Only Affirmative Action can tackle scandal of disproportionate Black unemployment

Posted on March 30, 2015

Black Britain has always been in recession ever since the 1970s. Even in the boom years of the mid-2000’s African and Caribbean unemployment was higher than White unemployment is now. The difference is that while White people are mired in an economic slump, the working age Black population are stuck in a Great Depression.

In fact during the 1930s joblessness never reached much higher than one in five people, pretty much the same rate of unemployment that afflicts the Black population today with 19.7 percent of economically active Black people rotting on the dole compared to 7.6 percent of White adults.

Black Brits are two and a half times more likely to be out of work. And the extent of discrimination is even worse when you consider the White working age population has been steadily falling.

The situation is unjust, socially divisive and bad for the economy. And there is no excuse for government inaction. Yet inaction and denial of stark reality is exactly what we’ve got.

Manchester University found that Black Brits are more likely to be unemployed than in the United States. During the last recessions – of the early 1980s, early 1990s and present – Black male unemployment reached up to 19 percentage points higher in Britain compared to America.

This is because Britain has no Affirmative Action policies to address racial inequalities, apart from in Northern Ireland where it was introduced in 1989 to help Catholics get equal access to jobs.

Over the past six years, as ‘race’ has fallen off the political agenda, Whitehall scrapped what few programmes there were to tackle the scourge of disproportionate Black unemployment. Various studies highlighting the problem, including the 2007 Business Commission report, were left to gather dust on the shelf.

Yet while Britain remains so deeply racially divided in the job market it will take much more than the sort of programmes that existed during the first half of the last Labour government to crack the problem.

Nothing less than Affirmative Action will do. The reason is simple; once in Black workers will rise on their own merits, but we desperately need intervention to get through the door.

It was Affirmative Action that took America from the Jim Crow era to a thriving Black middle class in 30 years. It can do the same for Britain, balancing the scales of talent and opportunity and creating a level playing field.

The Windrush generation arrived on this island with a tremendous work ethic but the jobs they did, like manufacturing and light-engineering, have long since disappeared and endemic institutional racism has conspired to bar the second generation from new career paths.

Many first generation Caribbean’s were invited to rebuild Britain’s war-ravaged public services but their families are now bearing the brunt of public sector austerity cuts as the coalition government hacks away an eye-watering £83 billion in a single parliament.

Past recessions demoralised our men, some of whom have never worked regularly. And with a third of Caribbean women working in the public services, those households where the Black woman is the breadwinner now face a bleak future.

Without urgent action poverty and generational unemployment in the inner cities, which breeds such hopelessness, will deepen further with potentially devastating consequences.

Last year’s London riots could be a precursor to future disturbances if we don’t give young Black youth hope of a legitimate job.

A massive 55.9 percent of young (16-24) Black men are out of work, a three-fold increase since 2008 and worse than the youth unemployment in Greece and Spain where they are taking to the streets.

For the first time we are bequeathing to the new Black generation a life of less life chances and opportunities than the previous one. With the think-tank Reform predicting further austerity cuts over the next decade are we to witness two successive generations going backwards?

The Great Depression of the 1930s lasted three short years. A twelve-year Depression for Britain’s Black community will be nothing short of disastrous and could see Black Britain economically cut adrift from the rest of society.

It took at least two generations to turn around Black American ghettos. How many generations will be lost in Britain if we don’t act fast?

African and Caribbean workers who experienced a 12 percent rise in unemployment between 2007 and 2009. In other words the Great Depression was kicking in even before the recession hit the rest of Britain.

There is an old saying “last in, first out.” It neatly sums up the predicament for Black Britain.

And while commentators talk of seeing the green shoots of recovery, the spectre of even more savage public sector cuts mean Black unemployment will continue to climb long after the rest of Britain returns to business as usual.

Black unemployment is arguably the greatest scandal of inequality in modern times yet it receives little attention from politicians or the media.

And while government ministers talk of a recovery built on new private sector jobs, it is the private sector that discriminate the most against Black job-seekers.

Research shows that private sector employers are nine times more likely to discriminate, yet successive governments have exempted the private sector from equalities laws to monitor the workforce and promote equality.

It is clear that without action to tackle the prejudices of private firms any business-led recovery will exacerbate the employment gap between Black and White.

‘Race’ is not just off the political agenda but also off the boardroom agenda. And dealing with the issue means tackling private enterprise first.

Rather than face the problem government may be seeking to bury it. Data on unemployment by ethnicity has not been released since February 2011, apparently due to changes in how statisticians code the various ethnic groups.

But whatever the true reason, failure to publish up to date figures may hide the fact that any economic recovery, when it eventually happens, will fail to solve the Black-White employment gap and may even make it worse.

The nearer we get to the 2015 general election the more explosive these statistics will become. It is the key barometer to the lack of political will from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to create a more racially equal society, despite their rhetoric about shielding the most vulnerable from the downturn.

As well as Affirmative Action we need agencies of the state to set targets to increase Black employment, and a government-wide scheme to measure economic progress which reports annually.

We need more support for Black businesses, more mentoring, and more encouragement to award contracts to small and medium Black firms.

We need new rules forcing companies to disclose their racial make-up when bidding for public contracts, and targets to ensure Black youth get apprenticeships.

And we must name and shame of firms that continue to discriminate against Black job applicants even after being found out.

Disproportionate Black unemployment is perhaps the greatest scandal of our lifetimes. And any political party that is serious about winning Black votes will need to prioritise it.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

* A version of this article appeared as an editorial in The Voice newspaper

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