Why Care About Having a Black Prime Minister?
These are not the views of the BBC. Dr Faiza Shaheen is an independent researcher and views expressed here are her own.
Back in 2009, on the day of President Obama's inauguration, I found myself in an African American community centre in Harlem, New York. I will never forget the tear-filled eyes and smiling faces of the elderly black people in the room. The look on their faces was one of disbelief and pure joy. For many, Obama’s election was symbolic of profound change and of equality. Fast-forward eight years and I've been calculating the odds of us ever having a black prime minister. But, after a racially charged US election, I’m questioning whether having a black prime minister would demonstrate progress on equality. When it comes to race equality, what should we be aiming for?
Birmingham born Hollywood actor David Harewood presents the show, ‘Will Britain ever have a Black Prime Minister?’ – tracking how a black person born in similar socio-economic circumstances to his would be able to make it to the country’s top job. I’m the geek running through some of the numbers – which raise a lot of questions. Why is it that black children are almost twice as likely to be as poor as white children? Why do the exam scores of black pupils improve so significantly when their exam papers are made anonymous and marked by strangers? Why does Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge universities) still have so few black students? It’s been some years since I’ve looked at race equality statistics in real depth, and I was shocked by some of what I found. After watching the show, I doubt that many will think that racial discrimination is a thing of the past.
But then there is the other side of the story. While working out the probabilities of black people making their way towards becoming prime minister, I also had to look at the life paths of previous prime ministers. The typical route to becoming prime minister includes being born into a relatively affluent family, attending a good school (often private), going to Oxbridge, getting a top professional job and entering politics, making your way up through the political rungs and then getting elected as the prime minister. Three quarters of all our prime ministers went to either Oxford or Cambridge – including Theresa May, David Cameron and Tony Blair.
It's when you consider this path that you start to understand why it is that black people are less likely to become prime minister, or indeed get to the top of any profession. The proportion of black pupils who get three As at A-Level is just 4 per cent, compared to 10 per cent for their white counterparts. In 2014, only 2.5 per cent of UK students entering the University of Oxford were black, still painfully below the representative target of 4 per cent. I was surprised that the numbers still look similar to when I attended Oxford a decade ago.
So, is the answer just making sure more black people go to Oxbridge? Maybe, but only in the short-term. We must work to ensure our political system is less elitist and address the root causes of racial disadvantage - namely, the underlying economic drivers of poverty and discrimination.
We found that alongside issues of poverty, black children face discrimination from a very young age, with exclusion rates already relatively high at nursery school age. And no, it isn't because black children are less well behaved. As you will see in the programme, black people face negative stereotyping from day one.
In a perfect world, the ethnicity or gender of our prime minister wouldn’t be anything to celebrate. That’s because in a perfect world the odds – male or female, black or white, born rich or poor - would be even. Instead, I found that a state educated white child is 12 times more likely - and a privately educated white child 90 times more likely - to become prime minister than a black child. That’s a significant difference.
Ultimately, the odds of different ethnic groups becoming prime minister acts as litmus test for how our society is working, and who it’s working for. The higher hurdles a black child will face on the path to becoming prime minister, especially when compared to a privately educated white child, highlights differences in life chances.
Given the odds, any black individual who made it would have to be a truly exceptional person, and probably have had a bit of good luck along the way. Yes, Chuka Umanna could make it, and has come closest, but at least one of the obstacles was removed because his parents were able to send him to private school. Perhaps not coincidently, this was also the case for President Obama.
I’d love to see a black prime minister, but let's make sure it's because all children have a better start in life rather than a matter of serendipity or wealth. When it comes to equality, we should be aiming to reduce barriers to a decent standard of living and eradicating racial bias, not just pinning our hopes on one person defying the odds.