When I look back now, it is nowhere near the racist city it once was. London is visibly multicultural, much of the fabric of London life draws from ethnic minority culture, and there is not the same overt racism and bigotry which has dogged generations of immigrants who have been refused rooms, meals and jobs because of their racial or national origins.
But just because the Notting Hill Carnival attracts huge crowds or local councils put up lights for Diwali or Eid it doesn’t mean racism has disappeared. Far from it. It’s still there in the filth of the BNP, or the prejudice against East Europeans of recent years. More fundamentally, it is part of the institutions of the city and country in which we live.
Black and Asian people still suffer discrimination in terms of jobs, education and housing. They are likely to be among the poorer people of London, and are of course massively under-represented in local and national government, in the media, among judges, top civil servants, bankers and businessmen.
They are likely to be over-represented, on the other hand, among bus and tube workers, health service workers, cleaners and many other jobs which keep London going, and for which they are usually paid little. The London working class is much more diverse than it used to be.
Perhaps one of the most emotive issues facing black and Asian people, however, is how young people are treated. There have been calls from David Cameron, the Tory leader, to effectively bring back the old “sus” laws, under which black youth were stopped and searched totally randomly by the police for supposed crimes such as looking in a shop window in Oxford Street.
The law was discriminatory, simply a means of harassing black kids who were deemed to be more likely to commit crime than other groups. It is generally thought to have led to the Brixton riots of 1981, even by Lord Scarman whose inquiry led to changes in policy and a dropping of the law.
Black kids are not free from this harassment today. Indeed they are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. According to Home Office figures, police stopped and searched 851,200 people under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 2004-5. Only 11 percent of those searches led to an arrest. In other words, three quarters of a million people were stopped and searched unnecessarily.
Older black and Asian people could be forgiven for feeling that little has changed beneath the surface. Tory candidate for mayor Boris Johnson is unlikely to reassure them. His reference to black people as “piccanninies” (a statement for which he has had to publicly apologise) suggests nostalgia for the old racist days of empire.
London’s main paper, the Evening Standard, is waging a fierce campaign against the present mayor, Ken Livingstone, at least in part against his equality and international policies. In January it resulted in Livingstone’s suspension of his race adviser, Lee Jasper, while police investigate alleged corruption in grants to black organisations. Clearly any financial irregularities have to be investigated, but much of the wrath aimed at Lee Jasper is from people who do not want strong anti-racist voices in City Hall and who would rather not have any grants going to black organisations at all.
I recently attended a mayoral hustings at the Brixton Base, one of the community projects at the centre of these allegations. It hardly appeared like the recipient of huge sums of money, because it is not. Community workers and volunteers work hard to provide a space where kids can learn music and dance.
The centre is slated for imminent closure and there is talk of redevelopment. Everyone in London knows what that means: expensive flats which no one can afford, even more offices, and maybe a tiny space dedicated to the “community”. It is an act of vandalism which the main parties go along with because they see no alternative to the market.
Many of the kids who spoke made the point that if the centre closes there will be more kids hanging around street corners – no doubt being stopped and searched. In the Surrey suburbs parents pay a premium for music lessons for their children. In the inner cities young people have seen these facilities cut repeatedly until there are few arts and sports venues available which working class kids can afford.
Race and class loom large in London politics. I’m standing for mayor and for the London Assembly on a platform which opposes racism and the cuts which are making life so much harder for ordinary Londoners. Every Londoner has two votes for mayor, and I’m asking my supporters to vote me first and Ken second. That ensures we keep his anti-racist policies while standing up to big business at the same time.
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