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18 August 2016

Brexit Britain is bringing back the racism my family experienced in the seventies

Widespread racial inequality is revealing, but not surprising. 

By Shazia Awan-Scully

Is today’s report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, citing that widespread inequality is “entrenched” in Britain and risks increasing race tensions even news? 

As an ethnic minority in Britain, I feel different every day. Post-Brexit, there is growing discomfort too. I walk down the street and I wonder if I’ll see somebody being abused, or if this time it’ll  be me. 

David Isaac the Commission Chairman acknowledged today in the report that “if you are black or an ethnic minority in modern Britain it can still feel like you are living in a different world, never mind being part of a one nation society.”  If you are perceived to be foreign by your name or appearance, this is the reality of living in Britain in 2016. 

The report also showed that black graduates earn on average 23.1 per cent less than white ones, and more ethnic minorities are unemployed. Today’s report follows Maria Miller’s report just last week, which found that Muslim women face the most discrimination at work.

I’m glad we are talking about it, but reports are only worth the glossy paper they are written on if they don’t lead to tangible change.

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Having spent time in Washington and across the United States as a guest of the US State Department, I saw firsthand some of the things we could learn from the US when it comes to racial discourse and calling out failings. A progressive Government that wants to seriously tackle racial disadvantage cannot simply focus on poverty, educational attainment amongst children or employment. It must address racial inequality and why it exists, not simply tell us it exists. President Barack Obama has openly spoken on inequality in the work place, saying:  “We must fight the impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview, but not Jamal.”

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I am proud to be British. This country is my home. My family came here in 1971 from Uganda fleeing the regressive and hateful Idi Amin regime. Since then they, like many others, have integrated and have lived more of their lives in Britain than anywhere else. They see Britain as home. 

Nevertheless, my parents and sisters faced a struggle. Leaving behind businesses and personal wealth, being called “monkeys” and “P***s” in school, to being bullied for sounding different – that was their reality.  Whilst a far cry from the regime they fled, the United Kingdom was, and is, united in name only

Two days or so after the EU Referendum vote, I found myself in a friend’s living room telling police officers about  the racist abuse I’d received. My story was accompanied by her 15-year-old daughter asking questions like: “Does mum have to sell the business now because ‘they’ don’t want us here?” and: “They keep talking about it in school, where shall we go?” 

The uncomfortable reality is that we don’t appear to have progressed since 1971. In 2016, school children are still being singled out by their religion and ethnicity. We are allowing scars to be inflicted on a whole generation, and scars do not heal easily, if at all. 

There is liberal, left-wing middle class  complacency in Britain about tackling race inequality, and it’s getting  worse. The failure to expose deep rooted inequality and divisions in society is apparent. 

We can change it, we have to. I believed Theresa May when she said she wanted to “build a better Britain”. This woman has a track record of getting things done. In her maiden speech as PM, she acknowledged that “if you’re black you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you are white”. This admission is powerful in itself. Only by exposing these issues, can we begin to eradicate them through education and, if necessary, quotas. 

Inequality will prevail until we force the systems around us to change. A full 14 per cent of the UK population is BAME, and yet we are still underrepresented in positions of power. Today’s report acknowledges that out of the 2,686 judges who declared their ethnicity, only 159 were from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background. In Parliament only 6.3 per cent of MPs are from a minority group and many elected officials are not fit to be there. Wayne David, the Labour MP for my home town of Caerphilly, said recently: “The only people with coloured skin in my town run takeaways.” The failure of Labour to properly hold him to account on his views is telling in itself. 

In recent weeks I have marched in a number of the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations which have spread to the UK from the USA. The actions of the US police are the target of the movement’s anger.  If we look at the UK police force, this is where we see one of our biggest institutional failings. There are currently no ethnic minority Chief police constables across England and Wales. That’s ZERO. And 94.5 per cent of police officers are white. Is racism “entrenched”? The numbers rather speak for themselves. 

The recommendations in today’s report range from the restructuring of ministerial responsibilities to introducing “targets” for ethnic minorities. Oddly enough the recommendations are silent on the misuse of tasers on black ex-Aston Villa footballers.

Before we start drawing up targets and reorganisations, we have got to do two things:

1.    Deal with prejudice. We shouldn’t aim to be “tolerant.” Tolerance is not good enough. Let acceptance and fairness be our goals. We must overcome the unease of talking about race honestly and bypass this hideous false sense of cultural sensitivity and political correctness. It’s taken us backwards, not forwards.

2.    Answer the following. Why are people who look and sound different underrepresented? What tangible steps are being taken to change that now, so that future generations do not feel the burden of being singled out for living their lives in the skin that they were born?

Shazia Awan is an Equality Activist. She is partner in The African Centre for Entrepreneurship and is launching Women Create, a social enterprise to help women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into enterprise and employment. She is Vice President of the Council for Voluntary Youth Services in Wales and she was the first Asian woman to address a Welsh Tory party conference.