Could a Person of Color from an Immigrant Family Be Elected in Europe?

Election '08

Nobody quite remembers the first name of that relative of Colin Powell. Or his second, for that matter.

Their families had left Jamaica about the same time. Colin Powell's moved to the U.S., the other to Britain. Colin Powell retired as U.S. secretary of state, the other as a bus conductor.

On his last visit to Britain, former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked, politely, whether he thought Britain could give a black man the opportunities that the U.S. had given to him. Just as politely, Powell said he thought not.

And now that Barack Obama has been elected U.S. president, a question is being whispered around among the black and other minority groups in Britain and elsewhere in Europe: can a black man move into 10 Downing Street in the foreseeable future? Or the Elysee Palace? Or someone of Turkish origin become the Chancellor in Germany? Everyone thinks No, and no one is particularly polite about it.

The Germans were happy to turn up and listen to Obama and to applaud him. But somehow very few think of making that connection between the sort of person the U.S. elects, and the sort that Germany, or France, or any other European country might.

Europe in fact appears headed in quite the opposite direction. "There is quite a great deal of hostility in Europe against immigrants at the moment," Prof. Daniel Joly, director of the Center for Research in Ethnic Relations at Warwick University tells IPS. "This has built up over many years -- also as a result of politicians' discourse which has been very negative regarding immigrants."

And it doesn't stop with immigrants, she says. "Unfortunately, this also affects people who are not immigrants, who are children or grandchildren of immigrants that are taken within the same wave of hostility. This is the general climate in countries like France, Germany and Britain at the moment."

Europe seems to offer neither popular nor political acceptability to someone from the minorities, says Joly. "In France there are no people of black immigrant origin who are MPs or who have any post of any significance in the parties. So I don't see how they could rise.

"In France it's not much easier than in Britain, because of the way the system is structured but probably because political parties at the moment in France have not integrated people of immigrant origin. They even find it very difficult to integrate women; there is a very small percentage of women who have positions in parties, and certainly a very small percentage who have MP positions."

So whether a president is elected directly, as in France, or a prime minister by an elected college as in Britain, neither offers room for a black person at the top -- or even to a thought there may be one.

In Britain, the Powell cousin would count himself fortunate just to last a career on the public buses without being abused or assaulted. Because while the U.S. elects Obama, Britain's black community is struggling to look for basic rights in jobs, education, housing, health care...the list is as long as the list of things anyone could possibly be doing.

As recession envelops the European economy faster than anyone anticipated, fears have deepened that the environment for the minorities will actually get much worse now. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, warned this week that anti-immigrant sentiment may rise in such an environment.

"In what is to come, the best defense against prejudice against immigrants will be to make those who resent them competitive, to give them a place in society," he said. "We may need to do so with the sort of special measures we've previously targeted at ethnic minorities."

Philips added: "What we are seeing is that there is a whole group of people, a large proportion of whom are white, who are going to suffer from this crisis who are going to be the people we should want to help, particularly because they come from the wrong side of town. We are going to have to do something special for them. We are going to have to put extra resources where young people can't compete with migrants' skills."

Lasting the day in Europe as a non-white person is a struggle for far too many. Almost routinely now, one after another police officer in Britain who is from the minorities -- and the police are meant to ensure safety and decency for all -- has been complaining of racial discrimination. And new research from the Sainsburys Center for Mental Health (SCMH) shows that many black people are deeply disturbed by the environment, and in a double blow, do not then get the medical help they need.

People with mental disturbances face major barriers to getting and keeping jobs, a report from the center says. "For black people these barriers can be especially hard to overcome. Mental health and employment services need to be able to respond positively to this challenge and offer targeted support where it is needed," says Dr Bob Grove, director of employment at the Sainsbury Center.

Currently 63 percent of black people in Britain are in employment compared to 72 percent of white people, with research showing that since 2005 rates of employment amongst black people remain about 10 percent lower than the national average.

And in the week where Obama's election was being celebrated, another report in Britain showed that black Caribbean pupils are being subjected to institutional racism in English schools which can dramatically undermine their chances of academic success.

The research shows that teachers are routinely under-estimating the abilities of some black pupils. The findings, based on a University of Warwick survey which tracked 15,000 pupils through their education, are in line with a general perception that low achievement among some black students is made worse because teachers don't expect them to succeed.

Countless black people in the U.S. doubtless face segregation, discrimination and the usual. But the U.S. has witnessed a huge revolution of the possible; Europe is a long way from it, and not many believe it will ever come.

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