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30 years of Black History Month: It’s a British story – but we have far to go

October 2017 marks 30 years of Black History Month in the UK, but where do those of black heritage fit in with British culture and business?
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Not only is the gender debate rife in UK business, the diversity discussion also needs attention. So, with Black History Month upon us, we’re observing the back-story of the initiative and where progress of African and Caribbean culture in Britain is today.

Explaining in its own words the creation of Black History Month, the organisation behind it says: “Our Story is the story of individuals and peoples of African origin, classified as ‘Blacks’, and their contributions to the development and growth of civilisations from antiquity to the present.

“And in the specific case of Britain, our Black History Month UK is our stories as chronicled and retold of our seminal achievements and innovative contributions to the social, political and cultural development and well-being of the United Kingdom.”

Launched 30 years ago in Britain – and in 1926 in the US – Black History Month will have witnessed a great many changes in that time. As such, the initiative claims it was “refashioned” and given teeth to have an impact on society, as well as race and equality acts.

A report from PwC indirectly highlighted the need for campaigns such as Black History Month in September, with some alarming findings from an internal study.

The professional services firm declared salaries of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers are significantly lower than the pay received by peers.

Indeed, the pay is 12.4 per cent lower for BAME staff, which spikes to a 35.4 per cent gap where bonuses are concerned. The big question here is: why?

In attempt to clear up the matter, Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PwC, compared the racial pay gap to the gender pay gap and suggested it should be tackled in the same way.

“While progress has been made, many barriers still exist in today’s businesses which means people aren’t able to reach their full potential,” he said.

“The more we understand what these barriers are and why they exist, the quicker we’ll be able to work towards creating truly inclusive organisations.”

The pay gap is caused by the fact more BAME staff are in junior roles, compared to non-BAME staff in higher paid positions.

“While our analysis shows that we pay our BAME and non-BAME employees equally for doing equivalent jobs, it does reveal that we have an imbalance at the senior levels of our business,” continued Ellis.

“Our priority is to do all we can to retain our junior BAME talent and improve rates of progression to senior management levels. We’re aiming to achieve this through stronger accountability across our business to deliver our gender and ethnicity targets, monitoring our pipelines on a more regular basis and making sure that all of our people can benefit from the most stretching of client engagements.

“We are also talking to our BAME employees to understand their sense of working at PwC to see if there are any barriers we can address.”

Whether PwC has any plans to champion Black History Month remains to be seen, but several prominent political figures have spoken of their support for the campaign.

London mayor Sadiq Khan, an individual who would fall into the BAME category, said: “Black History Month gives us an opportunity to celebrate the huge contribution black people have made and continue to make. This history is not simply a ‘black story’, but a British story.”

Elsewhere, prime minister Theresa May said: “As we mark the 30th anniversary of Black History Month, it is right to look back with pride on the progress that has been made in taking on racism and discrimination.

“But I am also clear just how far we have to go, not just in rooting out hatred and prejudice from our society, but in tackling injustices that still hold back too many people in our country today.”

Shortly after her appointment once David Cameron relinquished power and May was named his successor, she embarked on creating a Race Disparity Audit, which was finally published on 10 October. This was designed to showcase the imbalance of diversity across the public sector.

“As prime minister I make no apology for exposing these truths. I believe it is my duty to shine a light on these injustices and I want to lead a national effort to address them so that Britain can truly become a country that works for everyone,” she said.

“That is my pledge this Black History Month and I hope you will work with me to make it a reality.”

The study claimed the UK’s diversity has grown. Those categorised as white British in England and Wales fell between 2001 and 2011, from 87.4 per cent to 80.5 per cent. Meanwhile, 87 per cent of the population were born in the UK, with just 13 per cent born overseas.

With 98 per cent of white British people born in the UK, additional findings showed 94 per cent those from a mixed white and black Caribbean background were also born here.

As for employment, rates are said to have risen for all ethnic groups, and yet there is still a gulf. One in ten BAME adults is unemployed, versus one in 25 for white British adults, the audit revealed.

During her speech at an audit assembly, May said: “What we’re publishing today, I think, is data that fills a glaring gap, by analysing how a person’s ethnicity affects their experience in public services and how that affects their lives. And that holds a mirror up to our society and I think establishes a new and permanent resource for our country.

“Overall the findings will be uncomfortable but it’s right that we’ve identified them, shone a light on them and we need to confront these issues that we have identified.

“So we are going to take action, for example in relation to the issue of unemployment for people from particular BAME communities we will be identifying hotspots where we will be putting particular extra work in to help people into the workplace.

“I think the message is very simple; if the disparities can’t be explained, they must be changed.”

Seemingly the launch of the audit alongside Black History Month was no coincidence, as May appears to be looking for optimum awareness. And awareness she has received, with many speaking out on the results.

The argument around Black History Month is that the history of black people falls to the wayside in classrooms, which may well be part of the issue, carrying on into the business world.

Then there are the naysayers who declare that Black History Month is more divisive than anything else.

Regardless, the audit data, and responses to it, speak for themselves – one way or another, it would seem that something needs to be done to address opportunities for black people in Britain.

Throughout October, Real Business will continue to look at other factors around Black History Month, so stay tuned to the discussion.

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the former deputy editor of Real Business. His areas of interest included media, innovation, technology and the digital sector.

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