Yesterday, I discovered a concept that I believed would change the face of comedy and community integration forever. As an Asian friend was relaying the story of an over inquisitive coach driver making her uncomfortable, I suggested that there was one way to end the confrontation quickly. To look directly into the eyes of the driver and say “is it ‘cos my hijab is black?” And lo and behold, the concept of the Double Whammy Difference (DWD) was born. Playing the victim with not one, but TWO distinctive characteristics that you know will make others, for example, compliment the wonderful smells that emanate from their black-hijab-wearing neighbour’s kitchen at 6am. Every day.
But my excitement was short-lived. As with so many fledgling discoveries, I failed at the first hurdle, namely that something similar existed. In today’s Guardian, Dianne Abbott brought to the world the TWD – Triple Whammy Difference – by highlighting the plight of unemployed young black people in the UK. Unemployed. Young. And black. I’m not bitter that she bettered my genius (honest) but her analysis of the current unemployment situation in the UK is irresponsible and dangerous.
As Mehdi Hasan highlighted just a few days ago, unemployment is an epidemic affecting the whole of Europe. This is a problem that transcends national, racial and generational boundaries. Its societal impacts are well documented and the potential solutions well rehearsed. But given that the problem is one of national (and international) concern, localising it to one specific ethnic group when, lest we forget, ethnic minorities are still that – a minority – such thinking has the potential to fracture community relations. A few years ago, the BNP rode the wave of discontent over housing provision and at one point had 12 councillors in the local council. Start focusing attention on local, ethnic issues related to a national problem and you run the risk of a similar pool of discontent.
Youth unemployment faces the same, if not worse challenges than unemployment in general, regarded as a major issue across the world. The potential for a lost generation accustomed to unemployment has major ramifications for the future wellbeing of the UK and the world at large. But, we’ve been here before. Recessions do have a worse impact on young people who are less skilled to demand jobs requiring experience and find themselves unable to gather the experience they need as opportunities seem few and far between. In terms of skill sets and levels of education, a young ethnic minority person faces the same challenges as anyone else from a similar socioeconomic background. The problem lies not in the colour of their skin but in the culture of education and skills provision in this country. The education system is designed to produce clones that are expected to perform as compartments in a large factory machine called employment. Being young is a problem because you’re the same as everyone else.
Looking at data about the black community across all ages in terms of unemployment, there is a trend. Black Africans and Black Caribbean groups have the highest rates of unemployment of all ethnic minorities. It is fair to expect that this would be mirrored in younger age groups, as the Quarterly Labour Force Survey Diane Abbott refers to reveals. Black Africans rank third of the seven ethnic groups in terms of being ‘economically inactive and not wanting to work’ (behind Bangladeshis and Pakistanis). A quarter of Black African, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean households are workless. Academically, Black Africans fare better than their Caribbean counterparts in GCSE attainment, whilst Black Africans have the highest representation of all ethnic minorities at undergraduate, postgraduate and higher degree levels. But the critical point is this; even if every single ethnic minority person was employed, representatively, they would still be in the minority overall. If there are issues within communities around unemployment or academic attainment, expecting a national solution when we should be focussing on the overall problem together is, to my mind, selfish.
It is reckless to frame an issue of national concern with specific racial characteristics. Our priority should be to create an environment where unemployment as a whole is being addressed and an atmosphere for innovative, forward-thinking enterprise and growth is promoted. Your colour doesn’t matter. What you can do, does.
When nobody is having a bite of the pie, everyone is being left behind. When everyone is having a bite of the pie but people are still being left behind, then we have a problem worth addressing. Britain should not be afraid to pat itself on the back from time to time. We have a much lesser problem with racial exclusion than we give ourselves credit for.