JUST West Yorkshire invited veteran race campaigner Lee Jasper to share his thoughts on the state of Race in Britain on the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 world famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the accompanying mass march on Washington, there is a temptation to simply remember his seminal speech and forget King’s radical politics. Since 1963 and more so since King’s assassination in 1968, there has been a Disneyesque attempt to portray King as being above politics. He has over time become canonised as meaning all things to all people – a kind of historical revisionism that sprays vanilla all over radical black history.
Many tend to forget just how radical King was – he posed the most acute threat to the global white supremacy and American imperialism. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in US history that helped push through the US 1968 Civil Rights Act. Just because we now have a Black man in the Whitehouse, it is tempting to snuggle up to the myth of a ‘post racial world’ and wallow in the neoliberal romantic delusion that King’s dream of a non-racist world has been fulfilled.
King confronted America’s racism with radical non-violent action – with the emphasis here on action. As a Baptist minister, King was not content with the theological torpor that saw Black Christian’s response to crushing racism focused on prayer and inaction. For King, Christ was a revolutionary and he took what he saw as his living gospel onto the streets and spoke truth to power.
I remember talking with the Reverend Jessie Jackson about King and he told me that when King initially wanted to go to the epicentre of Southern racism in Birmingham Alabama, he faced fierce opposition from a number of high profile African American pastors. They wrote a public letter castigating King as a rabble-rouser and opposing his intended visit. He was viewed as a dangerous radical even by his own.
King knew that focusing on racism, economics and poverty was critical to challenging the injustices faced by African Americans. King also knew that building a movement that utilises the moral force of non-violent protest alongside a unified progressive coalition could move mountains. He therefore sought not only to challenge racism but also formed alliances with striking trade unionists and war veterans passionately advocating against the Vietnam War.
In a society that was deeply mired in racism, King’s message of equality and justice for all citizens inspired Black Britons. Fifty years after Dr. King’s address, his speech continues to resonate deeply with ethnic minorities in the UK because we understand that behind the rhetoric of lofty human rights principles, lies an embedded culture of racism that continues to disadvantage Black people
There is still no Black in the Union Jack.
In 21st century Britain, Black citizens are still not equal but remain third-class citizens because the laws and the ostensibly ‘race-neutral’ policing and criminal justice systems continue to criminalise Black youth and deliberately target ethnic minorities for differential and unfair treatment.
The huge increase in Islamophobia and racist attacks particularly on religious buildings and Muslim communities alongside the routine demonisation in the press and media has increased their vulnerability while rolling back civil liberties to our collective detriment.
We are routinely denied justice.
The Coalition government has sought to dismiss the genuine grievances of Black citizens by pitting their demands for race equality and anti-racism in oppositional terms to the white working class Britons – a classic divide and rule strategy – they has served to invisibilise our needs.
The Government’s virulent attack against the concept of multiculturalism and its demonisation of immigrants and asylum seekers has drawn public attention away from the austerity-driven economic crisis caused primarily by reckless bankers. Consequently the mood music in Britain has changed and has become distinctly hostile to ethnic minority communities today.
Racism, economics and politics.
Dr. King recognised that skyrocketing levels of poverty and unemployment affected Black women and young people worst. The corrosive absence of hope and opportunity is consigning yet another generation of Black British youth in the UK to a lifetime of discrimination and injustice. Dr. King spoke of the frustrations of those denied the fundamental principles of equal citizenship and justice for all when he said: ‘Those that make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable’
The August 2011 Riots proved to be the canary in the coalmine – an apocalyptic portent of terrible social dislocations to come. When the pent-up energy and talent of youth is not given an outlet as a result of a discriminatory criminal justice system, a closed labour market, poor housing and health outcomes and non-representation in politics – it is inevitable that the metaphorical dam will burst with all the attendant consequences that played out in its aftermath of the riots
Given the profound implications of inequality and injustice in the UK, where do we go from here? Do we allow this Government to bequeath first-class injustice and third-class citizenship to another generation of black young people?
Black Voluntary Sector.
Nationally those that could and should be in the forefront of the debate have failed us. The British Black voluntary sector has left the field of battle having been beaten and dismissed by this Government. In 2010 Minister Eric Pickles slashed funding to a range of national Black organisations and then closed down all of its race equality consultation forums. Having ditched the politics of campaigning for a managerial approach to tackling racism, the Black voluntary sector has retreated into the world of policy speak and sought to de-politicise the fight against race discrimination focusing on policy and research rather than politics. In doing so some have become largely removed from the communities they purport to serve. Where was the huge campaign against the discriminatory nature of these cuts? Where were the legal challenges or press campaigns to highlight these issues? While the ‘professional’ voluntary sector fight over funding crumbs, at a regional and local level the fight against racism and disadvantage remains overtly political. Not surprisingly a large number of ‘voluntary sector professionals ‘simply disappear once they are no longer being paid, such is their commitment to our struggle.
Black MP’s or MP’s who happen to be Black?
Racism is a deeply political issue that requires ultimately a political response. Dr. King understood the importance of direct action and focused on racism, economics and voter registration. He utilised radical grassroots politics and a radical Christian theology.
In the UK sadly we have Black politicians that are trapped into the suffocating confines of neo-liberal party politics – consequently they are no more than tokenistic Black faces in high places. Our Black representatives in Parliament or the House of Lords have never ever had a collective discussion on Race much less agreement on a cross party strategy for race equality.
Likewise the theological conservatism and the fragmentation of the Black church means that too many simply refuse to get involved in politics despite the towering example set by Dr. King who knew that ultimately his struggle would cost him his life.
Where do we go from here? What’s to be done?
We need to create a team of committed activist prepared to work free in an inclusive radical campaigning Race Equality A Team that takes the fight to Government, institutions and the private sector. We need committed experts in their respective fields to ensure a step-change in the fight against racism in Britain.
That’s why Black Activist Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC) will be launching a series of new initiatives designed to cut through the current political inertia and ineffectiveness in the fight against racism. In terms of strategy, Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement employed legal, economic and voter registration empowerment strategies.
Given the problems we face here in the UK we need to adopt the same basis for our struggle today.
First we need to focus on educating our own community about the nature scale and impact of racism and how power operates.
Secondly we need to back Operation Black Vote’s national voter registration campaign that could, with the right backing, be capable of registering unprecedented numbers of voters ahead of the 2014/15 UK elections.
Thirdly we will be consulting communities about a strategy of civil disobedience allied to legal challenges to highlight and confront racism and injustice focusing on access to human rights, combating economic exclusion through the direct challenge of consumer action.
Fourthly we will be holding an annual national Black political conference entitled The State of Black Britain that will examine and set the priorities for action
Finally to deliver this and to counter the poisonous narrative of the Coalition Government on Race we need a new national anti-racist movement made up of the broadest possible alliance across society to drive forward the fight to achieve a society where British Black citizens can at last emerge as equal citizens in a free and equal society.
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