It was Indira Gandhi who said:
“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”
So in achieving a successful multi-cultural Britain, we must build bridges between our various communities and not walls. For me, the essential message of campaigners such as Wilberforce, Clarkson and former slaves such as Equiano was a simple truth: that there is only one race, the human race. It was a campaign that galvanised nations and clearly has an ongoing legacy today. I myself am a great-great-grandson of slaves. The Taylor plantation, from which I derive my surname, still exists in Jamaica today.
What of today’s Britain? There has been progress in bridging the equality gap between black and other ethnic minorities in mainstream Britain. I grew up in what I like to call paradise—an exotic place called Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway by the gasworks. At my old grammar school, I was taught nothing about black history. I had no idea that there were black inventors such as Elijah McCoy, who had more than 50 patents to his name and from whom the term “the real McCoy” was coined. I did not know that traffic lights and the first electronic heart pacemaker valve were invented by black men. We now have Black History Month, but it is a pity that we need it at all. The positive achievements of black people need to be a part of mainstream education rather than covered for just a few days each year.
Some argue that the destructive legacy of slavery is linked to the under-achievement of black communities today. Some 10 percent of the prison population is black, compared with less than 3 percent of the general population, and 16 percent of those in young offender establishments are black. The lowest level of GCSE attainment is among Black-Caribbean pupils, especially boys. Only 27 percent of Black-Caribbean boys achieve more than five or more A to C grades. Unemployment rates are three times higher in the black community than in the white community.
At the risk of dumbing-down the debate, I welcome the fact that this morning Channel 4 evicted another “Big Brother” contestant for using the racist “N” word. But I wonder what credibility that TV show can have in the future as this is yet another racist remark by a contestant following Jade Goody’s remarks in a previous series. One may say that it is only a television show but millions of people, especially young people, watch these programmes, and they have influence.
There is good news too. Many of Britain’s sporting and entertainment icons are black. Soccer stars such as Rio Ferdinand and singers such as Beverley Knight are now household names. Black and Asian politicians have established themselves, while the Asian business community has excelled. I hope that the true and moderate voice of Islam will prevail over the harmful rhetoric of extremist clerics in some of Britain’s mosques.
For some years the post-Windrush debate about black communities was on the basis of civil rights and equal opportunities, and quite rightly too, but now the business case for diversity has emerged as a strong and compelling one. More and more industries and professions are realising that black and other ethnic minorities in Britain have spending power. The ethnic minority consumer is now an attractive market that needs to be wooed. That is why so many advertising campaigns now feature black and mixed-race people.
My own children, who are a mixture of Afro-Caribbean, Scottish, Polish, Russian, Irish, Indian and Jewish, are typical Londoners. They represent the fact that London is the most multi-cultural and multiracial city in the world. It is no coincidence that London is also the most vibrant financial centre in the world. Even the company boardrooms of Britain, which have traditionally been white, old and male, are beginning to open up to suitably qualified ethnic minority directors.
What of the future? For that we have to learn the lessons of the past. It was during the social reform of Victorian England that the Christian church took on the biblical command to be salt and light in society. Christians pioneered the changes that helped children, the poor, factory workers and the sick.
It was this Christian tradition that Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and George Muller. With much zeal, Christian missionaries went out to convert black Africa.
The irony is that it is the black churches, particularly those led by Africans, which are doing the best in Britain today. God does have a sense of humour. It is not unusual to see a congregation of more than 2,000 at a service at London’s Kingsway International Christian Centre. There are more than 3,500 black-majority churches nationwide. These churches are based in the heart of the inner-cities and are able to touch the lives of people in a way that no politician can. Black church projects such as the Street Pastors initiative work with the homeless, addicts and prostitutes. They transform these troubled lives through a spiritual, not a political, ministry. Some of these churches run highly successful Saturday schools and care for the needs of the elderly and single mothers. Indeed, there is an opportunity for the Christian church as a whole and other faith groups—in the mosques, temples and synagogues—to use their influence in local communities. These faith groups are in a prime position to remove some of the barriers that block a harmonious multi-cultural Britain. I am glad that the Government have various initiatives to combat racism, but the faith groups, particularly the Christian groups, deserve more support because they achieve much in the inner-city communities. William Wilberforce had no ambitions to be a government Minister. He was an MP but never achieved high office or ran big business. He felt a calling and helped to inspire the movement that led to the abolition of the slave trade, literally hours before his death. What would Wilberforce say of modern multi-cultural Britain? I am guessing that he would say something like, “Build upon what unites you, not what divides you. Yes, you still have problems to solve, but, as a nation, don’t get bitter—just get better”. 07 June 2007