Black Brits Worse Off Than in 1985

The U.K. riots have revealed the plight of black Britons: the lack of strong voices to speak on their behalf, says the Guardian's Joseph Harker.

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Community members lay wreaths at scene of hit-and-run after riots
in Birmingham, U.K. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Guardian's Joseph Harker says that black Britons are worse off in many ways than during the last round of riots in 1981 and 1985.

In the years up to 1981, tension had been building between black people and the police over the "sus" laws, which gave officers powers to arrest anyone they suspected may be intending to steal. For them, a black youngster glancing at a handbag was enough. After Brixton, this law was repealed. Today, however, black people are seven times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. And under the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act -- which allows police to search anyone in a designated area without specific grounds for suspicion -- the racial discrepancy rises to 26 times. This is symptomatic of the many ways in which, for black Britons, life seemingly improved but has steadily descended again.

In 1985 there was not a single black MP. The main community voice came from Bernie Grant, then leader of Haringey council. Grant became a media hate figure in the aftermath of the Tottenham riot in which an officer had been killed, when he quoted youngsters gloating that the police had had "a bloody good hiding". However, his connection with local people made him hugely popular and two years later he was elected MP. Similarly, Paul Boateng, who had been a campaigning civil rights lawyer, greeted his own election the same night by declaring: "Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto."

Today we have a dozen black MPs, including some in the Conservative party, but their backgrounds are a million miles from the community activism of their predecessors. Today's crop, well groomed in spin, ensure they remain on message. "I'm not a black MP, just an MP who happens to be black," is their common refrain. Aside from Diane Abbott (also of the class of 87), can anyone imagine them speaking with the passion of a Grant or Boateng? In the late 80s there were black leaders in three London boroughs. Now there are none. So who, today, speaks for black people?

Read Harker's entire column in the Guardian.

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