2007 marks 200 years since the decision to abolish slavery in the British Empire. The crimes of slavery and the slave trade represent some of the most shameful episodes in Britain’s history. The best commemoration to mark the bi-centenary would be to leave behind the attempts, that characterized 2006, to blame multiculturalism and diversity for Britain’s problems and instead focus on tackling the racism that continues to impact on Britain’s Black communities.
Sadly, many young Black people will remember 2006 as the year when government ministers began to openly question the very value of multiculturalism. As the year when colleges and universities were asked to spy on Muslim and ‘Asian looking’ students. As the year when government officials finally acknowledged that the shocking under performance and high exclusion rates of African Caribbean students in schools was due to institutional racism.
It will be remembered as the year in which the far-right British National Party, calling for an ‘all white Britain’, extended its number of council seats to forty-nine. And as the year it was decided to abolish the CRE and establish a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights without the necessary statutory representative structures or funding to ensure anti-racism remains on the agenda.
As a Muslim woman, I will remember 2006 as the year when even our right to dress as we choose became the subject of national political debate. The fundamental principals of freedom of expression, religion and thought – when asserted by British Muslims, were called into question by the rest of society rather than being defended as universal liberties to which we are all entitled.
2006 saw a concerted attempt to attack the reality of our multicultural society. We were told that the problem is self-segregation by Black communities, and the solution ‘integration’ and adopting ill defined ‘British values’.
The student movement hasn’t been immune to the influence of these ideas. Guidelines issued by the Department for Education and Skills last year assert that ‘Ethnically segregated communities are increasingly common on campus.’ Perhaps this concern refers to the fact that there are more African Caribbean students at one London university than at all of the 19 elite Russell Group universities combined. I doubt it.
These Guidelines also made the headlines for their offensive and widely condemned suggestion that universities spy on Muslim and “Asian-looking” students.
Already students at one university had been restricted from wearing certain religious dress, two students had been expelled from their Sixth Form college for trying to set up an Islamic Society while others have been subject to verbal and physical abuse.
The reality is that multiculturalism is working. Nowhere can this be seen more than our campuses. For many young people, going to college or university is an opportunity to discover, explore and express who they are. Many of our colleges and universities are some of the most diverse communities in Britain. This is something we should be proud of.
Any ‘segregation’ is more likely to be a result of Black students, who come from the poorest sections of British society, living at home and working part-time to pay for their education since the introduction of top up fees.
Where diversity and multiculturalism are celebrated, as in London, the benefits are clear. Winning the Olympic Games was one example; the year on year reduction on the number of racist incidents for the last five years is another.
2007 offers us the opportunity to look again at the approach that has been taken so far. I embrace the growing radicalization of Britain’s young Black people, alongside many others in the student movement, whether against war, racism and terror or for global trade justice, free education and human rights. Such developments strengthen our society, not weaken it.
I sincerely hope that this year we will begin to turn the tide on this alarming spread of racism and intolerance.