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March 2018
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In Conversation: Lee Jasper (Part I)

Lee Jasper is a political commentator and a leading campaigner for social justice and race equality. He was a Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities for the former Mayor of Greater London and was recently awarded the 2010 Life Time Achievement Award in recognition of his contribution in the fight for race equality in the UK by the national Union of Students Black Students’ Campaign. In his own words, Lee Jasper explains the current state of black Britain.

Lee JasperBelinda: What is the current state of the black British community, politically, socially and economically?

Lee Jasper: Well, we are probably at a transition stage at the moment. We have been here for 50 years and certainly, we have seen marginal political progress though there has been a regress as we are less represented in local council level than we were 10/15 years ago. So, there has been a sense of which, at the initial stage in the late 80s, early 90s where local black councillors were concerned, we have seen that number significantly reduce over the last 15 or so years. In relations to MPs, we have seen some small increase in particular to Asian representation in the house of parliament. But very little in the Afro-Caribbean, as a consequence, we are not well represented in parliament. This last election had the largest number of black and ethnic minority numbers for the two main parties, Labour on 46 and Conservatives on 44. So, we made quite a leap. Socially and economically, I am afraid; we have regressed on that score. We have seen poverty increase for African-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families and children, we have seen unemployment continue to increase for these communities and we have seen social mobility become more and more restricted too. So, social and economic terms, we are a much poorer community with lower levels of unemployment than we were 10/15 years ago. Social and economically and politically, we have seen a mixed picture in relations to black communities but in general terms, we are in a worst position in 2010 than we were in 2000 or 1990.

Belinda: What does that say about what it means to be black in the UK as of 2010?

Lee Jasper: In terms of the majority experience, it means to be poor, low-paid, unemployed and over qualified in general terms. 80 percent of the African and Caribbean community work in the public sector and there remaining work in the private sector and the level of private sector discrimination has remained fairly static and unchanged. We are not making the in-roads within the private sector that we ought to be making. I think we are much more marginalised as a community with the huge attack from the right wing on concept of the multiculturalism and diversity and we have suffered from the backlash of the 9/11 attacks, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly for the Muslim community, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, including the Bangladeshi communities seeing hugely intrusive levels of state surveillance, police scrutiny and subsequently, huge increase in the stop and search level and a representation in the criminal justice system. Since 1990, we have seen a doubling of the Afro- Caribbean in prison population. An example would be, that for every 1000 white people, there is, 1.4 white people in jail and for every 1000 Afro-Caribbean people, there are 7.5 percent on jail and for every 1000 Asian, it is 2.4 in jail. On the criminal justice side, you can see we have gone back. If you look at the issues of mental health, then we see an absolutely gross of over representation of Africa and Caribbean communities, particularly in secured mental health wards and we also see an over representation of the African and Caribbean communities in domestic violence figures, both in terms of battery and domestic violence murders in black women and in Asian women. We are still hugely over represented on that scale. If you add this to the growing number of illegal immigrants, who are here for the last years from the ethnic minority communities, who are living without paper and in the shadow of the economy, roughly exploited and largely by their own community and you look at the criminal exploitation of those communities and right at the heart of black communities, they tend to live and then after that, the spectacular rise we have seen in the number of black youth homicide in recent years with teenage violence having increased greatly. I think what you are seeing with the African and Caribbean communities but increasingly with the Muslim, is communities mired in poverty for most part, largely deprived. After years of that experience due to generations of black people who have grown up with poverty, unemployment and educational failure is the norm within their communities.

Belinda: How well is the black British community of Britain, represented in the mainstream British media today?

Lee Jasper: Well, we have certainly made in-roads in the media and a glance on radio and TV will see higher levels of representation but these are largely marginal and tokenistic places to the extent to which, we have seen state institutions like the BBC, with their national state programmes of political influence, Radio 4, Today Programme, for example has no key anchor of black people on the staff or correspondent. Most of the newspapers, their senior staff reporters are not black. We have none of the type of the affirmative actions seen by our African American colleagues. Although, looking at TV, one would see some Black faces in high places that have not really changed substantively, the woeful lack of black people within the media. That have being said, it is a lot better than it was 24/25 years ago. We were at a very low point at that stage. The improvement has been slow but steady. But today, we are still a nation that does not see many black faces on our TV .

Belinda: What are the perceptions and images the black British community has of itself, in the political arena and other aspects of the life in the UK, and is this hindering progress especially when it is time to make crucial decisions that will affect the black British community?

Lee Jasper: Well, I think it is very much seen as…there is a high degree of cynicism, pessimism, there is a lack of hope, aspiration and ambition, from poverty of experience, poverty of ambition and we consider ourselves…the tendency in the past is to consider ourselves to be quite a powerless community and I think to that extent, we have come to accept that as an inevitable “truth” and as a consequence, we are affected by that to the extent that we are slow to enter into the political arena. We lack political self-organisations of any real strength on the ground. We perceive ourselves to be largely incapable of delivering any coherent or cohesive national movement to change things for the better.

Belinda: Based on that, and when you put that back into the community, what are the adverse effects or reactions that you get because if you have a poor image, the actions that follow are going to be poor. What are the backlashes that we are beginning to see as a result of this factors you mention?

Lee Jasper: We see a reluctance to get involved in mainstream politics generally, reluctance to form black civil rights campaigns organisations in particular; we see a huge number of people who are turning to the church, the Africa and Afro-Caribbean church in the UK is in unprecedented numbers but that church has really failed to deliver the mission of Christ in the same ways that the African American churches have, by making the pursuit of equality and race equality a main stay of their civil rights programme. So here, we have the opposite, we have very few secular organisations of any mass capability, a huge number of churches that are both wealthy in terms of their finances and healthy in terms of the members of their parishes continue to increase but who are largely and politically ineffective as secular organisations.

Belinda: What can those churches do in order to be more involved?

Lee Jasper: They have got to align themselves to a campaigning civil rights race equality agenda. They have got to enter into the world of politics. They have got to mobilise their parishioners into a significant political movement and they have got to align themselves with civil rights campaigning organisations on the ground. I think our church, despite all the difficulties, their planning applications are routinely refused and they face enormous difficulties in establishing new churches, nevertheless they continue to grow apace even in advance of the mainstream Church of England, Catholic and Protestant religion. Within the United Kingdom the religion that is most successful at the moment within the African and Caribbean communities is Islam. We are converting at a faster rate to Islam than to any other religion.

Belinda: Is there any particular reason for this rate of conversion? Is it that people are tired or they just want something different?

Lee Jasper: I think that sections of Islam, present a more coherently and politically organised agenda to meet people’s needs. They are much more effective in thinking about support for business, people, the individual and are much more astute in explaining the global politics to young people in a way that makes sense to young people and so they have a greater level of appeal and I think that is the failure of the African traditional, evangelical and Pentecostal church – the disdain for all things political has left them, if you like weak on that score. So, on that extent, Islam has a stronger political agenda which has managed to make greater in-roads.

Belinda: Is race still a determining factor in the marginalisation of the black British community or has it, as claimed by an MP at the beginning of the year changed to their economic ability?

Lee Jasper: Race is the key factor in the black minority experience of people in the UK. We are facing increasing levels of inequality in housing, education, the government would have us believe that the relative success of the Indian community is the same for all…then again, Indians and Chinese have huge resources to draw on…these communities are able to draw on financial and capital resources from their countries of origin which are just not available in countries say in the Caribbean or the UK that these communities can draw on. What we see in the United Kingdom is a different experience. We are all on the same vote for sure but some of us are on different levels. Some of us are way, way down and being held in appalling circumstances. But by any measure, I will challenge anyone to provide the statistic because the majority of experience, particularly of the African, Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, those four groups which is the bulk number of ethic minority communities in the UK, suffer the greatest levels of inequality and those levels have increased over the years.

Belinda: In your piece, ‘We need Black Leaders Not leading Black,’ for the Voice Newspaper, before the general election, you said the current set of black MPs across the different political parties have collectively failed us and will continue to do so unless they adopt a new approach. In what ways have they failed the black British population?

Lee Jasper: To the extent they have failed to have a coherent agenda, a consensus across political lines around the need to tackle racism and equality, and to push and press for racial equality. To that extent, they have been co-opted into the party political system, which tends to ignore race in favour of other priorities and as such, there is a collective failure of black political representatives in all parties to recognise their common agenda over and above their political position in relations to race and inequality. So, they fail to work together and so far as they work in isolation, they have been much less effective than the otherwise could have been..

Belinda: When we take the economic troubles in the country into account, how is this affecting black Britain?

Lee Jasper: We were in a bad shape before the recession and one can characterise the black British economic experience in the UK, as the fact that we made marginal progress in the good times and that progress was inevitably wiped out by the economic recession of the 90s from which we never really recovered and then the following recession in 2008 till today, has had the effect of virtually sealing some of the African and Caribbean communities into a permanent economic underclass. The reason I say that is because black unemployment has spiralled during this recession. We have seen black youth unemployment in the last two years jump from 35 percent and that was prior to the recession compared to 20 percent of their white counterpart, from 35 percent to 48 percent and I think the latest figures will show that tipping over 50 percent. When you put those figures together in addition to those who are not signing on or those who are not caught by the system, I think it is fair to say that the majority of black youths are now unemployed and not in education. That shows we are very much in danger of seeing our community completely smashed on the rocks  and that the failure of government to provide protective measures for the most vulnerable communities during this economic downfall has really been scandalous and I think there is a price we will pay for that within the next 3 to 5 years as we see huge cuts and unprecedented cuts hit public services, black unemployment as well as the third sector, voluntary sector which provides resources to the black community in terms of health education, employment among others.

Note: Lee Jasper was interviewed in April 2010 before the general election in May. To read full article, flow this link: UK Elections

Image: OBV/Lee Jasper


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