It has successfully helped push racial equality up the political agenda. But now London’s councils are slashing BHM funding

Peripeteia, a film as part of Black History Month 2012

A still from Peripeteia, a film that formed part of a 2012 Black History Month exhibition. Photograph: Carroll Fletcher/Smoking Dogs

I believe, now that Black History Month is drawing to a close, we need to look at the future of BHM in this country and ask some serious questions. New research reveals that spending on Black History Month by London’s boroughs has dropped by almost half. This is striking because almost half of Britain’s ethnic minorities are in the London area and local authorities might have been expected to take it seriously. The worst examples of these cuts come from Camden, Greenwich and Westminster councils, who have completely scrapped their BHM budget. Others, such as Islington, Lewisham and Wandsworth, have decreased their budgets by almost 70% since 2009.

Some might say that, in a time of austerity, spending on this special month is a “politically correct” luxury that hard-pressed local authorities can ill afford. But many are arguing that the collapse of interest in BHM reflects a more serious issue. Local authorities feel free to slash spending on it because racial diversity is taking a back seat when it comes to public policy.

To understand the political significance of BHM, it is necessary to understand its history. The first BHM event was organised by the Greater London Council in 1987 (which was also the year when history was made, with black MPs including me being elected to parliament). But BHM wasn’t just an isolated celebration. It was part of a successful move to fight racism and push racial equality up the political agenda. Lord Herman Ouseley, Lady Valerie Amos and Lord Boateng all made their names as young black radicals in the local authority politics of the period. They argued for and implemented a whole range of policies on racial equality, most crucially around employment, housing and the voluntary sector.

Without that political campaigning, London might have fallen victim to the entrenched political inequality and separatism that characterises so many northern towns. The BNP found it much harder to get a foothold in London than in the industrial north. This is the legacy of the anti-racist campaigning of the 1980s in which BHM played an important, symbolic role.

When Boris Johnson became mayor of London, one of the first things he did was to slash spending on BHM by 92%, completely eliminate funding for Africa Day and remove the funding for London’s anti-racism festival, Rise. The symbolism was unmistakable and was not lost on London’s black population.

What is harder to document is the picture that is gradually becoming clear of millions of pounds of public sector cuts which are falling most heavily on ethnic minority staff and the ethnic minority-led voluntary sector. There is the old American saying “Last to be hired; first to be fired” And BME workers, particularly at a management level, are a relatively recent phenomenon in the white-collar public sector world particularly at a management level. BME workers, particularly black women, are heavily over-represented in the public sector. One of the reasons for this is because local authorities – precisely because of the political campaigns of the 80s – have been more willing to adopt fair and transparent employment policies.

Some of the left react badly when the argument is made that the cuts are falling most heavily on the black community. They claim it is wrong to “racialise” the effects of austerity. But a wilful refusal to even consider that the cuts may hit BME communities hardest is dangerous. When those communities explode it is too easy to see it merely as a law and order problem rather than to look at the underlying economic issues.


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