Great Britain is celebrating its Black History Month against a backdrop of racial tension.
"I've never known it so tough … It's bad right now," says Simon Woolley, 48, who is a member of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Recent numbers released by the Commission show blacks in Britain are over-represented among the number of individuals stopped and searched by police from 2008 to 2009. Even though they represent only 2-3 percent of the populace, blacks account for 15 percent of those police stopped and frisked.
"Young African and Caribbean men are seen as criminals," says Woolley. "Young Asians are seen as potential terrorists."
Not surprisingly, black Britons have little confidence in the criminal justice system. What is surprising is that only 7 percent of blacks complained they were treated unfairly by police, compared with a dramatically higher 63 percent of whites.
Help From A U.S. Civil Rights Icon
All of this has led the Rev. Jesse Jackson to set up shop in the U.K. with a new organization, StopWatch, aimed at putting an end to racial profiling.
Jackson told the British Broadcasting Corporation, "The very idea that somebody — because they look suspicious, because they look black, look Asian — should be detained, that's distasteful and undermines the freedoms and beauty of democracy."
And tough economic times haven't helped.
"As we face a global recession, blacks are again facing a difficult time," says Woolley, adding that 50 percent of black 18 to 25-year-olds are out of work, compared with 25 percent of whites of the same age group.
But Alice Gbelia, 33, lives in London and is founding editor of the website Catch A Vibe, which highlights black culture in the U.K. She says racial tensions aren't that bad.
"The U.K. seems to be quite progressive when it comes to race relations," says Gbelia, who moved to London from France eight years ago. "Sometimes you meet [black] people here that are only complaining about their obstacles."
And Woolley, who is also director of Britain's Operation Black Vote, admits progress has been made, referring to recent elections in May. "We've [just] seen a 50 percent increase in black politicians," says Woolley.
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The Evening Standard, along with other London newspapers, reported heavily on the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president. Many Britons of color were inspired by Obama's historic win.
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He adds that blacks in Britain applaud progress made by black Americans with the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president in 2008.
"The power to deliver social and racial equality only occurs when you have political and financial power," Woolley says.
Still Much To Celebrate
Blacks in Britain wear their pride, especially in October. Since 1987, Britons have celebrated the influences of African and Caribbean people to the larger British society.
Tricia Clark, 36, is a journalist who grew up in the U.K., where she lived for 30 years before moving to the U.S.
"I certainly wasn't taught anything about black history when I attended school," she says.
But times have changed.
She says British black history commemorations are vast and range "from celebrations of black British culture in art galleries to bridal fairs for brides of color."
There's Nollywood Now!, a London festival of Nigerian film. And Black History Month is also high time for London's black music scene, with no shortage of venues to celebrate popular Reggae, African Hi-life and Calypso genres, to name a few.
"In recent years, the month has focused just as heavily on promoting fresh new talent, showcasing diverse artists, musicians, [and] authors as well as celebrating the historical achievements of blacks in the U.K," says Clark.
And there are a number of British black firsts.
There is Trevor McDonald, a renowned journalist who became the first black television reporter in the U.K. in 1973 (for the Independent Television News network or ITN), and Tessa Sanderson, the first British black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 1984. Also, politician Diane Abbott made history in 1983 when she became the first black woman elected to the British Parliament.
The list goes on, and so does the celebration.
But given the economic downturn, Black History Month festivities (many of which are publicly funded) have drawn scrutiny.
"Why is there a special need for black history?," Woolley says people ask. "Aren't we just one history?"
No Place Like The U.K.
Still, Woolley, who was born in London to Caribbean parents, says there's no place he'd rather be. But the fight for black social progress continues.
He says, "There's no better place to live in a multi cultural metropolis. Nevertheless, these persistent inequalities are frustrating."