For many Black History Month – which has just concluded – held special resonance this year, the 50th since Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed his Dream of a post-racial America.
Highlighting the gap between the promise and the reality of life in 1960s America, he spoke of a nation where his children would, “not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
In Britain, we lack the elevated prose of the US Constitution as a reference point for our national story. But we share the powerful desire for a society where all have the opportunity to achieve their aspirations regardless of their background.
Our unwritten social contract combines shared responsibilities with the promise of shared opportunities and shared prosperity. We understand that if we hold back one section of our society, we hold back our nation.
Here, we have made good progress, but a gap remains. As a nation, we are more than comfortable uniting in celebration at the success of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, and in our love for the music of Emile Sande and Tinie Tempah.
But black success in other fields – in the City, in our Boardrooms, in medicine and science – too often goes unnoticed: role models like Thiam Tidjane, CEO at Prudential who has more than doubled the value of the company over the four years he has led it; or Mo Ibrahim who went from began as a BT engineer before founding Celtel International, now one of Africa’s leading mobile phone companies.
If I am wrong about this, why do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US before they can get decent film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes?
This matters if we are to inspire young black people. How can we give hope to the next generation if they cannot see people who look like them editing our newspapers, sitting on the Supreme Court or running our great British companies?
And it matters because – while we have made progress on racial inequalities – a gulf still remains. Non-white Britons are still twice as likely to be unemployed as a white person. Young black graduates earn, on average, only three quarters of what white graduates earn. Those with African-sounding surnames have to send twice as many job applications just to get an interview as those with traditional English names.
This should give pause for reflection for all who believe in an equal society. But the truth is that if we want to see future generations of black British people go on and do better than the last we cannot focus on race inequality alone. We must address issues of class and social mobility that are holding people – of all colours and identities – back.
I have worked hard to get where I have. But I have no doubt that I would have had to work far harder if I had not come from a middle class background. Our goal is not only to eradicate prejudice in all its forms, but to create a society where if you want to get on – to move from your flat into a house, to start your own business, to progress from the shop floor to the board room – you can.
This is still a long way from our country today. The government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recent report could not have been clearer about the challenge: Britain remains a deeply divided society and economic disadvantage still strongly shapes life’s opportunities.
Progress on social mobility has stalled and the Commission worries that it could go into reverse. Austerity is hitting the poorest hardest, long-term problems from the costs of childcare to the quality of school in many deprived areas remain.
That’s why I called for a debate in the House of Commons – on government time – on how together we address the challenges the Commission’s report laid out with brutal clarity.
Dr. King in another speech, in 1967, spoke about how “tomorrow is today” – of the “fierce urgency of now” in addressing the problems of his day with “vigorous and positive action”. As a nation we will hold ourselves back if we put off until tomorrow the challenges to face today: of the stereotypes that constrain, of racial inequalities that persist, and if we limit opportunities for whole sections of our society based on nothing better than an accident of birth.