To some the past is always golden, the present bleak and the future bleaker. Last week Joseph Harker indulged in a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the challenges the black community faced during the 80s, and its leadership (For black Britons, this isn’t the 80s revisited. It’s worse, 12 August).
In 1985 Bernie Grant’s “connection with local people made him hugely popular and two years later he was elected MP”, says Harker. “Paul Boateng, who had been a campaigning civil rights lawyer, greeted his own election the same night by declaring: ‘Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto’.” And he claims: “Today we have a dozen black MPs … but their backgrounds are a million miles from the community activism of their predecessors.”
Harker looks back not just with rose-tinted glasses but with 3D shades. Yes, we had Bernie Grant, never afraid to fight and grounded in the community; but the black unity that swept him, Boateng, Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz into power was trumped shortly afterwards by personal ambition.
The institutions which Harker refers to – in particular the Commission for Racial Equality – were a reflection of the society we lived in. Racism was crude and easy to identify. A significant number of police officers would “fit up” black people for crimes they didn’t commit: from planting drugs, to fabricating evidence and wrongly convicting them of murder – as they did with the Cardiff three and the Tottenham three.
Today the discriminatory factors that hold back black individuals are more subtle, more complex. We know, for example, that recruitment selection panels tend to recruit a reflection of themselves. Which is not good if you’re not white and male. But how do you legislate when discrimination is so difficult to prove?
In order to tackle persistent inequality we still need the big stick – the law – but more than that we need sophisticated methods that change not just the process but also the thinking behind why others are seen as less able.
Harker’s greatest insult was his negation of black leadership today. “So who, today, speaks for black people?” He mentions Diane Abbott MP but ignores black church leaders ministering to packed churches every Sunday, or activists such as barrister Matthew Ryder, Dr Rob Berkeley at the Runnymede Trust, and author Dreda Say Mitchell. These and other community leaders have responded. It’s not their fault they are undermined and largely ignored.
The work continues. One agreed suggestion has been to organise the largest political empowerment programme this country has ever seen. We start with an event this Friday.
We all want a better society. We’ll do it together, by understanding and engaging with the system. By holding politicians to account, demanding greater equality of opportunity, and nurturing a generation of politicians away from the egotistical path that sees many rise only to vanish without trace.
There are challenges for the black community and wider society, but the answer isn’t to indulge in nostalgia, but to plan for the future: less greed, more opportunities and, above all, hope.