Black, British, and No Hope

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Ben Cohen
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By Ben Cohen

Despite the markedly different history, Black British people have much in common with their American counterparts. Both groups have struggled to achieve an equal status in society, and both are systematically discriminated against by the police and the workforce. A culture of hostility has developed in both societies, and all too often, it results in violence, incarceration and poverty.

In a bleak article in the Guardian, Peter Akinti highlights the untold story of an existence with no real hope that many Black Britons experience. It is a story that in many ways is worse than the American one, where African Americans have defined their culture more successfully, and have been given a huge boost with the election of Barack Obama. Akinti writes:

In 2007, 30 teenagers, mostly black, were reported murdered. A


recent police report on London's gang culture identified 170 separate


gangs, with more than a quarter said to have been involved in murders.


According to a 2008 study by Queen Mary University, London, suicide is


proportionally more common among young black men than white men; but


more alarmingly, most of the suicides that occur among black men happen


within 24 hours of talking to a counsellor.


Black men in
Britain remain almost invisible, at the lowest level of the "racial
hierarchy". Yes we get jobs, but not often enough in boardrooms; 37% of
black men in the UK are on the police's national database, whether they
have been found guilty of a crime or not (compared with 13% of Asian
and 9% of white men). This racial disparity hardly ever works in our
favour. Even if we play by the rules we are twice as likely to be
unemployed. White men are the gatekeepers to the roles we could use to
redefine ourselves: in politics (UK ready for an Obama? Pull the other
one), in television, radio, newspapers, even club promoting. Let us not
pretend we can't see.

Growing up in South London, this story was all too familiar. It is worse now then when I was a teenager, and it seemed pretty bad back then. Whenever I visit London these days, I hear tales of kids I used to go to school with either murdered or in prison. I hear friends talking about incessant police victimization, gang related crime in their area and a hopelessness that it isn't getting better. Stabbings, robberies, and shootings are a part of every day life in London, and a disproportionate amount effects the black community.

In London, the black population is mostly made up of West Indian and West African migrants. When I was growing up, the differences in culture were quite visible - the West Indians were always associated with being cool (and all too often crime), while West Africans were often teased for being educated and hard working. But in modern Britain, black culture seems to have morphed into one - West Africans speak with a West Indian affectation, and gangs do not discriminate any more. Many of the 30 dead teenagers in London last year were Africans killed by other Africans.

British Hip Hop has taken off in its own distinct fashion (now called 'Grime' music), and there are many black British artists making serious waves in the music industry. It is a deep and interesting culture with huge variety and innovation, but while Black culture seems unified through music, it is not coherent elsewhere. A close friend of mine in London (of African descent) remarked that Black British youth don't really understand their own history - they learn about the American Civil Rights era, but not about their own struggle. They learn about American Black history, but not British Black history, and confuse the narrative of African Americans with their own.

Akinti moved from London to New York to get away from the culture that he says almost killed him. He writes:

I have a two-month-old son. Despite the promise of
Obama, I'm gutted that I will have to fly my son over if I ever want
him to see the Arsenal, and I'm sick that he will say, "Mommy can I
have a cookie" instead of, "Got any biccies mum?" as I did. I would
have loved for him to grow up in east London, but he won't because
London is too much of a risk for my boy.

A sad story, and unfortunately, one that isn't told enough.

(photo by o.diaries)