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: A way to separate vocational courses from true academia

I was about two months into my Masters at Birkbeck College and, for the first time, really enjoying studying for the sake of studying.  I knew I had to sit exams in a few months and write a dissertation at some point but it didn’t elicit the same feelings of despair as it did when I was at school or during my undergraduate degree.  I put it down to my starting the Masters with a few years professional experience under my belt and that I’d chosen a subject I was genuinely interested in – not for its potential to land me a nice job.

The media was awash with debate about university fees being plugged at £9,000 and understandably so.  But the reaction of most suggested that everybody was entitled to a university education because that’s what got you a job.  I wanted to separate the “university as job centre” from “university as…well…university”.

You can find the original article by clicking here

My grandmother got married in Bangladesh at the age of 14, and devoted herself to her seven children and lawyer husband. He always encouraged her to read, but it was only after East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971 that she decided to fulfil her dream of studying. When she passed away in 1988, she was midway through her PhD in Bangla literature (the works of Rabindranath TagoreKazi Nazrul Islamand Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay were among those she explored). For her, studying at university was simply about the value of learning.

For my parents, who emigrated to the UK in their teens in the mid-70s, university education was viewed as a passport to financial and social security for their children.

Both arguments – that university is about the joy of learning, and that university is a path to a job – have solid foundations. But recent commentary about rising tuition fees has been framed entirely on the basis of the latter argument.

To know whether the fees are fair, it makes sense to understand what is being paid for. A suggestion on Cif last week – to offer a free degree at 25 and 45 – is both arbitrary and impractical in a society that firmly views university as a job preparation centre.

Rather like the way banks are being encouraged to separate their retail and investment banking businesses, I would argue that universities should make a clear distinction between the research and academic element of their existence and the vocational.

Instead of handing out pens and branded bags at pointless careers fairs, employers – the main beneficiaries of good graduates – can do far more practical things. Employers from within industry and across the sectors should come together to form industry-specific consortiums. Universities from across the country would be associated directly with the consortiums.

There are two key innovations here. First, students would apply directly to the consortium, listing their preferences of university (factors such as geographical location and living expenses could feature in their decision-making process) and second, the degrees on offer would be consortium-led but harness the value of the universities collectively. The degrees would have a distinctly professional feel to them, with courses contributing to industry-specific qualifications and skills. The employers would naturally prefer to recruit students from within the consortium and students would not be expected to disclose their university – rather, the knowledge and skills gained on the courses would determine their employability.

Students would pay a “membership fee” to the university, while any further payments for the course would be taken post-employment and after a certain income threshold for a limited number of years. The membership fee itself would have numerous concessions, some means-tested and some linked to involvement in university life – such as clubs, societies or even taking on “employment” within the university in the bars or administrative work of the department. Employers from across the industries – law, accountancy, media, medicine, retail and more – could make direct and focused contributions to higher education.

Separately, universities would focus mainly on their research capabilities, where the ongoing issue of funding for research would prevail. However, they will not be under pressure to show meaningless statistics about student employability or some other arbitrary target of what constitutes a good university. Instead, this part of the university would offer degree courses that are directly designed by the university to reflect their research aims and expertise. This way, students applying would be encouraged to seek the university’s key research qualities and would recognise the academic rigour that would be expected. The money would come from government, industry and research bodies both within and beyond our shores and is likely to go further if spent mainly on academic research.

We are in danger of creating generations that will provide employees but no thinkers or intellectuals who have spent their life asking questions and researching solutions. A separation of the two functions would allow those that view university as a jobcentre to treat is as such, while allowing academics to reclaim its original meaning – universitas magistrorum et scholarium (a community of teachers and scholars) and remove the perception that university is a necessary rite of passage to greater success.

Article: Job-seeking graduates need not despair

My second article for The Guardian was based on something I’d read in that day’s paper saying that 70 applicants were vying for each graduate job.  Having been involved in the graduate recruitment process in 2005, where 3,000 applicants were said to have applied for 10 jobs in one company I’d successfully applied to, I wanted to share my experience and, hopefully, inspire others to keep plugging away.

You can find the original article by clicking here

When I told my parents that I’d decided to use part of my redundancy money from my private banking job to do a master’s while I looked for a job, the reaction was as I’d expected. “That’s fantastic!” they said, “now we can tell everyone how marketable you are!” I was a little confused as to why my parents – one a paramedic and the other a domestic engineer – were reacting like recruitment agents. A few weeks later, their excitement was understood. “I’ve had some offers for you” said my mum. Offers? What offers? Are you secretly a headhunter as well has being prolific at cooking the most amazing mousakka ever? “Some of my friends reckon they’ve got some pretty successful young women who might be interested in dating you.”

A master’s degree apparently makes one more attractive to the opposite sex (in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t. Epic dance moves do.) The academic rigour is irrelevant, nor is its potential to get you a job. Its bargaining power in the competitive world of arranged marriages is what gave it weight to my mother.

My first passion academically was always English. But, on the advice of my family and friends, I decided to read economics, finance and management because, ultimately, a job is the reward for a “good” degree and three years of debt accumulation. I was lucky – I got onto a graduate programme at a bank (and had offers from others) in 2005 – at one company, 3,000 applicants were vying for 10 jobs.

Today’s Guardian reports that there are 70 applicants for every graduate job and that “flipping burgers or stacking shelves” is a good way to gain work experience. While it is true that any employment, especially at a time like this, is good employment, I have issues with both the advice and the prevailing attitude to undergraduate studies.

In doing my master’s (in global governance and public policy), I’ve come to realise that higher academic study is just that – academic. On the whole, unless you’re studying the quintessential career-oriented subjects such as medicine, accountancy or law (although I know many lawyers who’ve embarked on different career paths, as well as a medic who dropped out to become a musician), studying at university is about understanding a subject at a higher academic level. It was never supposed to be a job centre. Even those studying finance find they need to do professional qualifications anyway, often repeating much of their undergraduate studies.

So reports such as this only serve to fuel the sense of injustice that graduates feel – and rightly so. On the whole, they’ve accumulated debt and made the investment with the expectation that a job would be there for them at the end. But we are where we are.

Employers don’t help much. They’ve set a seemingly arbitrary “measure of competence for employment” – a 2.1 degree and some relevant work experience – which has only created a mass of clones. All with 2.1 degrees, all did some work at the student union and maybe volunteered abroad. At this point, it’s down to luck. The ones like me who have less than a 2.1, especially at a time like this, may as well rule themselves out of ever getting a decent job – if you’re to believe what’s reported.

While I accept that times are tough, graduates do not have to resort to flipping burgers or stacking shelves, though there’s no shame in that – a job is a job. But, as I’ve told my brother (who turns 16 this September) and other recent graduates at programmes such as Fastlaners, its important that graduates are open to opportunities that may not seem like a direct link to what they want to do.

For example, the third sector will find it very hard at times of austerity to deliver services. You want to be an accountant? Offer to work for free at a local charity in their finance department. Want to work in the arts? Go to your local school and see if there are opportunities for you to help with drama productions. Networking is not about what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.

When I was made redundant, I was scared and 24 years old with plenty of non-student debt to worry about. Banking and finance was all I’d ever known since the age of 16, when I did work experience at a local high street branch. I took a look at my skill set and thought creatively about how this could be transferable, and ended up getting a job in policy – I swapped a job with numbers for a job with words (and lots of them).

Local authorities can help too. Where there is a gap in service provision, they should have strong links with their local partners to offer voluntary opportunities – everyone will need help to get their work delivered, especially with less money.

It is tough. It is unfair when all you’ve been expecting is a nice job after paying your way through university, while your pal who chose not to go to university is earning good money having worked his way up from the age of 18. There is always more than one way to get to a desired destination and sometimes, those different paths will open new destinations.

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…