We Need A British Jesse Jackson

jessejackson.jpgFrom today, political website http://www.tmponline.org will feature my writings in a fortnightly column.

Other contributors to this site have been MP’s such as David Lammy and Keith Vaz so I’m in good company!

This is a snippet of my first article entitled “We Need A British Jesse Jackson”:

Jesse Jackson has recently been in the UK talking to African-Caribbeans across the country… Hundreds, if not thousands, of people of colour have come out to listen to Mr Jackson’s encouraging and empowering words. He has energetically and enthusiastically urged black Britons to raise self-esteem and self-knowledge, to focus on achieving equality within British society and to overcome problems such as educational failure and low expectations. Words, which according to the government’s recent REACH report and the intense media spotlight on so-called ‘black on black’ crime, are currently vital and long overdue.

The US is well known for powerful African-American social and political figures such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Media moguls such as Russell Simmons and Oprah Winfrey can also be added to the list. Not only are these people respected within the upper echelons of society but they are listened to by the masses. Therein lies their power. That potent combination has enabled them to galvanize black people when necessary, as well as represent black interests to the outside world by providing coherent, intelligent and unified voices.

I sincerely believe that black Britons would benefit from such figureheads. Black Britons need people who are inspirational not only as a result of their wealth or celebrity status (e.g. athletes and entertainers), but because they are able to provide positive, uplifting messages, as well as put across credible arguments and discussions in areas in which black voices may not otherwise be heard. These people become both role models and representatives.

It is not enough to sit on committees and speak to government ministers, as important as that is. In order to be truly effective, any such leader must also be in close contact with the community, have its respect and be able to stimulate the people. In the UK, there is nobody I can think of whose influence cuts across society, from top to bottom, in that way….

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America, America…

americanflag.jpgI’m going to be living in one of my favourite cities in the world, New York, for the next few months…It’s fascinating to be here. I find that America is full of paradox, particularly in regards to race.

On one hand, there is a very high rate of disenfranchisement evidenced for example by a disproportionately large number of African-Americans (males in particular) in the criminal justice system. On the other hand you have extremely successful and well-to-do African-Americans who have been able to thrive in spite of the system. Obviously Oprah Winfrey, as the first black billionaire is just one of them.

I find it fascinating that despite the horrors of slavery, segregation and civil and social inequality (which did not end that long ago and some would say still exists) there is an African American man running for president. And the great thing is he’s actually a contender in the race, with some chance of winning. Similarly you have people like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice who have reached, and influenced, the very highest levels of American government.

I am not hard pressed to find successful African Americans in this city. All of my friends here are college-educated people with great opportunities, some doing the corporate thing, some doing the creative thing, but all striving to succeed, make something of themselves and buck stereotypes.

There are definitely negative images of African-Americans shown in the media here (rap videos etc) but at the same time this is where the family-orientated, feel-good Cosby show came from. I had never seen a black family like that until I saw the Cosby show! Presently you have American TV shows (e.g. My Wife and Kids, Everybody Hates Chris) which also depict happy, healthy and positive black families.

America is definitely more segregated in the sense that different racial groups tend to stick very closely together and do not mix on a social level. That is very different from my experience of living in London. However, there is a pride and solidarity amongst African-Americans I find here that I don’t find in the UK. People are proud to have relationships with each other, to have black families, to stick together. In the UK I find that many black people feel that in order to make it they must necessarily date someone of other race as some kind of symbol that they have assimilated.

I say all this because I was born and bred in the UK, which is apparently less segregated, less ‘racist’ (if you can quantify that) than the US yet I do not see many of the great things that I see and admire in America (from the African-American perspective).

I can only remember one black TV show in the UK. It was called Desmonds. (I do believe there may have been another one more recently, but I cannot recall it exactly). It was good but it definitely wasn’t the Cosby show!

The day a black man runs for prime minister in the UK and has a chance of winning, I will eat my socks. Seriously.

There are successful black people in the UK, don’t get me wrong (you can see my previous post on the New Nation’s Power List) but the truth is they are few and far between. They are not the norm. I won’t say they are the norm in America either, but at the same time it’s also not that unusual.

There are such massive contradictions in America, it really is interesting.

I wonder if the difference between the UK and the US is that Brand America promotes ‘The American Dream’ which is apparently available to all, regardless of race or ethnicity, and it is this great marketing tool which makes African-Americans feel that in spite of everything that has happened to them in the US they can still – and do – make it? Maybe it is knowing about the inalienable right of everyman to have ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ that leads to this?

The UK and the US are different in many ways, including historically, so a direct comparison is not possible. There is also a much smaller number of black people in the UK. Maybe it’s that in the UK, most people of colour here are immigrants and have therefore had to – as many immigrants do – start from the very bottom. African and Caribbean immigrants here maybe have had less time to work their way up than in the US. However, African Americans have had to do this too. In fact, their position is arguably even more disadvantaged than that of an immigrant to the UK who has come here of their own free will. Maybe it’s because England is still a very classist society? I don’t really know…

Anyway – just my observations! I will keep pondering that one… if you have any thoughts please let me know!

New Nation Black Power List 2007

damonbuffini.jpgThe New Nation newspaper has compiled their 2007 Power List of the 50 most powerful black men and women in the UK.

I have to admit I had not heard of some of the people on this list, but it’s great to be introduced to new names and see their achievements.

In the UK we can be shy about celebrating success full stop. Very rarely do we hear about the success of people of colour, particularly those outside of the music, sports and entertainment worlds.

Here is the top ten for each gender:

Top Women
1. Baroness Scotland, Attorney general
2. Baroness Amos, Labour peer
3. Heather Rabbatts, Executive chair, Millwall Holdings plc
4. Naomi Campbell, Model
5. Clare Ighodaro, Non-executive director, Banking Code Standards Board
6. Baroness Howells, Labour Peer
7. Tandy Anderson, Co-founder/CEO, Select Models
8. Carol Lake, Managing Director and Co-head, Marketing, JP Morgan
9. Michelle Ogundehin, Editor, Elle Decoration
10. Sonita Alleyne, Director, Somethin’ Else

Top Men
1. Damon Buffini, Managing partner, Permira (pictured)
2. Mo Ibrahim, Chairman of Celtel International/Mo Ibrahim Foundation
3. Michael Prest, Physical oil trader
4. Trevor Faure, Vice-president & general counsel, Tyco International
5. Tidjane Thiam, Group executive director, Aviva Europe
6. Trevor Faure, Vice President and General Counsel, Tate & Lyle
7. Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
8. Team Hamilton (Lewis & Anthony)
9. David Lammy MP, Skills Minister
10. Lee Jasper, Director of Equalities & Policing, GLA

Martin Luther Had A Dream…

Last night I went to the screening of a soon-to-be released documentary called Meeting David Wilson. It’s the baby of a friend of mine, called David Wilson.

To give you some background to the film, it’s based on my African-American friend Dave Wilson tracing back his family history and finding out that the descendants of the people who enslaved his ancestors only 3 generations ago are alive and well – and that one of them is also called David Wilson!

The meeting of New York-born, African-American, great great grandson of slaves David A Wilson and Southern, great-great grandson of slave owners David B Wilson forms the basis for an insightful look at race relations in the US, and what it means to be an African- American today. A tricky subject for sure, but one which asks some pertinent questions and also gives some meaty food for thought.

One person that Dave meets on his journey into the past is a 97 year old woman, a family member of his, who still lives in the area where his family was enslaved. For such an old person, this woman is incredibly sharp and also offers some thought provoking opinions…

At one point, Dave asks what she thinks about reparations. Surprisingly, her response was that white people owe African-Americans nothing. She said that our focus should not be on what happened in the past, but what we can do now. Any anger African-Americans have should be used as fuel for present change, rather than being directed at something we can no longer do anything about. So interesting.

In the end, the African-American Wilson family (which is huge) meets with the other Wilson family and they come together for a celebration. United, if not by blood, by history. This meeting was the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s vision in which he says: “I have a dream that one day… the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”

Please support this film… watch the trailer and check it out.

Being Positive…

I read the government’s recent report  with interest. It is part of their project to “raise the aspirations, attainment and achievement of Black boys and young Black men, enabling them to reach their potential”.

I found it ironic that one of the key suggestions was that black boys need better role models and media representation, yet here is a report that is just one more body of research (albeit with some good suggestions) which highlights the apparent underachievement and low aspirations of black men! 

Also, this study was conducted through talking to 400 black men…and from those 400 they came to the conclusion that black men in general (not just those 400) have low aspirations?! Talk about generalizing and stereotyping!!

If the government wants to raise aspirations, why not conduct a report into the high achievers, the success stories and ask them how they did it? Wouldn’t that provide a much more positive story and model for the very people that they say so desperately need it?

The report acknowledges that there are success stories, yet ignores this in order to focus on the failings. If you want to achieve success, don’t you look at those who have got it already and see how it can be duplicated? We have heard about black underachievement over and over again for so long and it’s kinda boring…

The government cannot call on the media to give positive representation of people of colour, when it continues to churn out the same old stories about low achievement itself. There is another side to the story – let’s hear it please!  

Maybe, similar to accusations levelled at the self-help industry, there is actually now an industry based entirely on the woes of people of colour… ? Booker T.Washington once made this insightful comment: “There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs – partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

Being Black…

Two hot topics in the media at the moment are so-called black-on-black crime, and black underachievement in schools.

I ask why the reference to ‘black-on-black’? Isn’t crime just crime? Why is the race of the victims or the perpetrators significant? Similarly if kids are underachieving in school, why the focus on their skin colour in the discussion?

I ask this question for the reason that on one hand, for example, we know that people of African and Caribbean descent have been and are disprotionately discriminated against – on the basis of their race – within Western society. It is now recognized that this type of discrimination is wrong because we know that race is nothing more than a social construct with no inherent meaning or value. Therefore to judge anyone on this basis is foolish.

But then why do we focus debates, conversations, or reports on these grounds too? If we know that any concepts of race are, in essence, meaningless why couch educational underachievement, crime or anything else in references to being black?

What is being ‘black’ anyway? How is it defined? Who defines it? ‘Black’ does not really exist apart from in our minds, yet the term is used – including by the government in their recent report – as if it’s an actual tangible aspect of a person (or a group of people) rather than a construction which is undoubtedly useless – which is, ironically, precisely the reason why prejudice and racism exists in the first place.

Crimes committed by African-Caribbean people are not different from crimes committed by any other racial group, and thus in my view do not deserve or merit any special attention on racial grounds. The crime and the problems which give rise to it should be the issue – the race of the perpetrators or victims does not add value to solving the real problem. Similarly, if kids are underachieving at school that is a cause of concern regardless of their race.

Yes, we can say that a greater number of African and Caribbean kids are doing less well in schools. However, any discussion into that issue should focus not on the fact that they are ‘black’, but on tangible, deeper issues such as economics, housing, or the education system itself. Underachievement is not a ‘black’ problem – it’s a societal problem.

The majority of crime in this country is not committed by people of colour, yet we do not talk about ‘white’ crime and point at the issues within the ‘white’ community. The focus is on the individuals and the circumstances which give rise to their criminal behaviour (as it should be). There is a big body of evidence which shows that English working class kids are also underachieving in school – but those conversations are never focussed on race.

The more we have debates about ‘black’ people and ‘black’ problems, the more stereotyping we will have because in reality there are so many variations of individuals and unique circumstances and situations that fall under the banner of ‘black’ that you can only ever be stereotyping and generalizing when using the term.

Discussions which use race as an indicator of a problem necessarily avoid looking at the actual issues, because they suggest that there is something in a particular racial group that gives rise to that problem. A talk about gun crime cannot ever get to the heart of the matter for as long as ‘black’ is attached to it – how it is possible to have a sensible debate or come up with solutions on the basis of something (race) which does not actually exist?

So what’s the solution? The solution is that everyone drops references to race or ethnicity and simply tackles the issues. Educational underachievement is a problem. Gun crime is a problem. Adding ‘black’ to that does not give us any insight into, or understanding of, the problem or how to tackle it. It does nothing more than enable people to continue to talk in generalizations and stereotypes about individuals of colour – something which we know is very dangerous.

Startups must go with the flow…

I’ve recently started a business which provides remote secretarial/admin assistance to small businesses. At least that was the inital idea. On paper, it all works exactly the way I want it to. In practise, however, I’ve discovered – amongst other things – that many people are resistant to the idea of passing information to people they don’t know, let alone cannot see, and often want someone who will physically be in their office for at least some of the time.

As a result, I’ve realized that I am required to make changes to my original business plan and go with the needs of the market. Initially, I was slightly perturbed by having to do that. At first I thought ‘wow, maybe I’ve got this all wrong’, but then I thought it would be more foolish of me to stick to my original plan when the market (my clients) were telling me it wanted something else. You can’t control life, and the market is essentially reflective of that. If you don’t adapt and/or can’t be flexible, it’s likely that your business will not survive.

Anyway, I was pleased to come across a great article by Marc Andreessen in which he states that “a startup’s initial business plan doesn’t matter that much, because it is very hard to determine up front exactly what combination of product and market will result in success.”

I have to say that I agree with him. First of all, I believe that while a business plan is important (for general direction, accessing finance etc) there can be an over-emphasis on it as the key navigational system for a startup. But, like a budget, a business plan has to take present needs/demands into account and be adjusted accordingly. Andreessen cites Microsoft, Intel and Oracle as examples of companies which have succeeded by being responsive to changes in the market.

I personally think you’d be hard pressed to find a successful business that has stuck rigidly to its original business plan. The major record companies in the music industry are an example of how you lose out when you are unwilling to respond to market demands.

Markets will change regardless – that’s life – so if you want to grow you have to go with the flow. Hence why the music industry sits with its mouth open while Apple continues to sell gazillions of songs through i-tunes.