Birmingham UK, like its namesake in Alabama, is a diverse city which likes to believe that all is well in inter-community relations. A recently conducted report on attitudes and its findings on the way that the city is segregated in residential patterns is yet another instance why the City’s leaders should stop being complacent.
Complacent? If you don’t agree then look again at a report from 2001 about the enquiry commissioned by the City Council itself. I was a member of this enquiry for which Judge Ray Singh was invited to preside. Members of the enquiry interviewed a range of individuals and representatives of community groups. A group of employees working for the City Council were also persuaded to speak out. I knew of their concerns because a number of them spoke to me about “the glass ceiling” they felt existed. The then Chief Executive and secretary to the enquiry, Sir Michael Lyons, felt that by interviewing employees personal grievances would be put forward. However the hearing went ahead, with employees insisting there should be no senior officers present and that the session should not be recorded as had happened elsewhere during the enquiry. This seemed to me an eloquent statement in itself!
Yesterday I took a trip to London. I was invited to a reception to celebrate the presentation of the Ambassador of the Republic of Guinea, Mr Lanana Keita’s Credentials Letter to the Queen. This took place at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. My friend and colleague Phil Murphy had visited Guinea on a number of occasions. I had been invited, but was unable to go last year. I did have the opportunity of meeting the President’s wife when she visited Birmingham. Phil has persuaded a number of people to make links and encourage trade with Guinea. Two things Phil noted were its absorption of half a million refugees from neighbouring countries, even though Guinea itself is extremely poor. Secondly the country voted at the United Nations against going to war in Iraq.
Birmingham has so many opportunities to address the dangerous inter-ethnic tensions that exist because of post-colonial attitudes. The problem is that window-dressing is the main reaction to the situation. While I was a member of the Birmingham Lawrence enquiry I resigned before the presentation of its findings. Not because I felt that Judge Singh had produced a poor report, but because I knew that the report itself would be token and an excuse for inaction. This was view was vindicated to some extent by a review of the findings a year later. Ray Singh was even kind enough to invite me to make a comment. This further report noted that there had been little done to implement recommendations of the previous year. As in the original Lawrence Enquiry the term “Institutional Racism” was used, but this was never defined. This is curious since while conclusions are that many organisations providing key services are seen to be operating in ways which fail to serve the needs of black and minority ethnic groups, the underlying causes remain obscure in those successive reports.
My personal experience of working in Birmingham, in eduation from 1968 until 1992, setting up Vital Link Educational, serving in local government and now attempting to set up a health project, leads me to conclude that rhetoric serves to obscure reality of many citizens. It is time to restate that experience.