Not so long ago, the veteran Grenada-born UK broadcaster Alex Pascall invited me to give a short address to a group of Caribbean elders reflecting on the last 60 years of our presence in the UK. This was followed shortly after by a St Vincent-born retired teacher, who was asked by the senior Methodist minister at her church whey there was a noticeable absence of African Caribbean intellectuals in British life, unlike the 1960s and 70s. It was something that concerned me privately for sometime. Although in a superficial way this has no direct connection with Barbados, in a real way it does, since the lack of dynamism in the African Caribbean community in Britain has similar echoes in the Caribbean.
British Publish Space:
The observation that the Caribbean dimension to British public discussions is missing is very astute and the minister should be complimented for his profound perception. This absence, or more properly marginalisation, is particularly observant in the press, in local and national policymaking, in the work place, and most disappointing of all, in the universities and think-tanks. Even on matters of direct interest to the Caribbean community, the debate is usually between opposing white views and, on very rare occasions with a black input by default – a David Lammy or Trevor Phillips.
The other default position is using an Asian voice to speak on behalf of black people – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of the Independent, for example. This is also seen in book reviews, profiles of black entertainers, sportspersons, etc; black people may be the performers, but they are never invited to articulate their art or skills, on the presumption that they are not intelligent enough to theorise their performances or skills.
Currently, there is a nationwide debate on immigration, which purports to be about the European Union and the right of Bulgarians and Romanians to enter the British labour market. While this is the case with organised politics, ignoring for the time being the recent Queen’s Speech, given the rise of Ukip and its setting of the electoral agenda, forcing the other political parties to drift rightward, the Bulgarian/Romanian nexus is not the agenda for the popular phone-in radio programmes. On those programmes (led by the London radio station LBC) the talk from callers is about the growing segregation of London, white flight, the growing ratio of non-white Londoners and other stereotypes that one thought had gone out of fashion in the 1960s, such as blacks smell, etc. Afro Caribbeans are blamed for knife and gun crime – in fact, most of the victims and perpetrators are African – and an overall rise in criminality.
For those of us who live in London, where 25 per cent of residents are foreign-born, and read the Russian-owned Evening Standard, which purports to be the Greater London regional newspaper, the absence of black people from its news pages, except in negative terms (crime, illiteracy, unemployment, poor housing, etc) is astounding.
The black community, mainly the Caribbeans, are over-policed, not just by people in uniforms, but by the creeping army of privatised police, so-called security guards who assume that they too have a mandate from the wider society to police those more likely to cause trouble. Legislation now going through parliament gives this right to landlords, employers, national health service staff, and family doctors.
Even in the low-paid basic jobs such as fast-food restaurants, cleaners on the underground, working in the kitchens of City firms, Caribbean people are squeezed out to noticeably make room for Eastern Europeans, EU student-types, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Latin Americans, Africans, Bangladeshis and others.
Even at the height of the ten-year economic boom which ended with the banking crisis and the housing bubble, black unemployment was more than double the average, and for the 16-24 year olds, always in double figures. It now stands at about 50 per cent.
Even those young people who want to better themselves by going to college or getting more conventional skills training, often find themselves accepted on to courses to make the numbers, but comprising a higher ration of the failed students. Nursing degrees at some of our second-rate former polytechnics are good examples.
We have seen numerous examples of young men being suspected of crime being executed or badly beaten by various arms of the state – by shooting or beating to death while in police custody, or being ignored and left to die or receiving poor treatment in hospitals. Being black in modern Britain is now a capital offence. Those professionals who escape the stereotyping and professional ghettoising are constantly challenged by ethnic juniors who question their competence, if they respond, they are accused of being aggressive, forceful, anti-social, angry, even violent.
Black people, and in particular Caribbean people, are always the ‘other’, the ‘primitive’ artist, the ‘self-taught’ singer, the ‘natural’ performer, not properly trained or taught in the modern European way. Ironically, during the Thatcher years the black voice was at its most vocal, being central to the Labour Party Leftwing project, led by Ken Livingstone, at the GLC, the numerous Labour-led London councils, and in some of the regions such as Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham, all of which opposed Thatcherism.
The systematic marginalisation of the Caribbean voice began under the rise of New Labour as it was seen as part of the anti-Tony Blair Leftwing. At the same time, groups such as the Conservative Black Councillors, were slowly allowed to wither and die on the political vine as a new generation of black Conservatives were taken inside the inner circle of the Tory party. We are now witnessing a political environment in which Compassionate Conservatives, LibDems and One Nation Labour routinely attack black people as an easy way to re-gain popularity – just read the Queen’s Speech. So, the marginalisation of Caribbean intellectuals from the popular debate is not surprising; it is part of the broader marginalisation of Caribbean social and cultural life – and, predictably, it is the Caribbean community itself which is often blamed.
Of course, we as Caribbean people are not perfect and one of the most glaring faults in our social organisation is the lack of a black or Afro-Caribbean economy. By this I do not mean there are no enterprising individuals from the community, but rather the lack of coherent business organisations and individuals providing the goods and services that the community badly needs.
Where are the teachers providing the Saturday schools, private tutorials and one-to-one teaching that so many of our young people so badly need? Where are the garages that provide the top quality vehicle maintenance, the builders providing first-rate service, the electricians, plumbers, and so on. Too often there are complaints about people wanting to do work in the ‘black’ – avoiding the tax man – ignoring the legal consequences if the work goes badly wrong. How about the electricians and plumbers who walk out to go to bigger better paying jobs, leaving the individual homeowner with dangerous bare wires hanging or toilets not flushing? How about our doctors, lawyers, architects, financial advisers, the people who should be providing leadership to the community? What about the surly and often bad mannered service we get in the little take-away restaurants, forcing many people to spend their money with businesses owned by other ethnic groups when they would rather not? In many cases we have internalised the very contempt that the host community, and the so-called New Britons, have for us by treating each other in much the same way.
Analysis and Conclusion:
We have now reached a stage when the marginalisation is almost complete; we are collectively forced, if lucky, in to low wage jobs with few if any prospects, poorer housing, our children’s education is neglected and ignored, and every white member of society, including the newly arrived Eastern Europeans, think they have a natural right to lecture us on good manners and social behaviour. We are routinely denied justice, even though we are more likely to be victims of crime rather than the perpetrators – whatever the tabloid newspapers may say. Our Christian religious beliefs are ignored if not treated as the obsessions of a primitive people, while those of other ethnic and religious groups are treated as the beliefs of a more culturally sophisticated people.
We have seen the national hypocrisy of elevating the Stephen Lawrence murder in to some kind of national grieving while the almost daily maltreatment of young men – and a few women – by the criminal justice system has become normalised. Then there are those who claim that we as a people should be grateful that we are given opportunities in Great Britain which, in many cases, we would not have been given at home. This claim to relative gratefulness is disingenuous and, in many ways, is a very part of the racism we face as part of our everyday lives.
In fact, like in Nazi Germany, some black people themselves become perpetrators of the oppressors’ racism in the silly belief that if the young muggers, and single mothers, and illiterates were to go away everything would improve for us as a community. Of course, they conveniently forget that the ideal model of this form of assimilation, the Jewish community, has faced neo-Nazi violence in every European nation, almost every day since the ending of the Second World War. Here they are, the best educated, the most sophisticated, the perceived most law-abiding, and in many ways the most silent of all ethnic and religious communities in Britain, yet they are not spared any of the contempt of large sections of the white community, working class and professional class.
Then there is the intellectual cover, the assault on multi-culturalism, the casual dismissal of the doctrine of equality, the very battles that have led to the global fight over militant Islamism. Even in matters of our health we are ignored, even when we suffer disproportionately, such as prostate cancer (three times as high as white men), there is no attempt to appeal direct to them, not even on good public health grounds.
The marginalisation of the African Caribbean community in Britain is almost complete.