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Wednesday 28 August 2013

Dr Martin Luther King: What happens to a dream deferred?


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s 1963 world famous ‘I have a dream speech’ and mass march on Washington there is a temptation to simply remember the dream speech and forget the radical politics of King himself.  Since 1963 and more so since Kings assassination in 1968 there has been an concerned Disneyesque attempt to portray King as above politics.

He has overtime become canonised as meaning all things to all people in the kind of historical revisionism that sprays vanilla all over radical black history. 

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in the history of the United States. Organised by a consortium of civil rights, trade union and religious organisations and leaders, the march helped push through the US 1968 Civil Rights Act.

Let us not forget that King posed the most acute threat to the global white supremacy and American imperialism. Many tend to forget just how radical King was, as we snuggle up in our ‘post racial world’ wallowing in the neoliberal romantic delusion that King’s dream of a non-racist society is now fulfilled all because we have a black man in the Whitehouse.

King believed in confronting America’s Jim Crow racism with radical non-violent action - with the emphasis here on action.  As a Baptist minister King was not content with the theological torpor that saw black Christian’s response to crushing racism focused on prayer and inaction.  King took what he saw as his living gospel onto the streets and spoke truth to power. For King Christ was a revolutionary.

I remember talking with the Rev Jessie Jackson about King. He told me that when King initially wanted to go  to the epicentre of Southern racism,  Birmingham Alabama he faced fierce opposition from a number of high profile African American Pastors who wrote a public letter castigating King as a rabble rouser and opposing his intended visit. He was viewed as a dangerous radical even by his own.

King knew that utilising the moral force of non violent protest alongside building a unified consortium of progressive organisations around a set of specific goals that they could move mountains.  He also knew that by focusing on Jim Crow racism, economics and poverty he was confronting the very essence of injustice faced by African Americans. He sought to reach out and form alliance with striking trade unionists and became a passionate advocate speaking out against the Vietnam War and if he were alive today he would no doubt be speaking out against Americas intended war in Syria and the cruel apartheid of Israel.

Britain is one of the world oldest and some might say advanced democratic nations in the world. Britain espouses the universal principles equality before the law for all its citizens regardless of race or faith. The political tradition in Britain is one of hypocrisy, the rhetorical political articulation of lofty human rights principles that obscures the reality of a culture of racism that infects both the delivery and implementation of domestic and foreign policy service.

There is still no black in the Union Jack.

In Britain, black citizens are equals only in terms of legal theory law but remain third class citizens in everyday life.  Yes there are British laws that are supposed to protect us from discrimination but this legislation is cumbersome, unnecessarily complex, unaffordable and inaccessible to the vast majority of Black people seeking legal redress from discrimination.

The powerful reality of engrained cultural racism in Britain eats Government and corporate policy for breakfast, subverting polices with no obvious overt racial bias into Jim Crow like discrimination. Criminal justice and stop and search are powerful examples where black youth in particular face constant criminalisation through the exercise of laws powers and procedures that are ostensibly race neutral, but become at the point of implementation ruthlessly discriminatory services that deliberately target black people for differential and unfair treatment.

The huge increase in Islamophobia and racist attacks particularly on religious building and Muslim communities across the UK in the wake of the tragic killing Lee Rigby poses a danger for us all. The erosion of very civil liberties King died for , the extent to which Muslim communities are routinely demonised in the eyes of the press and he growing climate of hostility point to an urgent need to bring together black and Muslim organisation in common cause in opposing racism. Unity is the perquisite to any real attempt to challenge institutional and cultural racism.

We are routinely denied justice.

Seeking real justice from race or faith discrimination in Britain is unobtainable to the many and affordable only to the wealthy few.  This results in the genuine grievances of Black and Muslim citizens being dismissed by a Coalition Government who have ensured that race equality and anti-racism are seen as political projects of the left, often pursued at the expense of white working class Britons. A classic case of divide and rule.

The Government not only virulently attacks the concept of multiculturalism and anti-racism but has chosen to further inflame community relations by demonising immigrants and asylum seekers in a brazen attempt to defer public attention away from the austerity driven economic crisis caused primarily by reckless bankers. This deception is pushed hard by Tory PM David Cameron, Lib Dem Clegg and Chancellor Osborne supported by some sections of the press and media.  The consequence of this are that the mood music in Britain has changed and had become distinctly hostile particularly for Black, Muslim and migrant communities who form the bulk of discriminated masses in Britain today.

The Home Office anti-immigrant ‘Go Home’ advertising vans show both the depth of culture ignorance and political cynicism within the Home Office that employs a strategy that pays lip service to equality whilst failing to acknowledge the reality and mass scale of British institutional racism and discrimination.

If the terrible effects of what the Tories call  ‘colour blind’  Government,  intent on promoting division were not in themselves bad enough,  austerity is now the new powerful magnifying lens that has amplified all levels racism and injustice. 

Racism, economics and mass voter registration.

As Dr King knew well that the three social evils of racism, poverty and lack democratic engagement represented a formidable social apocalypse for Black communities seeking to escape disadvantage. Here in Britain austerity is pushing communities who prior to the economic crisis of 2008 were already suffering criminally high levels of poverty and unemployment and are now seeing those rates skyrocket. The awful reality is we see these discriminatory cuts impacting particularly upon black women and young people.

Britain’s poorest black communities are being massively overrepresented in public sector redundancies. Cuts to frontline services leave deprived communities descending into the twilight zone of the entombed underclass, permanently imprisoned in the inner city slums they are forced to live in. What we are seeing in our communities is the corrosive absence of both hope and opportunity consigning yet another generation of Black British young people to a lifetime of discrimination and injustice.

The growing level of discontent and anger remain largely unrecognised by the both press and politicians leaving some of Britain’s poorest most diverse cities smouldering tinder boxes of explosive rage. That anger has been directed internally with a rising level of violence that sees babies killing babies, black women suffering domestic violence and the sexual abuse of young girls, As poverty tightens its grip so will these evils intensify as communities  are crushed under the burden of ideological austerity that favours the rich and racism that favours whites.

The riots of August 2011 were the canary in the coalmine giving due warning of the terrible social dislocations to come; increased rates of institutional racism and discrimination in criminal justice, acute racism in the private sector and the labour market generally, overcrowding as a result of the shortage of housing, race inequalities in  health , particularly mental health are all portents of communities that are bursting with energy and talent with no pathways to success available to them.  Dr King spoke of the frustrations that those denied the fundamental principles of equal citizenship and justice for all when he said

‘Those that make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable’

In 21st century Britain the most advanced and oldest democracy in Western world 50 years after Dr King’s speech British Black people remain third class citizens in a supposed first class democracy. 

For Britain to become a nation that lives up to it ideals of equal citizenship and equality before the law, requires not just the absence of overtly discriminatory policies, that does not itself result in an absence of discrimination, what is that required is the presence of strong anti-racist policies and of easily accessible and affordable legal protection against race discrimination.

The implications are profound in terms of where we go from here in the UK. Do we allow this Government to bequeath another generation of black young people first class injustice and third class citizenship? 

The reality is we are all being pushed back racism is increasing whilst disadvantage in on the rise. Nationally those that we could and should be in the forefront of the debate have failed us. The work of Operation Black Vote inspired by King is critical to providing the leverage necessary to get legislative and policy changes.  There work represents a core strand of activity that must be central to any effective strategy for change.

Black Voluntary Sector.

The British Black voluntary sector, once the radical champion of our communities has left the field of battle having been kowtowed beaten and dismissed by this Government. In 2010 Minister Eric Pickles slashed funding to a range of national black organisations and kicked them out and then closed down all of its race equality consultation forums.  Academic in nature and having ditched the politics of campaigning for a managerial approach to tackling racism. The sector retreated into the world of policy speak and sought to depoliticise the fight against race discrimination focusing on policy rather than politics. In doing most have now become largely mute on the issues of the day or worse ignored by the press as result of their mediocrity and as result  have become dislocated from and unaccountable from the very communities they purport to serve.

Like British World War one generals, these black professional black leaders love grand titles and big grants that inevitably focus on adding yet more volumes of academic research set to gather dust on library shelves  or they announce yet more new organisations  ‘consortiums’  that are created to access funds rather than solve real problems. 

These top down approaches fail to enjoy community legitimacy or mass support and get us nowhere. The frantic and desperate competitive scramble within the black voluntary sector organisations is in stark contrast to the work done at regional and local level where the fight against racism and disadvantage remains overtly political. It is said that national black organisations have thrown the local black voluntary sector under a bus to save their own skins and salaries. Where was the huge campaign against the discriminatory nature of these cuts? Where were the legal challenges or press campaigns to highlight these issues? Fact is the local regional black voluntary sectors were left abandoned as some national Black organisations saw an opportunity to expand their imagined empires.

We now hear that there is to be yet another national top down ‘initiative’ RaceNet . In the current context with local black voluntary sectors decimated and communities facing acute needs on the ground this amount to nothing more than simply reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Our focus should be supporting existing organisations survive not creating new ones.
What seem to be happening is the intellectual asset stripping of ideas from other organisations by members of this consortium seeking to access funds and claiming the credit for projects and ideas that originated elsewhere. Its the type of voluntary sector behaviour we see in white middle class proprietary organisations now replaced by a proto black middle class.
It is illustrative that in my experience a large number of ‘voluntary sector professionals ‘simply disappear once they are no longer being paid such is their commitment to our struggle. Our struggle for equality has to be overtly political, noisy, strategic radical, troublesome and mass based. King knew that intimately it’s time to make dramatic interventions on the issue of race or be forever dammed by future generations as failing to secure their future free from racism.  In this endeavour we cannot fail.

Black MP’s or MP’s who happen to be black?

In addition to understanding that racism is a deeply political project that requires ultimately a political response. Dr King ensured he had a political self-financed independent movement.  He understood the importance direct action focussing on racism, economics and voter registration. He knew that ultimately his struggle would cost his life.  He utilised radical grassroots politics and a radical Christian theology.  In the UK we have Black and Muslim politicians that have are trapped in the suffocating confines of their neo liberal social democratic party politics. That leaves most as representing nothing more than tokenistic black face in a high place.

Such is their lack of vision that our representatives in Parliament or the House of Lords have never ever had a collective discussion much less agree on a cross party strategy for race equality.

Why for example, do we not have a Parliamentary Black Caucus for Black and ethnic minority. Its not as though the issues are not urgent and pressing. This  Government is pushing back all the gains we made in the last 30 years back and yet still no leadership from Parliament - we have to ask ourselves why is that?

The answer is that most are more concerned with their own careers rather that as the late Bernie Grant MP did or indeed Diane Abbott MP does today speak out and lead on the critical issues of the day. Most are so concerned at not being seen as black in a misguided attempt to ingratiate themselves with their political masters that they are literally frightened of their  own dark shadow and tend not to stand in the sun.

Seriously though in such perilous times we have to aks why  MP's and members of the Lords who do want to work together on race issues on which they share a consensus not form a Parliamentary Black Caucus that could champion our cause for equality ?

Alongside this Parliamentary impotence we have the sleeping giant the Black Church.  Theological conservatism and the fragmentation of the black church means that too many Pastors simply refuses to get involved in politics despite the towering example set by Dr King.

Add to this that there is no forum for  Black Christian and Muslim dialogue on race and faith equality. We remain dived separate and weak as a result of a stunning lack of vision given our obvious electoral power. If we could get together and agree on some basic demands we could make much better progress working together . At the moment we are alienated from each other and as a consequence are weakened in our attempts to get justice. If religious bodies were to come together we could transform British society for the benefit of all.

Where do we go from here? What’s to be done?

We need to create a team of committed activist prepared to work free in an inclusive radical campaigning Race Equality A Team, made up of Black and Muslim activists that takes the fight to Government, institutions and the private sector. In a country the size of the UK we  need no more than 10 committed experts in their respective fields to commit to work with us to ensure a step change in the fight against racism in Britain.  We need serious activists who are prepared to do the work necessary to get race, disadvantage, inequality back on the political agenda in the run up to 2014/15 local and national elections.  Dr King taught us that without sacrifice there can be no progress.

That’s why Black Activist Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC) will be making a number of interventions designed to fill obvious gaps in our struggle for equality and designed to cut through the current political inertia and ineffectiveness in the fight against racism.

In terms of strategy Dr King and the Civil Rights movement employed legal, economic and voter registration empowerment strategies. Given the problems we face here in the UK we need to adopt the same basis for our struggle today.

First we need to focus on educating our own community about the nature scale and impact of racism and how power operates. Little is known about the full effects of racism on our communities and we must be fully informed about the challenges we face.

Secondly we need to back Operation Black Vote’s national voter registration campaign that could, with the right backing, be  capable of registering unprecedented numbers of voter ahead of the 2014/15 UK  elections.

Thirdly we will be consulting communities about a strategy of civil disobedience allied to legal challenges to highlight and confront racism and injustice focusing on access to human rights, combating economic exclusion through the direct challenge of consumer action.

Fourthly we will be holding an annual national black political conference entitled The State of Black Britain that will examine and set the priorities for action

Finally to deliver this and to counter the poisonous narrative of the Government of race we need a new national anti-racist movement made up of broadest possible alliances across society to drive forward the fight to achieve a society where British black citizens can at last emerge as equal citizens in a free and equal society.  The critical challenge is can we deliver race equality in Britain in our lifetime and are we prepared to sacrifice and commit to whatever course of action is necessary to secure the future for our children? To achieve that we  need to do something we have never tried before - unity, civil disobedience in pursuit of a clear set of political goals. Seize the time
Join us

Twitter @LeeJasper and @BARACUK  




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