Possibly because it’s Black History Month (US/Canada), I’m seeing a burst of Facebook discussions among my black friends on that old favourite: why do black communities underperform others? Various economic, education and health metrics still demonstrate large gaps between black and other populations, and inevitably people wonder why. The old white supremacist explanation – that black people are simply biologically inferior – has gradually faded from grace in recent decades, although this idea is often still hinted at.
Discussion among black people tends to swing between blaming others (it’s caused by racism/colonialism/the aftermath of slavery/etc.) and blaming themselves (why don’t black people invest in each other like Indians and Jews seem to do?) Meanwhile, many white liberals tend to blame racism and colonialism while simultaneously showing an almost colonial lack of faith in black societies to sort out problems for themselves.
It appears to me though that the truth is better, and the outlook more optimistic than any of these viewpoints might consider. I admit that I long supported the “white guilt” viewpoint. The Caribbean Londoners I grew up with undoubtedly suffered greatly from racism and police brutality. They also lagged far behind white people in educational achievement and economic success. There was an obvious correlation between race and disadvantage; many people (me included) therefore assumed that one was the cause of the other. But of course, assuming causation from correlation is the oldest mistake in the book.
It was my own black friends who helped set me straight on this, pointing out that they had escaped council estates, made careers and raised stable families, despite experiencing persistent racism. From their micro-perspective, the difference was clear: those whose families valued literacy and education succeeded. Those who came from families that placed little value on education did not.
The disparities between different racial groups should cast doubt on the idea that racism causes communities to fail. In the 1930s, Jews faced immense prejudice. They were also mostly economic migrants, and lacked capital. And yet many – including both of my grandfathers – opened businesses and moved out of the East End ghetto into the suburbs.
The Caribbean immigrants who began arriving in the late-1940s did not follow the same pattern of success as the Jews. But the East African Asians who fled Uganda in the 1970s did. The Pakistanis who came later did not do so well. But the West Africans who came in the 1980s and 1990s did better.
What kind of “racism” is so selective? When Indian and Chinese children do better in school than whites, but Pakistanis and Bengalis do worse, how can anti-Asian racism be blamed? And now, West Africans (mostly from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone) outperform white children but children originating in the Caribbean do not. How can this be explained by anti-black racism? In short, it can’t.
I attended the “blackest” school in the UK, where around 75% of the kids were first or second generation immigrants from the Caribbean. While some of the Caribbean migrants had come from educated, middle class homes, the majority didn’t. Many of my school friends left school with scant literacy and no qualifications. Many of their parents too were semi-literate, having come from rural island communities to take up work as bus conductors. Today, I still have friends in their 40s and 50s who have limited literacy.
This generation of black Londoners faced savage racism in the 1970s and 1980s, especially from the police; they also were excluded, by their lack of qualifications, from universities and well paid jobs. It was easy to combine the two things in folklore: to say that Babylon (the Rastafarian word for the white power structure) would never offer opportunities to black people. This was easy to believe. I believed this. To add to the confusion, black British people compared their position to that of black Americans and South Africans. This was deeply inaccurate; Britain never had racial segregation laws or traditions to overturn. The racism may have been superficially similar, but the political reality was incomparable.
But when, starting in the 1990s, many West African immigrants breezed into universities and professional jobs, it became clear that this racial model of British society was wrong. I had to question my own beliefs, forged among the afro-centric viewpoints I absorbed in my teens. When a Nigerian friend graduated as an accountant and invited me to her awards ceremony, I saw a new British reality. Expecting to see a line-up dominated by Jews and Indians, I instead saw Chinese, Nigerian and Ghanaian graduates collecting their certificates.
So does the black British community have a problem? The question is meaningless. There is no coherent black community. Grouping people together based on their skin colour is nonsensical, and indicates a racist world view. The key deciding factor in a person’s economic success in the UK is their level of literacy and education. It turns out that working class black people originating from the Caribbean have far more in common, economically, with white British people than they do with those of West African origin. The same applies to those immigrants from rural Pakistan versus those from urban India.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with racism – this is still alive and well, and the rise of UKIP reveals a strong xenophobic streak in British society. For black parents wondering how to give their children the greatest chance of success, the answer is the same as for any other parent: teach them to read and write young, to behave at school, and to develop a thirst for lifelong learning. And most of all, tell them that the colour of their skin is no excuse for failure.