Britain needs its own plan of affirmative action to stamp out generations of racial injustice and to stop the gap getting even worse, the veteran American civil rights leader the Rev Jesse Jackson has said.
Jackson is touring Britain to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech about racial justice in the US, which inspired people around the world and galvanised opinion to end segregation.
Jackson told the Guardian that successive British governments have failed to stamp out racial discrimination, meaning ethnic minorities have been denied justice.
He dismissed claims that enough people can succeed on their own merit without additional government measures to overcome historical disadvantages. Jackson said Britain needed its own affirmative action plan to overcome disadvantages passed down the generations such as lack of access to capital and being locked out of centres of power.
Affirmative action in the US is credited with boosting the numbers of ethnic minorities employed in key sectors, but UK law would outlaw positive discrimination.
Jackson worked with King, and ran twice, in 1984 and 1988, to become the first African-American president of the US.
He said ethnic minorities in Britain were “free but locked out” of power and a fair society: “For people to finally get free, there must be some plan to close that gap. Here there is no plan to close the gap.
“There must be a structure to let you in, just as there was a structure to lock you out.”
Jackson said that David Cameron and the next prime minister must develop a plan to combat racial injustice: “Effort and excellence is very important. Inheritance and access is even more important.
“The disparity is not a natural order, it is a social order, and it’s an unjust social order.”
Jackson pointed to sports, where he said black people do very well because the rules are clear and what counts as success is objectively measured, meaning achievement cannot be hampered by racial biases: “We are doing well. Even those who are deprived know what the rules are – they are not subjective.
“Playing field even, rules public, goals clear, referees fair, scores transparent. We can make it, we can do very well.”
He said it was in the national interest of the UK to “make room for those locked out”.
“We did not know how good baseball could be until everybody could play. We do not know how great Great Britain can be until everybody can function to their full potential. You have many of your key players who cannot actualise their potential.”
One of Jackson’s key themes in his UK tour has been to urge voter registration among those ethnic minority groups where the figure is low.
This has become even more potentially crucial because of a radical demographic shift meaning that Britain’s ethnic minority vote may determine the outcome of the 2015 election.
A study by the cross-party group Operation Black Vote found that the number of seats where black and Asian voters could decide the outcome had rocketed by 70% compared with the 2010 election.
The study suggests that in 168 marginal seats, the ethnic minority vote is bigger than the majority of the sitting MP.
Jackson said that potential new electoral power should be used by ethnic minority Britons to close the racial justice gap: “It must use that leverage not just to get in, but to make demands for justice.”
He said that Britain’s police are still institutionally racist, despite the claims by police chiefs that they have reformed. Jackson said policies such as stop and search, which disproportionately targets black people, are evidence of continuing discrimination.
He said stop and search amounted to racial profiling, and should be renamed “stop and humiliate”, and that racial bias saps Britain’s moral authority.
“They have not changed substantially. There is no substantial move to make the police look like the population.”
Jackson said the moral authority of the US had been damaged by the eavesdropping and spying on people not even suspected of any wrongdoing by intelligence agencies, revealed by the Guardian after testimony from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Jackson said: “The scale and scope of the searching weakens our moral authority … I hope the large-scale spying will stop.”
He said such intrusion was not necessary to protect US national security against the terrorist threat of attack, and needed to be smaller and more targeted.
Jackson said the US did not have the moral right to eavesdrop on the world and that the US’s history showed that people such as Dr King had been subject to extraordinary measures by the state. He called for proper checks to be put in place.
Jackson also said that such issues, which some claim are too sensitive to openly discuss, should be debated: “Debate protects the substance of democracy.”
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