Our streets are aflame. Now black Britain will be allowed its say
The politics of race has, at best, retreated to a narrow debate around the issue of Islamophobia.
Like most of those leaping on the flaming bandwagon of Tottenham, I have no idea what lay behind the weekend's disturbances. It may well be, as some have suggested, that the chaos represented a realisation that the idyllic existence enjoyed by black inner-city youth during our years of plenty is now drawing to a close. Perhaps the Metropolitan Police is now so cash strapped it is no longer able to deploy significant manpower to low priority targets such as the prevention of a full blown riot. Or maybe we've simply been made aware of the full length to which London's drug gangs are prepared to go to defend their lucrative trade.
But now these issues will be debated. Crime, the cuts, drugs, social policy, policing policy. Oh, we'll debate them. There's nothing like a burnt out high street or two to get us debating.
And something will happen during the course of this debate. Something different.
We will invite black people to contribute to it. To be precise, we will invite members of the Afro-Caribbean community to participate in our political discourse.
There will be youth workers. Community leaders. Street kids. A local politician or two. They will all be allowed to articulate their case. Tell us about what it's like to be black, as opposed to white or Asian, in Britain. Because we are happy to let black people speak about politics, just so long as they have flames or body bags as their backdrop.
The riots of the 1980s produced some positives. The police finally dropped the 'one or two rotten apples' mantra, and embarked on a far reaching, and genuine, process of modernisation and reform. Casual social tolerance of racism became the exception, rather than the norm. Politicians of all persuasions began to focus seriously on inner-city, not jut regional, regeneration.
But those advances came at a price. And one of them was the de-politicisation and marginalisation of Afro-Caribbean politics, and with it the effective political disenfranchisement of an entire section of society. At the start of the 1980s, the black community had tribunes. Black politicians like Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng were elected to parliament speaking openly, honestly and provocatively about the issues affecting their communities.
Where are those voices and advocates today? Before this weekend when did you last see David Lammy on your television screen? Probably not since the brief period when Tony Blair put his arm round him, told him he was a future leader of the party, then dumped him.
A quarter of a century after our first black politicians were elected, how many currently sit around the cabinet or shadow cabinet tables? How many senior black parliamentarians chair our select committees? How many senior black advisors are part of either David Cameron or Ed Miliband's inner circle?
This is not an issue about the exclusion of minorities. There are influential Asian politicians across the political spectrum. And they form the spearhead of similarly influential lobbying groups. Our Jewish community, our Indian community, our Muslim community; all have effective advocates who sit at the heart of the political process. The Afro-Caribbean community, almost uniquely, has no such representation.
Of course there is Chuka Umunna, the great black hope of British politics. But he is totemic, his profile a symbol of what we have lost, rather than what we have achieved. And even Chuka is careful to represent himself as a politician who happens to be black, rather than a black politician.
No one is expecting Chuka Umunna to stand at the Despatch Box at the next session of Treasury questions and give a black power salute. But there is no point pretending that black politics and politicians have successfully broken into the political mainstream. Nor that the handful who have made it have brought their community and its agenda with them.
The politics of race has, at best, retreated to a narrow debate around the issue of Islamophobia. At worst, it has been pushed into a cul-de-sac of British Jobs for British Workers and cups of tea with Mrs Duffy.
And as our streets burn, what plans are afoot to address this political gagging of black Briton? None. Our selection processes are geared exclusively to tackling the under-representation of women. Our policy agenda to addressing the plight of the squeezed middle, not those at the economic margins. Our entire political narrative built around an appeal to the White Working Class.
And so there is silence. About the appalling levels of educational attainment by black male youth. About the scourge of gang culture that blights black communities. Or if there is not silence, the voices that are raised are not strong enough to force these issues to the top of the political agenda.
But we've had our riot. So now we can have our debate. And once again, for as long as the flames continue to flicker, black Britain will be allowed to have its say.