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OP-ED: Looking into the racial divide

  • Published at 09:39 pm June 20th, 2020
black lives matter protest

Discrimination based on skin-colour is alive and well in the UK, but things are improving

I was working at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, UK in the 1990s. In February 1995, after finishing a meeting, I came out carrying heavy bags of documents and hailed a cab to go home. Soon, the cab was passing Rotten Row in Hyde Park, when I saw a slim black youth run across the park with a football. 

Two police constables were chatting on the far corner and spotted the boy. “You black bastard, what are you doing in Hyde Park?” Without waiting for an answer, one constable shot him on his right leg. He fell with a thud bleeding. Blood coloured the green grass. 

“Do something!” I told the elderly cab driver. “Call a policeman,” I stammered. The cab driver chuckled. “Policeman?! Then they will certainly kill him. I will call an ambulance. Calm down miss, such things are known to happen.” Soon we were on our way, but I could never forget the brutal scene. 

Britain, the last and largest empire in the history of the world, welcomed Commonwealth citizens in 1950 to rebuild the country. Most came with hope and aspiration, but little did they know that they would face racism and discrimination. 

The British Crime Survey in 1993 noted that around 140,000 racially motivated incidents, including harassment, abuse, threats, and violence occurred. But only 9,700 were reported. 

Beyond remaining colour prejudice, the basic multi-faceted problems of racial prejudice are shared both by many white working- class boys, and by black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Young people growing up in poor circumstances, especially boys, are more exposed to gangs, drugs, and knife crime. This in turn is liable to reinforce prejudice in the police and general public. 

Currently, 2.5% more non-white Asians are victims of coronavirus than the whites. The reason is mainly cultural, and poverty. They live in crowded homes where proximity prevents social distancing. Food habits cause obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. Also, non-white men and women of South Asian origin hardly engage in physical exercises and sports. 

Many children of non-whites are living in low income homes, suffering material deprivation. But despite this, the non-white children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) achieved higher progress scores than the national average. Non-white youth were achieving good results. 

But still, by 2018, non-white, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, had a higher rate of unemployment and the highest rate of economic inactivity, amounting to 38% (both genders). From 2012 to 2017, six of Cambridge’s 31 colleges had admitted fewer than 10 non-white students. Fewer than 3% of non-whites were university professors. In 1993, anti-racist protest turned violent with tension and anger. 

In Bradford, London, and Leeds there were many small riots protesting against discrimination. A highly educated Bangladeshi whose name I have changed to Shafik Ahmed for anonymity was an excellent scholar. The son of a retired ambassador, he went to school at Eton, then to Imperial College, and finally to Christ Church, Oxford, passing with flying colours. 

He then decided to go to Harvard in the US as a research scholar, lecturer, and two of his publications became study text. He returned to the UK where his aged parents were living. One day, he saw an advertisement for a senior financial position in a well-known firm. He applied for it. To his surprise, he received a letter regretting that they could not appoint him. He was astonished. 

He then sent the same CV and application with an English name, Arnold Smith, and a different address. He was congratulated and immediately asked to join and meet the chairman of the firm. Shafik Ahmed took the two CVs and responses -- the one that rejected him as a non-white and the other that accepted him as an Englishman. He hired legal assistance, and took the company to court on the grounds of discrimination. 

His CV was so good that the judge reprimanded the firm, and ordered the chairman to instantly pay Shafik Ahmed 50,000 pounds for acute discrimination. This was an unusual case. Many reforms have been suggested to end discrimination and inequality of life opportunities in Britain. 

There has been progress, but many recommendations remain to be implemented, or take time to take effect. In the 1990s, a judicial report into the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, found “systematic racism” in the police. Reforms were made by David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, himself black, pointing to a lack of implementation of his 2017 report into the treatment of ethnic minorities. 

There have been six separate reviews into race issues published within the last three years. Prompted by the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the imminent setting up of a “commission on race and ethnic disparities.” Its terms will be decided by Munira Mirza, head of No 10 “Policy Unit.” It will examine all elements of racial inequality across society, including in criminal justice and education. 

It will also focus on inequalities, including disadvantages faced by white, working-class boys. After so many reports and commissions, why is there discrimination against non-whites? It appears that when the non-whites started to come to Britain after the Second World War, it seemed to the British whites that they were being overwhelmed by aliens. They felt their jobs would be taken away. 

Moreover, the fiery speech of Enoch Powell roused antagonism against non-whites and soon every institution became racist. Most British people actively discriminated against non-whites, especially the blacks. It is difficult to change mindsets easily. But those who are really educated, generous, and truly intelligent recognize that the non-whites have contributed to the economy and cultural diversity of the country. 

Finally, although colour discrimination is still alive in the UK, it is much diminished, and new initiatives are underway. Non-white and white marriages and partnerships are becoming quite common. There are many individual non-white leaders in UK leadership positions, including currently the chancellor, home secretary, and mayor of London. 

Selina Mohsin is a former diplomat.

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