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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Trying to make it: some random thoughts on British immigration.

A young cousin of mine, living in England, is now embarking on a career as a banker. He made me think about some of my past career in The City of London, the heart of much of the world's financial dealings, but also about immigration and race.

I never had any notion that as a black immigrant I could not succeed in England. I did what I wanted, took my education seriously, went to university and then needed to embark on "a career". Most things I tried worked out well, in sport, education, and then work. My very first job offer when I left university was to work as a management trainee on the domestic side for, Lloyds, one of the major English banks. I turned it down because I really wanted to work for their international side. But I always think about whether I would have become one of the very first black bank branch managers in England.

I could not decide what to do, so did a masters course at universtity, then worked as a transport economist in rural north Wales, where I saw that a Welsh speaking black man (me) could get better treatment than a white Englishman! I then got a job as an economist at the Bank of England. When I started work there in the early 1980s, I was one of about one black professionals. Black male professional faces in The City were very few; more black faces appeared in the ranks of ancilliaries (janitors, porters, messengers) and also secretaries and administrative staff. Feeling some sense of isolation, however, I started an association of black financial professionals in The City, and we met monthly and shared experiences and tried to do the network thing. I was good support at the time.

Black Caribbean immigrants and their offspring have had an interesting history in England, since the early waves of arrivals on The Windrush, and are still trying to make it in more fields, and to seem less limited in terms of presence in fields outside sport and music.

The rarity of black financial professionals is now much less, and with the international nature of finance in London more black professionals appeared, in part from US banks. It's great when I watch Bloomberg TV that one of their favourite pundits is a black British-Caribbean economist and currency strategist, Trevor Williams, who was an academic and civil servant but now is chief economist for Lloyds TSB Corporate Markets. (Good of me to have left him that space with my earlier career decision.)

Just for my information, I asked my cousin to give me his impressions as a young, smart, black man trying to make it in England. Here are his thoughts:

I am a young black man, and I think I have a good future. I was born in London, so was my mother, but her mother was from Jamaica and came to London in the 1950s to work as a nurse. My father was born in Ghana and came to England as a boy. So, like Obama is a real African-American, I am a real Afro-Caribbean.

I had a great start because at one time I had a scholarship to one of the best independent schools in London. Then my parents broke up. Money was tight and the scholarship money had finished. They could not continue to pay for me to stay at that school. So, I moved from there and managed to finish my studies at a college. After I left I was given my first job, as a trainee with one of the English retail banks (could be Barclays, or Lloyds, or National Westminster, but I am not saying).

My position in the bank is not high enough yet for me to give a fair and accurate perspective on how black men are really doing. But I can tell you what I observe. In general, I would say that black men aren't doing too bad for themselves. I have managed to observe a few branches in The City and in Baker Street, Marble Arch, Sloane Square, and Westminster. I have met the area and regional managers and they are all black. So I was very impressed with that discovery.

I would say that the environment that I am in is pretty even-handed in its treatment of blacks and whites. I work in "retail banking", which is dealing with a lot of personal customers. Things may be different in other areas of banking such as corporate and investment banking. I hope to break into one of these at some point.

Racial equality is a thorny issue--a great understatement. Britain has some peculiar problems to deal with in that regard. Most immigrants are not black, they just happen to be the most easy to identify in an environment where most people are white. Britain, mainly London, but also the major metropolitan areas of Birmingham/West Midlands, and Lancashire and Yorkshire (such as Manchester and Leeds), became a haven for displaced Commonwealth people, and has seen waves of mass immigration in the past 50 years.

A wave of Caribbean migration came in the 1950s and 1960s. Then a large influx of Cyrpiots, when ethnic conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the mid-1960s to 1970s, led many Turks and Greeks on the island of Cyrpus to leave. and seek refuge in England. Idi Amin put the fear of God into many professionals and merchants of Indian origin in Uganda, and another wave of migrants began to flow in the early 1970s. Irish migrants have sought to escape "the troubles" in northern Ireland. Most migrants are now coming from east and central Europe, either as refugees (say from Serbia) or as the European Community liberalises the flow of workers (so most times now when I visit London I need to understand a Polish or Latvian accent to get served a beer or have some work done).

The organization set up in Britain to deal with racial inequalities, The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is chaired by Trevor Phillips--a contemporary of mine at university, who was born in Britain in the mid-1950s of Guyanes parents, and became a Labour Party politician and political journalist. But even the EHRC has its problems, and failed to implement an overarching equality scheme, setting out its position for its staff on race, gender, disability and other potential areas of discrimination (see report in The Times).

The EHRC has said recently that lack of control over immigration has led to a racial “cold war” among rival ethnic communities. Mr. Phillips believes that the failed policy risks inflaming racism among millions of young mothers and working professionals. He laid out a plan for managed migration and and said that people should not be intimidated from making legitimate criticism of ethnic minorities.

Britain, like many nations, has grown from an influx of foreigners (Danes, Romans, Normans, Frenchmen, etc.) and is still full of foreigners. For the modern Britain there is now a fascinating interactive map of the racial diversity in some 30 British cities (see link). What a project it would be to do an historical trace of some of the earlier immigrants.

My thoughts are shaping up so I am offering no conclusions, just a few stepping stones.

2 comments:

Té la mà Maria - Reus said...

very good blog, congratulations
regard from Catalonia Spain
thank you

Alana said...

Hi, How are you? It's Alana, Paula's daughter. I am finally getting a chance to catch up and read your blog and I am enjoying it thus far. I especially like this post. It gives very detailed background information and an interseting perspective.

I hope all is well. Give Rihan my love.

Alana