Blog: Young, Black and Unemployed

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.


Article: It’s too easy to ignore the EDL

A normal Saturday afternoon turned somewhat as the EDL marched again in my area in protest against the building of a Muslim community centre in Goodmayes.  “Great article content” I thought!

You can find the original article by clicking here

Waking up later than intended on Saturday morning, I sluggishly made my way to the local barbers knowing I’d have to wait some time before getting my short back and sides. The five-minute walk took longer than usual as I walked headfirst into a carnival.

Chadwell Heath is not a place one would expect to see such a thing, but a sea of people, whistles, trumpets, England flags and chants of “I’m England till I die” made me think our football fans must be desperate if they were that enthusiastic about an U21 game due to take place that evening.

I was welcomed to the carnival with wails of “You fat Paki! Fuck off!” and was grateful for their concern for my health, what with diabetic parents and all, but this seemed to start off a brand new chant – “E-E-EDL! E-E-EDL!”. Of course it is! A nice Saturday morning in Chadwell Heath and the EDL are out in force, waving their flags and chanting their way through to Dagenham. I pinballed my way through, got my haircut and asked my hairdresser about the local gym.

I later heard that a bearded Muslim man was assaulted amid the chanting and the Metropolitan police reported some Asian youths were given the once over further down the road. Why wasn’t I assaulted? Well, I can only assume that when I’ve just woken up and am en route to get a haircut, I probably look like I’ve suffered enough – their compassion is welcome. This is the second march in my local area in the last three months – the previous march congregated at a local restaurant where I saw a little girl who looked under 10 years old leading the EDL chant. This time the crowd was bigger and, with no police liaison, the dangers greater.

The debates and explanations surrounding the EDL and BNP are well rehearsed and repetitive – ranging from “they are racists, pure and simple” to “they are disenfranchised”. All true, but to an extent. The issue in Dagenham is the opening of a mosque in the autumn and much wrangling has taken place over the buyers, the impact on local economic wellbeing and – the buzzword of the last decade – community cohesion.

It is all too easy for local councillors, Hope Not Hate campaigners and national policymakers to pass off a large group of racist thugs as just that. But the seeming frequency of these marches is cause for concern and requires some radical thinking on the part of those that can effect change. The need to engage and address the concerns of the white working classes has been repeated so often, it has taken the feel of a new year’s resolution – there to be said, but never to be met.

Yes, a lot of them are vile and negotiating with fanatics (left or right) is not the easiest of tasks. But, someone needs to take responsibility. The worsening local economic conditions, not just in Dagenham but across the country as a result of “policies nobody voted for” will only exacerbate the sense of injustice and failure this community feels. Granted, the issue with the mosque might have prevailed even in times of economic prosperity, but that should not surprise anyone – local communities will always be fearful of change.

It is a sad indictment of the progress our society has made 10 years on from the Oldham riots that issues such as this are still on the national agenda. Why can’t there be work programmes targeted directly at this community? Why does the Prevent strategy not recognise that a “hard power” approach to terrorism (Islamist or otherwise) or rightwing extremism both misses the point of participants’ concerns and serves to fuel their aggression?

No government can force people to get on with each other, the seeming underpinning of our community cohesion efforts over the last decade. But we can reasonably expect both that people will exercise their right to hold their own values and that they can learn to respect, if not agree with, someone else’s values. Nationally, we should not be afraid to speak up for the kinds of people that are within the EDL’s reach – those genuinely disenfranchised, frustrated souls who bear the brunt of the proposed economic and social policies of the coalition government.

Local engagement is one thing, but a stubborn refusal to enter the debate on the basis of a preconceived stereotype – whether EDL or government – gives no one any bargaining power. Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May would accept my invitation to set up a stall in the middle of the next EDL march?

Article: Target apathy to stop the BNP

In February 2009, I was given the heave-ho from Barclays Wealth.  It was very hard to take indeed.  I was given 3 months gardening leave and in that time I did three things:

  • I interned for a couple of weeks at Rushanara Ali’s campaign office (who went on to become MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2010 elections).  (To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to do this but it definitely led on to the next thing which was one of the most fruitful decisions of my life to date…)
  • I joined a programme called UpRising, a project of The Young Foundation and;
  • I found a job as a Policy Officer at Redbridge Council

It was through the UpRising programme that I wrote my first article for The Guardian.  We went for a visit to their offices and I followed up with a conversation with the Editor of Comment is Free.  She was fantastic and agreed to read my article.  Luckily for me, she liked it enough to want to publish it and sure enough, 553 comments later, my first proper foray into writing was a definite success and gave me the writing bug.

I’ve posted it below for your reading pleasure – let me know what you think!

You can find the original article by clicking here

I’m normally quite quick-witted. It’s the only way I can deal with the trials and tribulations of being overweight and overenthusiastic about the most mundane things (like writing with a mechanical pencil, because it’s cool). But last year, I was disappointed with my response of “Good observation!” to a group of white youths who took it upon themselves to identify me with their middle finger and wails of “Paki!” At first, I looked round to see who they were talking to. Realising it was me (because the only other person on the road was another young white lad who seemed as shocked as I was surprised), I retorted with the aforementioned comment, and later found myself wondering why people complain about the burka being detrimental to integration when these boys had their heads wrapped in hoodies so tight it’s a wonder their brains ever get any oxygen. Then I parked the incident in the “not so fun” part of my brain.

A few months later, I received a call from my mother that would change my perspective on that particular event. After dropping my brother off to school in Dagenham, four boys confronted her, informed her that she was a “Paki” and advised her to leave the country. Mum had some advice of her own: “Go to school or get a job and leave me alone.” Cue pushing (“I felt like a pinball”), until two strapping black men stepped out of a car and chased the boys away.

It was the first time in over 30 years that my mum was racially abused and, for me, the first time ever.

I moved to Chadwell Heath in Barking and Dagenham – where 12 of the 51 councillors are from the BNP – 10 years ago, only a mile away from the West Ham Utd training ground, and my brother attends one of the most improved schools in the country. My local amenities include a newsagent owned by a Sri Lankan, a Bangladeshi restaurant, a cafe and “chippy” owned by a Turkish family, Pakistani dry cleaners and a closed-down Woolworths. Despite this, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, will be standing for election in a ward in the south of the borough at the general election.

Incidents such as those above are few and far between where I live, but they are reportedly steadily increasing across BNP strongholds. And it is this steady increase that is worrying me.

I don’t think it’s a case of people’s eyesight improving and suddenly realising that there are people in this country who are “different” to them. Nor do I think that the BNP are gaining more power among the people (they earned fewer votes in June 2009 than last time round). In fact, speaking to local government colleagues, BNP councillors seem to have very little influence in the committee rooms of local authorities.

Rather, the BNP have been tactically astute in striking when the iron is hot and have invented a new game – politics by immigrant numbers. Your odds of getting a job, that council house, hospital treatment or your children getting a fair amount of attention from their teachers are better if there are fewer people going for that job or council house and fewer children for the teachers to contend with. It’s a simple argument, but an effective one, playing on the concerns of some residents. So long as these key issues – around employment, social housing, and education – remain unaddressed by those in power who can effect change, particularly at the local level, the BNP will have a bouncy castle of a platform. Unplug the castle and the whole thing just deflates.

That’s not to say there are no racist people out there. Of course there are – but in modern Britain where everyone has a voice, there is little space for overt racism. I would argue that it is their political apathy, rather than their racism, that should be the focus of our concerns. For these youths, however racist, are voters of the future. Their political apathy is of no use to anyone – the few discontented who do vote will only push the share of the BNP vote up, as was the case last year.

Local councils have an important role to play in working with local partners and central government to identify ways in which to encourage disaffected communities to engage with society. But its most important role is transparency and communication. Central government has stepped into the domain of transparency with their recent launch, but at the local level this means very little, especially in a borough where residents are unlikely to use the internet to interrogate government data. Residents want simple questions answered: Will I get a house? Will I have a job? Will my child do alright in school? Is my situation the fault of immigrants? What separates the BNP from other parties is that they seem happy to do the groundwork to answer those questions – no matter how fabricated their answers may be – and, in the absence of an alternative, residents accept what they are presented with.

Fascism has its roots in movements where members feel like they and “their people” are victims. Right now, in Barking and Dagenham, there are a lot of people who are being told they are victims.

After the article was published, I received a call from someone purporting to be a member of staff from The Guardian wanting my bank account details to arrange payment.  I’d watched enough Fonejacker to know that this was clearly illegal.  So I called the Editor reporting the incident who patiently advised me that I was in fact getting paid.  Cue embarrassment but also joy – I’d been paid to write some words!!! I suppose, by definition, this made me a writer…