Why Black unity in the student movement is crucial in the fight against racism, discrimination and inequality
By Aaron Kiely & Barbara Ntumy
This article was first published on Operation Black Vote
The Tory Party set a racist, xenophobic and extremely right wing agenda at their Party Conference earlier this month. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, wants to blame every problem in British society on immigrants, refugees and Black communities. Following the Brexit referendum in June we have already seen a massive rise in racist violence, a situation which is set to become even worse in light of this new, vicious turn in government policy. Uniting and organsing to turn the tide on this racist offensive is critically important.
Britain’s one million Black students, studying at colleges and universities, will be at the forefront of this struggle. Our success will affect what we can hope to achieve in life. Whilst our education will help us to develop the vital skills and knowledge we need after our studies, we must campaign, alongside our education, to ensure that we will all be accepted in a society that treats everyone fairly.
Britain is becoming more diverse and multicultural, and so are our campuses. Black students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage continue to participate in huge numbers across further and higher education. And as our campuses become increasingly diverse, they become less isolating and more welcoming places to be.
But we know that as Black students, we still face many challenges. Racism is still rife on our campuses. Stephen Lawrence, Ricky Reel and Anthony Walker were all Black students who lost their lives in racist attacks. Many of us will hear a racist joke. Many of us will rightly question whether we are getting the grades we deserve, or whether our ‘foreign sounding’ name will see our work under-marked. We also worry about getting a job after leaving university because we know that in a Britain of austerity, cuts and privatisation, Black people are often the first to be fired and the last to be hired.We are disportionately targeted by the police through racist stop and search.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum we are seeing racism, Islamophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants become increasingly mainstream and acceptable – bigots have been emboldened across the country. The impact on Black communities is being felt in the sharp rise in racist hate crime and attacks.
This is not a reality we are willing to accept.
Things can improve but this requires collective struggle. The very fact that there are one million Black people studying in colleges and universities in Britain today is the fruit from decades of campaigning and struggle against racism. Previous generations have fought hard for our rights.
Inspired by these struggles we fight on today. That is why we have the NUS Black Students’ Campaign (BSC). It exists to unite and champion the interests of all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent. The NUS BSC was established as a contribution to challenge racism and increase Black representation. It is the largest Campaign of its kind in the whole of Europe.
This article will explore why ‘Black Unity’ – the unity of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean people – the principle upon which the NUS BSC was established on, is crucial in our ongoing fight against racism, discrimination and inequality.
Black students experiences of racism in 21stcentury Britain
People of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent have a shared ‘Black experience’ of racism in British society which permeates every aspect of our lives. From the everyday racist harassment and abuse we endure, to the institutional racism which holds us back within education, work, the criminal justice system, housing and all areas of public life.
Black, as a political term, expresses the common oppression and relationship with power we experience in society. Recognition of our political Blackness helps foster solidarity between Black people in our common struggles. Often categorized as ‘ethnic minorities’ we are in fact globally the majority of humanity. The government and statiscians use the category ‘ethnic minority’ – in this article we use this term in instances where it’s the category which has been used by those who have produced the research.
Our empowerment in society has most advanced when we are united. That is why Black unity is central to our Campaign. Our common struggles against racism provide the bedrock for this Black unity. Our oppressors understand the power of our unity so of course seek to ensure that we are divided. ‘Divide and rule’ was enacted to colonise our countries, drain resources and fuel exploitation for centuries. That is why achieving unity is not automatic, but has to be actively fought for and defended.
People of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent experience racist harassment, bullying, hate crime and violence.
The most commonly recorded motivation for hate crime in Britain remains racism, at 82%.
The rise in Islamophobia over the past 15 years has seen mosques attacked by far right and fascist groups and Muslim women having their headscarves ripped off in the street.
Just how many times have we seen videos of racist abuse on the train or tube? This is a growing problem, the racist hate crimes on railway networks across Britain rising by 37% between 2011 and 2015.
In 2012/13 over 1,400 young people across Britain told Child Line that they were experiencing racist bullying, a 69% increase within a year.
Racist hate crime, harassment and violence is currently rising following the Brexit referendum which has seen racists become more confident as their views are increasingly reflected in the mainstream political debate. Over the 9 week period following the Brexit referendum the weekly number of reported incidents was on average 32% higher than the equivalent period last year. The scale of the individual weekly increases has ranged from 12% to 58%. Yet the overwhelming majority of hate crime is not reported to the police, as the police themselves admit. These figures are therefore just the tip of the iceberg.
The rise of Islamophobia
Since the start of the ‘war on terror’, Islamophobia – racism against Muslim people – has soared in Britain and across the Western world.
An annual survey by Tell MAMA – an organization which monitors anti-Muslim hate crime – found a 326% rise in incidents over the past year. 61% of victims were women with 75% clearly identifiable as Muslim – e.g. due to wearing headscarves or veils. 11% of incidents took place in schools and colleges.
Muslims are treated like the ‘enemy within’, vilified in the media every day and are increasingly the victim of violent racist hate crime.
On our campuses the government’s racist and counterproductive ‘Prevent’ agenda sees Muslims systematically spied upon, harassed, targeted and branded as extremists for holding views critical of UK foreign policy.
The impact of Islamophobia is also suffered by non-Muslims who may ‘look Muslim.’ Just days after the horrific 9/11 attacks in the US, Balbir Singh Sodhi – a Sikh American man with a beard wearing a turban – was shot dead in a racist attack. Chillingly, before murdering Sodhi, the murderer had reportedly said he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads”.
Racism, austerity and poverty: Black people are the hardest hit
Racism also means that people of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent experience higher levels of poverty and unemployment. The economic crash of 2008 and austerity programme that has followed has overwhelmingly hit Black communities the hardest.
In the world of employment, Black workers with degrees earn over 23% less on average than white workers with degrees.
Black workers are moving into more insecure forms of employment at higher rates than white workers. Between 2011 and 2014 the number of Black workers in insecure work increased by nearly 40% – compared with a 16% rise for white workers.
The disproportionate impact of austerity with regards to unemployment on Black communities is particularly striking. From 2010 to 2015 the number of long term unemployed ‘ethnic minorities’ in Britain increased by 49%. Whilst long term young unemployment for young white people decreased by 2%.
Higher rates of unemployment are experienced by all Black communities. For example Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were less than half as likely to be employed compared with the average employment rates for other women. Whilst in 2011, shockingly, half of young Black people of African and Caribbean descent were unemployed.
In light of these facts it should come as no surprise that Black communities are twice as likely to live in poverty compared to white people across Britain.
This is why the NUS BSC must be at the heart of building the movement against austerity, cuts and attacks on our public services. Central to our demands to the government is state investment to create jobs and green, sustainable economic growth. Only such an alternative economic strategy can resolve the crisis of Black youth unemployment and fight poverty.
The work NUS and Students’ Unions have done to support Black students improve their individual “employability” alongside careers fairs and advisors is welcome, positive and should continue to be supported. However it’s not an approach which can fundamentally solve the problem of Black youth unemployment – that requires the elimation of racism from the education system and employment plus the creation of jobs. The latter means an end to public sector cuts and proper investment in the economy.
Racism within the police and criminal justice system
Institutional racism within the police and criminal justice system continues to blight the lives of African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean people.
A Black man is 5 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than a white man in England and Wales. ‘Ethnic minorities’ in police custody in England and Wales are significantly more likely to be physically restrained than white people. The rates of prosecution and sentencing for Black people in England and Wales are three times higher than for white people.
In addition, Black people are disproportionate victims of crime across Britain. Reminding us that we’re over-policed as citizens but under-policed as victims.
Racism and inequality within the education system
Black students have a shared experience of racism at every level of the education system.
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Black students are moving forward and attending university in higher numbers than ever before – despite the odds stacked against us.
Since 2008 all Black communities have seen an increase in the levels of participation in higher education. For example, Indian students have increased 18.1%, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students have seen an 9.7% increase and African and Caribbean students a 9.6% rise.
We are however, less likely to be accepted into the most prestigious universities. For example in 2013, just 6% of African and Caribbean school leavers attended a Russell Group university, compared with 11% of white peers.
Because Black graduate workers are paid 23% less than their white counterparts it will take Black students years longer to pay back their student loans than white students. This means that the government’s current plans to increase tuition fees over £9,000 will have a disproportionate impact on Black students – we are paid less, it will take us longer to repay our debts, which means we will incur more interest on our student debt, which means we will pay back more over a longer period of time for our degrees.
Black students experience poverty whilst studying. Our student loans barely cover the cost of rising rents – and given we are twice as likely to belong to households living in poverty than our white counterparts our families are in less of a position to support us financially. Added to that the institutional racism we suffer when trying to find work and the fact that Black people are paid less than white people, the financial pressures on Black students are huge. This pressure and stress in turn impacts upon our studies.
Black students are as capable as other students. But when the disadvantage Black students face economically is combined with racism in the classroom the results are clear – a Black attainment gap which sees Black students achieve lower degree classifications.For example, a higher proportion of white undergraduate students received a First/2:1 at 76.3% – compared with 60.3% for ‘ethnic minority’ students.
What we are taught and who we are taught by in our classrooms and lecture theatres has a significant impact on Black students’ attainment – particularly in the fields of arts and humanities. NUS research has found that almost half of Black students felt that the curriculum on their course did not reflect issues of diversity, equality and discrimination. Our curriculum fails to recognise the immense contribution Black people have made throughout history. It wholly fails to also confront Britain’s brutal role in the slave trade, wars and colonialism. Black people are significantly underrepresented in positions of authority within universities – from professors to lecturers to the university management and leadership positions.
The scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for Further Education students in 2010 was a huge blow to young Black people. The EMA was a grant of up to £30 a week that allowed students from low-income families the chance to access further education. The statistics from 2008 showed that EMA was received by 88% of Bangladeshi students with the overwhelming 84% of them receiving the full grant of £30 a week. Around 65% of all African and Caribbean students received EMA, compared to 39% of white students. The loss of EMA had such a significant impact on Black communities – this cut represented a vicious attack on the hopes and dreams of young Black people.
Before we get to study at colleges and universities, Black students experience huge barriers within the school system. Just one example of this is the fact that Black Caribbean and mixed white/Black Caribbean children have rates of permanent exclusion from school at about three times that of the pupil population as a whole.
Earlier this year it was revealed that as Home Secretary, Theresa May had wrongly deported 50,000 international students.
In 2012 Theresa May attempted to deport over 2,000 international students from overwhelmingly African and Asian countries. The NUS Black Students’ Campaign led a huge campaign to stop this from happening, uniting African and Asian students, and all Black students, in demanding the government let them stay and complete their education. We won – because Black unity in action gets results.
We have to keep vigilant, as in the wake of the Brexit referendum there are growing calls to increase controls on immigration and end freedom of movement people between Britain and the EU. The recent deportation of 50 Jamaican people who have lived here for generations shows why we need Black unity. When a hostile climate around immigration is being whipped up against ‘new’ refugees, it impacts on migrant communities that have been here for generations.
The fight against deportations rightly continues to be a major priority of the student movement as the government increases it’s attacks on international students and immigrants.
People of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent are under represented in positions of power in all arenas from Parliament, to the legal profession and, in the media.
For example, despite making up at least 14% of the population the proportion of MPs from ‘ethnic minority’ backgrounds is only 6.3% – less than half of what it should be. Of the 129 MSPs elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016, only two are not white. Only 4% of local government councillors in 2014 were Black too.
Black unity in action
Where have we come from
As Black students we have massive barriers and challenges to overcome. However, because of the struggles, campaigns and determination of Black people over the decades – indeed for centuries – we can be at our most effective when we reflect on the positive changes and how these have come about. And take strength from these struggles where we can.
Historically Black people have arrived in Britain from countries dominated by imperialism. So many African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean countries were colonized by the European imperial powers and the Black populations in these countries were viciously subjugated and exploited. Previous generations of Black people – our ancestors – from across the globe had to forge unity and fight colonialism and the oppressor nations through independence and revolutionary movements.
Following independence and these struggles, large numbers of Black people migrated to Britain. The crumbling British empire needed cheap labour at home. When Black people arrived in Britain, in the the 1950s and 60s, it was a struggle to get acceptance and remove the most outrageous and explicit racist discrimination. Our great grandparents and grandparents faced huge discrimination in housing, jobs, education – the vast majority of Black immigrants often had to work in the most gruesome jobs, in the worst conditions for the lowest wages. Signs hung in doors saying “No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish.”
Despite this – we made then, and continue making now, a huge contribution – whether that’s staffing the NHS as nurses, doctors, cleaners and midwives, working on the buses or running local businesses.
As we’ve made clear above, the issue of racist discrimination has not been solved yet, but significant progress has been made.
Racist discrimination has not reduced on its own accord – it was the struggle of Black people that achieved these gains.
In those struggles Black communities had to unite and fight together on the broadest possible basis to move forward. African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean people have a long history of uniting to fight racism in Britain and it’s an approach which has achieved results for all of our diverse communities.
Looking ahead in how we fight racism today it is clear that uniting African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean people who experience racism is precisely the alliance we need to keep moving forward.
That is what ‘Black unity’ means. And it is powerful.
Black unity has been the basis for the advance of Black people in the struggles against racism and has taken organizational form in the Labour Party Black Sections, trade union movement, student movement and in the anti-racist movements.
It is through Black unity in the labour movement and trade unions that we secured the historic achievement of winning the first ever Black MPs in the 1980s.
Black students and the fight against racism today: we need a strong NUS Black Students’ Campaign
As we have demonstrated, Black people of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage are oppressed by enormous levels of racism in British society. Racism impacts upon every aspect of our lives. Racism adversely affects our life expectancy, our wealth, our health, our access to education, our opportunities in the world of work and public life, our likihood of being imprisoned or detained under Mental Health legislation. Racism means Black people are under-represented in politics, the media, within business and within leadership positions in education. The list unfortunately goes on.
‘Black Unity’ is about people of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent coming together to confront racist oppression and to advance all our Black communities.
We come together, we build alliances together because we have a shared experience and we therefore have a common struggle. We are natural allies in the fight for a better world.
Within the student movement the NUS Black Students’ Campaign is an organization created to advance this struggle against racism and bring Black voices to the fore.
It has existed for almost 20 years and within this time Black students have gone from the fringes of the student movement to playing a leading role. Approximately 20% of students are Black and according to the last NUS survey 16% of Students’ Union Presidents are Black and 20% of Students’ Union Officers are Black. This year the first Black woman was elected as NUS President, with Black students making stunning advances throughout NUS by winning the positions of Vice President Further Education, Women’s Officer, LGBT Officer, International Students’ Officer and many other positions.
This would not have been achieved without Black unity – and it’s taken constant struggle to establish and maintain Black unity in the student movement.
Malcolm X said “there can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity.” We should be clear that Black unity is something that has to be fought for – we have to struggle against the constant attempts to divide us.
Black people make up 75% of the world’s population – naturally there is huge diversity amongst us. We may have varying backgrounds, political views, talents, passions and more and that must be recognized and that diversity valued and celebrated within the NUS Black Students’ Campaign.
Black communities all have specific issues, concerns, grievances and particular unique experiences of discrimination.
Black unity is not about ignoring that fact, it is about taking up these specific issues as a collective, showing each other solidarity and working together to fight and win together.
The alternative to Black unity is simple: disunity. If Black people are divided, we can be ruled. The history of the past several hundred years of colonialism and imperialism is testament to that fact.
So let us stand together, in unity as allies, as many generations before us have done, and fight for Black liberation.