April 27, 2014 7:25 pm

Seeking to define voters by their skin colour is sophistry

The idea there is a black ‘community’ in Britain is both wrong and dangerous, says Ken Olisa

When I was growing up in Nottingham in the 1950s and 1960s, politics was easy. People held views about society forged in the second world war. The workers were Labour, the middle class were Conservative and elections were won or lost based on the power of the issues of the day to draw voters to the polls. No more.

As Ed Miliband’s appointment of David Axelrod as an election adviser reminds us, 21st-century elections are no longer about ideas and causes: they are about marketing. Calibrate the demographics, follow the focus groups and deploy slogans aimed at the voters’ visceral core.

A recent arrival at the cynics’ ball is a report from think-tank Demos predicting that “ethnic minority voters” will take to the Tories rather than adopt their “parents’ reflex support for Labour” as they migrate into mainly white neighbourhoods.

Nonsense. The son of a Nigerian law student and his English wife, I have 60-plus years’ experience of being black in the UK. And that experience confirms that it is wrong to talk about a community of “black” British voters. A community is a group of people bound by common values and leadership. Black Britons share neither.

There is one characteristic I share with the child of Jamaican immigrants who sailed here on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Equally, a Muslim child refugee recently arrived from Somalia shares only one feature with the third-generation black child at the next desk. This singular commonality is that some people (black and white) think we have something in common.

The idea that there is a black “community” in Britain is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because being black indicates a shared physical feature but little else. Like people taller than 6ft 6in or born with a heart murmur, we share physical characteristics but lack common culture, values or leadership. It is dangerous because those who think being black is a predictor of behaviour are pandering to a stereotypical analysis, not an evidence-based one. For stereotypical, read prejudiced and thus dangerous.

Of course, the idea that voters cannot be defined by a feature as permanent as it is superficial – skin colour – is irksome to pollsters and political leaders alike. It is resisted by many black citizens, too. In many years of public speaking, I have been booed only twice: both times upon pointing out that, in an inclusive society such as ours, seeking to define oneself by colour plays into the hands of those who would suppress us – it reinforces exclusion and victimhood. The hostility came from two quarters: those who believe being part of a downtrodden underclass explains their lack of achievement and justifies a collective sense of victimhood; and those who would like to be anointed leaders of this imaginary community.

Those who think being black is a predictor of behaviour are pandering to a stereotypical analysis, not an evidence-based one

My hecklers confused being black and British with being black and American. Across the Atlantic, African-American culture revels in tracing its roots back to slavery’s injustices. Here, things are different. The annual Powerlist catalogues the UK’s 100 most influential black people: leading doctors, lawyers, scientists, civil servants, business people, academics. All are high achievers who live where they want in a free country – and their political views are likely to be formed by arguments, not by their postcode.

The idea that black people change their political allegiance when they move to “white” neighbourhoods is offensive both to blacks and non-blacks. It is also anthropological sophistry. Unlike the US, we do not define our districts by colour any more than we do by religion. I live in a neighbourhood populated exclusively by people of African heritage not by choice but because our planet is populated exclusively by people of African heritage. As I learnt at Cambridge, Darwin’s Descent of Man presents a compelling case that the origin of the human species is planted in that continent.

It is a shame that contemporary politics have drifted so far from their postwar high. I think I am normal – not black – in wanting to be inspired by arguments based on principles proposed by politicians who believe in what they are saying. It is patronising in the extreme for marketing men to discount my intelligence by lumping me into a predictive demographic whose principal unifying characteristic is a propensity to buy hair-straightening products.

The writer is chairman of Restoration Partners


Letter in response to this article:

Ethno-cultural influences matter / From Mr Trevor Phillips and Mr Richard Webber

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in