Diversity champion Jasmine Dotiwala recently wrote that she was tired of Black History Month as it was the same conversations over and over again on a loop. I kind of agree.
Don’t get me wrong, I see the importance of Black History Month, or International Women’s Day, but it does get exhausting after the decades pass. Every year, we voice the same old hopes and aspirations and the needle barely moves. It’s like the Del Boy dream in Only Fools and Horses “This time next year Rodney, we’ll be millionaires…”
Racial inequality across all aspects of life is still stark. The Prime Minister has just published the Race Disparity Audit which reveals lots of important facts and figures like Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed; black Caribbean boys are three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school; and you are less likely to own your home if you’re black.
I applaud this audit, as a crucial first step in addressing inequality is to get the data and publish it. That’s why the reporting of the gender pay gap is so important. If you can’t see it, how can you fix it? It also throws up important things we may not have realised, like white working-class pupils have some of the worst attainment. So, it is vital that this data needs to be gathered annually and published to track progress across the whole spectrum.
That’s where things get tricky. How do you actually solve this issue? Analysis and diagnosis is all very good but where’s the prescription or the treatment?
Britain prides itself on being a tolerant country and I think it genuinely means to be and tries to be. We are horrified to hear the language of Donald Trump and we know who’s side we’re on when it comes to taking the knee.
But there are still different categories of racism alive and kicking in Britain as any person of colour knows. There’s outright horrid racism – “No dogs, no Blacks, no Irish” or being shouted at on the street. But we all abhor any signs of that and we hope that we have moved on.
My brother and I joke about how people would always get our actual race wrong when we were abused on the street growing up on the outskirts of Glasgow. “Go back to China” was a common one and of course we would have to correct them… “It’s Assam where the tea comes from in North East India don’t you know” and then we’d run away very, very fast. We can all agree that’s not very nice.
But then there’s hidden racism. This is the biggie. At its best, this is where people are really nice, polite and pleasant to your face but it never quite fits. You never get that promotion. You get stuck. It’s just never “your time” and you see your colleagues and friends, who you started out with at the same time, rise with elegant ease and astonishing good luck.
At its worst, hidden racism is where assumed prejudices and lazy negative assumptions can cause absolute misery and have terrible consequences. Just look how the police handled the murder of Stephen Lawrence. I was a young press officer at the Home Office when the Macpherson report into how badly the investigation was handled was published. It was a big moment for race relations. That is the moment where Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, coined the controversial but powerful phrase “institutional racism”.
I was assigned to help look after the Lawrence family that day and I will never forget their quiet dignity but the anger, hurt and pain was etched on their faces. An aunt of Stephen Lawrence said to me: “Imagine if had happened to your brother or son or nephew?”
And that’s the thing. The police didn’t imagine it. They saw a black boy involved in a stabbing and assumed it was gang-related and didn’t take it as seriously as a racist murder. To add final insult to the whole thing, there was a terrible cock-up and lots of people who had given evidence anonymously, because they feared for their safety, had their names and addresses published. It was all a horrible metaphor for how the system had let them down from start to finish.
I was with the then Police Minister Paul Boateng, who was also the first black Minister of State, at TV studios near Westminster when the news of the latest gaffe broke. We were so mortified, we couldn’t face the waiting cameras and escaped through the goods entrance of the building, wading through the bins – which seemed somehow fitting for what a mess the whole thing had been.
That was nearly 20 years ago. What has changed? The bitter truth is, not that much. The BAME population is growing and new communities are joining. Some nationalities are doing better like Chinese and Indian and, of course, socio-economic factors and social class play a big part, but the truth is that the colour of your skin or a funny foreign-sounding name still holds you back.
There is hard evidence to show that it stops you getting a job interview and black and brown people are rarely in positions of power and influence. Only a tiny handful of top leaders from the world of politics, media, finance, law and more are ethnic minority. A recent report by Operation Black Vote and the Guardian revealed… cue drumroll… that Britain’s most powerful elite is 97 per cent white. While that is not really a huge jaw-hitting-floor moment, it is a pretty stark statistic for a country which prides itself on racial equality.
We all know this is true. When you look around where the power in society lies – from our boardrooms and newsrooms to the Cabinet room – you are more likely to see a black or Asian person pouring the tea than being at the table.
The Labour Shadow Minister for Equalities, Dawn Butler, was mistaken for a cleaner in Parliament. Black and brown actors say it’s easier to move to the States than to get ahead in Britain, where stars of stage and screen are mostly white and increasingly middle-class.
I applaud the Prime Minister’s initiative to get more data on racial inequality but at some point you need to take action – you need to lead by example. How many of Mrs May’s senior advisers are from ethnic minority backgrounds? I know from my own experience in the Labour party that it was woeful. There were so few senior brown women in politics that a security guard in Parliament thought I was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. I don’t know who that’s worse for.
Having more diversity – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, regional, age, experience – in the room where the big decisions are being taken isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes business sense and stops group-think, which can be dangerous.
If you need any hard evidence on why diversity can help you avoid a massive car crash, just look at the latest Dove campaign, which basically suggested that if you used enough of their lovely creamy soap, a nice black lady could magically transform into a nice white lady.
Beyond cringe. P45 for the chief marketing officer. Surely, we can do better than that in this day and age?