Poor Is the New ‘Black’ – from the Civil Rights movement to the Occupy Movement

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Blogs
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“If Black and white didn’t argue the most,   They could really see the government’s screwing them both”  KRS 1

Just after Obama won the race for the White house in 2009, there was talk that we had now moved into a post racial era – a new time when people’s life chances would no longer be defined by their race – a fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s vision that ‘one day man would be judged not by the colour of his skin but by the content of his character’.

Martin Luther King’s dream fullfilled?

The reasoning was that if a Black man could become leader of the free world, then surely race was no longer a barrier to achievement. We may well be in a post-racial age, but not quite how MLK envisaged.  Now our life chances are determined not so much by the racial origin of our parents but rather by their bank balance.

Regardless of personal income there are certain things that everyone needs to enjoy a good quality of life – decent housing, a good education, satisfactory healthcare, equality before the law, meaningful work and a liveable wage that comes with it.  Above all the belief that through hard work one can truly advance in life.  In the first half of the last century Black people throughout the diaspora were denied these things.  Not anymore.

Remembering that historic murder trial of O.J. Simpson in the 90’s O.J’s acquittal was achieved not because of his race, but because of his wealth, – the fact that he could afford to employ Johnnie Cochrane and the rest of ‘the dream team’ in defence.

O.J. flanked by 2 members of his dream legal team

As Chris Rock observed at the time, if O.J. was not an American football legend but  rather just Orenthal the bus driver, his ass   would be on death row right now! (50 years earlier O.J. would have been lynched, guilty or not, just to set an example  to other Black men who might contemplate sleeping with a white woman!)

The effect of your parent’s income on your life chances starts from very early on.

The biggest influence on educational attainment, how well a child performs in school and later in higher education, is family background.  In a report on education in Britain, Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar described how

“One of the biggest problems facing British schools is the gap between rich and poor, and the enormous disparity in children’s home backgrounds and the social and cultural capital they bring to the educational table.”

According to research first published a few years ago by the then education secretary Estelle Morris, a bright baby from a poor background is liable to be overtaken by a less bright baby from a wealthy background by the age of 22 months, boosted by educated parents and a stimulating home environment. A 2010 report by the Office for Fair Access revealed that intelligent children from the richest 20% of homes in England were seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%.

A 2005 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report concluded : “The strength of the relationship between educational attainment and family income, especially for access to higher education, is at the heart of Britain’s low mobility culture and what sets us apart from other European countries.”

Today it is income not race that define people’s life chances.  Yes Black boys are struggling in the English school system but that is because they are poor, not because they are Black.  (It is worth noting that those at the very bottom of educational attainment statistics are poor white boys.)

Should a child from a poor background be talented and focussed enough to rise above his mediocre comprehensive and win a place at one of the newer universities built just for their kind (ex-polytechnics), upon graduation he will discover to his horror that his degree is not the golden ticket to employment he had thought it would be.

An important difference between the newer universities and those of the Russell Group is not just the quality of education that you receive, its the people you meet whilst there who will be in a position to help you later in life. The students at these elite universities are the future leaders and captains of industry.  It can’t just be a co-incidence that three of the most powerful men in British  politics, David Cameron, George Osborne, and Boris Johnson all went to Oxford and are all former members of the exclusive Bullingdon drinking  club.

Cameron & Johnson – both former members of the Bullingdon club

Government figures show more than two thirds of leading barristers and 9 out of 10 of the most senior army officers are still privately educated, whilst students applying to study medicine or dentistry are twice as likely as applicants for other subjects to be children of professionals.  Increasingly the first step in building a career is to secure work experience, often via placements that go unadvertised.

These thousands of work experience placements and internships, almost all of them unpaid, which well-connected parents who are able to support their children working for nothing are able to arrange, give already privileged youngsters a head start in their career.

The coalition government attempted to address this in 2011 when deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg unveiled a social mobility strategy that urged firms to give more youngsters a chance of valuable work experience by offering internships “openly and transparently” and providing cash support in the form of at least the minimum wage or reasonable expenses.  Mr Clegg said career chances should not be decided by “who your father’s friends are” and that internships had wrongly been the preserve of “sharp-elbowed’’ rich families with contacts and money.  Fine words, but the great irony of this was that Mr Clegg himself secured his first internship before going to Cambridge University when his bank boss father Nicholas “had a word” with a friend at a ­Finnish bank. He later got the break which launched his political career when family friend Lord Carrington recommended him to ex-minister Sir Leon Brittan, then Britain’s Conservative EU Commissioner in Brussels.

If you’re a lucky enough to have a father with powerful friends like Nick Clegg, after securing one of these invaluable unadvertised work placements, its highly likely that your entry level job will go unadvertised too. A report released by the Social Market Foundation in 2010 found that informal recruitment through word of mouth is particularly prevalent in the creative industries such as advertising, architecture, design, publishing and journalism.  Contacts are very important for getting into the sector because word-of-mouth recruitment is more common than formal recruitment methods.

These hidden ladders are more likely to be seized by the children of the professional classes, kept informed by the friends and contacts of their parents.  An average degree received from an mediocre university by the child of working class parents does still not give a child access to this network.

Over in America, the masses are getting tired of the unfairness too.  Today the conflicts on the streets are no longer of Black people demanding their equal rights, but of the impoverished masses demanding their share of the pie.  It is no longer the Black led civil rights movement, but the white led Occupy movement.

from the civil rigjhts movment ..to the occupy movement

The urban riots of the 80’s in Toxteth, Brixton, and Tottenham were race riots – the oppressed Blacks venting their frustrations at the lack of access to meaningful employment and repressive Police practices.   The ones of 2011 were riots of the underclass, venting their frustration and alienation at a society that had left them behind.  The majority of the underclass are white not black, but this fact is obscured by the fact that is that the majority of Black people seem to be trapped in the underclass. In the summer of 2011, History Professor David Starkey caused a major controversy when he appeared on BBC programme Newsnight to discuss the causes of that year’s inner city riots. It was Starkey contention that the rules of civil society had broken down because of the negative influence of the children of Caribbean immigrants; that the traditionally law-abiding white working-class had been infected by the lawlessness of their Jamaican ‘Yardie’ neighbours.  He was horrified that young whites were now dressing, talking and ultimately behaving like these glamorously anti-establishment migrants;  in his own words, that the ‘whites had become black’.

Dr David Starkey on ‘Newsnight’

I would argue the opposite view to Starkey’s.  I would contend that many of the problems that plague Black men in Britain today, are because they have become white.  Or to be more precise, they have abandoned the values of those hard-working, law-abiding Caribbean immigrants of the Windrush generation, and taken on the values of the white working-class.  Thus they no longer have that immigrant mentality of happily accepting whatever work you can get (no matter how menial), and scrimping and saving for a brighter future for their children. (That role is now left to the Eastern European migrants). This second and third generation of Caribbean immigrants, like the natives of this country, have a sense of entitlement.  They feel that after their parents and grandparents worked so hard to rebuild this country, and paid their taxes for so many years, they should now have an automatic right to a good education and a good home and a good job.  And when the good things in life are not so easily forthcoming, they refuse to eat humble pie, and make do and mend as their grandparents may have done, and in some cases are willing to take what they want by force. What unified those urban rioters in the summer of 2011, was not race – it was a sense of entitlement coupled with a lack of opportunity. Like most people they want designer label clothes and expensive trainers, high tech smart phones and flat screen TVs, but with no job they are without the means to acquire them legally. But unlike our brothers and sisters trapped in the underclass,  the children of therich Black elites are insulated from such  problems.

Black single mother Dianne Abbott did not have to send her son James to a sink school in her constituency of Hackney.  With her considerable MP’s salary she could afford  to buy him a place at a fee paying school in Ghana.  (And this  move obviously worked because James is now at Cambridge).

Dianne Abbott & her son James

We can reasonably expect that the daughters of Barack and Michelle Obama will not find it a struggle to get on the housing ladder. (After 4 years of living in the white house I would imagine that no house will be out of their reach).

And unlike the many African-Americans without health insurance, the new daughter of Jay Z and Beyonce will not have to worry about getting proper health care. (Her father apparently donated $100k to the New York hospital where she was born).

The children of Will Smith & Jada Pinkett will not struggle too much to find meaningful employment. (Jaden and Willow have already started successful careers in the movies and music biz).

The fame, influence and money of these Black people lucky enough to be granted entrance into the ranks of the rich and powerful does not stop them from being Black, but it does stop them from being poor, and so insulates their children from the challenges and pitfalls that so often comes with being Black.

So we really are in a post-racial era.  Being Black no longer prevents you from enjoying a high quality of life, but being poor does.  And unfortunately for us the majority of Black people are in the poor camp rather than the rich one.

 Lee Pinkerton


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