Every year in late September I get a flurry of emails from council officials telling me that October is Black History Month and that a number of events are taking place to celebrate it. These are typically accompanied by flyers featuring pictures of Mary Seacole or Nelson Mandela.
It’s very important that we should celebrate major black figures in history. But Black History Month has become very sanitised. It’s always the safest and least controversial figures that are put forward as its representatives.
Even though there’s a lot of talk about Mandela – who represents the overthrow of the racist apartheid system in South Africa – there is little mention of the mass struggles of black South Africans such as the Soweto uprising of 1976.
This is one reason why Black History Month is failing to connect with so many disaffected black youth. Another is the fact that more recent mass struggles of black people in Britain against racism – which would be directly relevant to young people today – are kept out of the picture.
Racism is still a cancer in society, and black youth feel this keenly. The gun and knife crime debate has led to increased police harassment of young black people.
Black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Black children face higher levels of exclusion from school.
All this reminds me of the huge levels of racism black people faced when I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s. We felt that we were under siege.
There was vicious police persecution. I remember watching a group of white men jump out of a car, grab a Rastafarian man and beat him up. When people shouted for someone to call the police, one of the men took out his badge to reveal that they were the police.
There was also the racism of the fascist National Front (NF). We lived in Hoxton, east London, where the NF had its headquarters. This area was a bastion of racism. A pensioner spat at my sister and me as we walked down the street. People shouted, “Nigger, go home.”
But two events came together to drive back this tide of racism. The first was the anti-fascist movement, led by the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. This smashed the NF.
The people behind this movement in Hackney were mainly white, which helped me realise that a lot of people were anti-racist and that black and white could unite to fight racism. This was a very important stage of my life and it gave me a sense of hope.
The second event was the wave of riots that took place in Brixton, Toxteth, the St Pauls area of Bristol, Handsworth in Birmingham and other black inner city areas in the early 1980s.
This was black people saying that we’d had enough of racism. There was a sense that we had to move from being a persecuted sect to being a community that was proud to fight back.
There was a sea change in official attitudes after the riots. The government launched the Scarman inquiry into police racism. The media had to stop constantly demonising black people.
Today, when I tell young people about the racism my generation faced, there is a sense of disbelief that things were ever so bad. The fact that there is a generation that can’t imagine the racism that took place in Britain only 25 years ago shows the importance and effect of the struggles of that time.
Yet too many young people don’t know about these struggles. They hate the police, racism and their treatment at the hands of the authorities, but they don’t think anything can be done about it.
The establishment is now trying to roll back the gains that black people have made, but a benchmark has been set. There will be no going back to the levels of racism we saw in the 1970s.
As recession looms, councils and the government will be looking at areas where they can make cuts. In many areas this will mean cuts to black community facilities and youth provision.
We will need to fight against this. But black people face a lack of representation in official society. Many politicians and professionals are divorced from the black community.
After the Broadwater Farm riots in north London in 1985, local MP Bernie Grant made the immortal comment, “What the police got was a bloody good hiding.” That summed up how many people felt. It made people feel that here was a black politician who didn’t suck up to the racist establishment.
But the black politicians who rose up on the backs of the struggles of the 1980s don’t represent people any more. There’s a lot of talk from some of them, but no action. They are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
We need a renewed grassroots movement of black and white people to challenge the increase in police stop and search, school exclusions, racism and the rise of the fascist British National Party.
And this has to be an ongoing movement, not a once a year event. We need to teach young people the lessons of mass battles against racism – and inspire them to fight again.
Dean Ryan is a youth worker in north London
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