"Mobilising The Black Vote" - A Debate

As (hopefully) all of you know, the month of October in the UK is “Black History Month”. Black History Month is celebrated internationally – in Canada and the US it is celebrated in February, while here in the UK, as well as in the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, it is celebrated in this lovely festive month of October. A month designated to the importance of black history was originally created as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of African diaspora and today remains a site of importance, controversy, but also celebration.

As a way of acknowledging my support and interest in this significant month of celebration, I attended one of the many events held at the University of Leeds. This event was called: “Give and Take: Mobilising the Black Vote”. I stumbled upon this event through Facebook (of course) where it was described as “a panel discussion on the importance of the black vote and its current situation”. As I am currently studying a lot of post-colonial theory as well as migrant theory, I thought this would kill two birds with one stone: hopefully I would learn something that I could apply to my course, but more importantly, I could enhance my understanding and show my support for the current political climate for the BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) community.

Upon arrival I saw a panel comprised of six speakers (and one presenter) who were quickly introduced to the audience as: Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), Patrick Vernon OBE, Abigail Marshall, Richard Tavernier (form the Racial Justice Network), Serene Esuruoso (Education Officer and Leeds University Union), and Tamsin Scott (Equality and Diversity Officer at Leeds University Union). The idea of the event was that the presenter would raise a topic question and each member of the panel would give their opinion. Needless to say this led to some interesting facts, but also some heated debate and heartfelt speeches.

It is here where I feel I need to pause and make a slight disclaimer that a lot of the speakers here are political activists and clearly have strong views on certain subjects. These are not necessarily the views of Her Campus or myself, however I thought it essential to highlight and draw attention to some of these key issues which, inevitably, not everyone reading this will be aware of.

At this event, many facts where given concerning BME rights, especially in education. The statistic that personally I found most shocking, and therefore would like to dedicate the remainder of this article to, was that in education today BME students make up 8% of the population, however in Russell Group Universities (University of Leeds, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Durham University, University of Liverpool, University of Southampton – among 22 others) this BME student population falls to 4%! The question asked following this statement was a) why? And b) what effects does this have?

One speaker was adamant that this was due to the fact that the Russell Group has fabricated this perception of an “elite” group: there is a particular type of student that they want to receive their “specialist” education. This speaker said that the Russell Group are all about playing a numbers game, that they need a certain amount of BME students to fulfill a quota, and once they have reached this minimum, they do not feel the need or desire to accept any more students with this background. The speechmaker finished by saying that he thought in merely ticking these boxes and keeping the percentage of BME students and staff at a low percentage, the universities of this “elite” group were “missing out on some incredible talent.”

The next speaker continued along this same vein, adding to my rapidly declining loss of faith in humanity. He started on a positive: there has been growth in this area. But he continued to state that no matter how much work these universities put in to meet quotas and have a fairer representation of the BME community, the work environment and the attainment gap still hasn’t changed. He proceeded to tell stories of his friends who have done all the right things: worked hard, ticked all the boxes, got degrees/masters'/PHDs and still cannot find a job. Despite living in a country which advocates and celebrates Black History Month, educated members of the BME community find themselves having to go to America or the Caribbean and volunteer to even get a teaching opportunity. The overall opinion was that there is something inherently wrong with a system that allows (and encourages) you to go through all the motions of working hard, promises you a bright future as a student or an academic, and then once you have jumped through all these hoops, turns around and slams a door in your face (excuse the mixed metaphors). He ended with the inspirational statement that more pressure must be put on Russell Group Universities, as well as other institutions, to right this wrong. This was received with a sincere “WHOOP” and round of applause from the attentive audience.

The final speaker on this topic left the audience with some heart-wrenching and alarming facts that I’d like to pass on to you all:

  • London Metropolitan University has more BME students than there are in the entire Russell Group student population.
  • BME people are more likely than white people to go to university, however upon reaching academia and further education beyond university, this statistic drops by a half.
  • There are merely 54 female BME professors across the UK .
  • Only 0.5% of all professors across the United Kingdom are black.
  • Black people are still 8x more likely to get Stopped and Searched by police.
  • There are 7,000 less black graduates to their white counterparts.

While I cannot account for the opinions given in relation to this topic, the facts speak for themselves. In a time when we are supposedly celebrating Black History, we should also be turning towards the present, but more importantly the future and questioning what is being done. One woman, who was a guest at the Give and Take, summarised this beautifully. She stated: if we are still celebrating “the first black person to…”, then we haven't progressed as much as we think. While these new opportunities of course show progress, the "first black [enter job here]" remains a minority in their field - their voice will not be altogether heard or represented. So, and this is a question we should all be asking ourselves, what can we do next? What can we do to progress beyond this environment of (to use this inspiring speaker’s word) “tokenism” and invest in an unprejudiced future that will be truly equal?



[Disclaimer: All views in this article were those of the speakers at the event and not those of Her Campus. There are always two sides of a coin and counterarguments could be posed in opposition to these opinions. I am merely reporting on the discussion that took place at the event on Tuesday 16th October 2018, and the thoughts/feelings it provoked for me personally.]