pride in Africa, opposition to racism and individual success all have their place. But for Britain's black community, increasingly, the real threat of destruction comes not from whites, but from our own moral decay. It is black pimps who encourage our teenagers into prostitution, black dealers who send our children out as couriers, and black hands holding the guns that kill our young men in the vicious battles for turf among the drug barons.

Yet, this is a community that has endured exile from Africa, slavery, then a second exile from the Caribbean, and has still managed to hold on to ideals of dignity, morality and decency that came from an African heritage four centuries ago. There are people who can afford to hold those values - what Malcolm X called the 'house niggers' - successful, middle-class black people. If anyone can find the key to creating a black voice it is they. The trouble is that these are the very people who quickly find themselves living outside the black communities, carrying little influence or clout.

If black political organisation has a point today it is to bring back those who have escaped the ghetto in order to stiffen the moral climate of our own community - and to use their skills and influence to impress on white people that the inevitable result of systematic discrimination and racism is a disaster for the whole society. Perhaps, in time, our own people will listen. But will those who have created the setting for our destruction?

Trevor Phillips is LWT's Head of Current Affairs. His report will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4's 'Talking Politics on Saturday at 11am.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments