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Symbolism or Substance?

6 min read

If ‘levelling up’ is to make a tangible difference to deprived communities, the focus must be on hard progress and economic advancement not token gestures, writes Nels Abbey.

Green Lanes – a north London artery that stretches 6.3 miles from Newington Green in Hackney and Islington all the way to Winchmore Hill in Enfield – has many a story to tell and many a dark secret to keep.

Perhaps the most fascinating section of this bustling route runs from Wood Green station through Turnpike Lane right the way up to Manor House – all in the London borough of Haringey.

This segment is covered by an interesting mismatch of commercial activity and amenities: Tube stations; train stations; Turkish restaurants; grocery stores; cake shops (with the best baklava in London); barbershops; Vietnamese nail bars, the mighty Baldwins Butchers, alongside a range of, to my mind, obvious money-laundering fronts; a high street with a perversely charming lack of high-street brands; a shopping mall practically begging to be demolished; a truly unbelievable number of betting shops; fried chicken outlets; the occasional organic café; the vast green spaces of Finsbury Park; and more.

It also serves another role – as a red line; a Jim Crow-style demarcation of unofficial yet brutal segregation. To the west of much of Haringey’s stretch of Green Lanes are some of London’s wealthiest (and whitest) areas: the leafy streets of Crouch End, Muswell Hill, Highgate – home of the mythical “north London dinner party”.

To the east lie areas of deprivation that would rival the poorest parts of the country – Tottenham, Wood Green, Bruce Grove.

If you walk out of Wood Green station and make a right, you’ll see no more than seven betting shops serving the entire half of the borough. Residents here live, on average, five years longer than those who make a left as they exit the station, who, coincidentally, share their half of Haringey with 57 betting shops and the crime and anti-social behaviour associated with them.

Thanks to the hard work of successive local councils, London mayoral initiatives dating back decades, and super-heads and dedicated teachers, the local primary and secondary schools in Haringey are all (bar one) rated “good” or “outstanding”.

However, a 2015 report into school segregation by the Demos thinktank revealed that Haringey was one of the worst areas in the country for racial segregation in schools – indeed, the only London borough in the top 10 outside the North and the Midlands.

When I was a fresh-faced 20-something banker in the City of London, my old boss – a working-class man of metaphors (who effortlessly ensured his team was diverse and empowered) – would tell us “not to worry about the colour of the curtains when the house is on fire”. It was his slick way of saying we have much bigger problems to worry about and must prioritise appropriately.

I thought of this recently when it was announced that Black Boy Lane in Tottenham (deprived Haringey) was going to be renamed in order to “reflect diversity”. Though the announcement was welcome and the effort appreciated, it made me question why, given all the substantive deprivation-related issues facing the area, so much energy was being pumped into a largely symbolic issue.

Too often, movements towards equality are struggles between those eager to focus on symbolic advancement via the abolishment of unedifying iconography, or the aggrandisement of the first minority so-and-so (even though said person may not help other minorities; in fact, may make things much worse), and those focused on substantive hard progress, principally rooted in economic advancement.

For Black people, especially African Americans, this was an issue to meet head-on between 2009 and 2016 – the Barack Obama years. Often behind closed doors, there were whispers the concept of the first Black president appeared little more than a symbolic victory. It looked absolutely fantastically beautiful – a Black man with a Black family in the White House – but how much difference had it made to the lived experience of the overwhelming majority of Black people?

It didn’t help close the racial wealth gap, the employment gap or the educational attainment gap. It didn’t abolish mass incarceration. It didn’t spell the end of benign neglect.

For continental Africans, the Obama years were in large part disastrous. The Obama-David Cameron-Nicolas Sarkozy invasion of Libya inadvertently reintroduced literal Antebellum-style slave auctions of Black Africans in Libya, the cascading of weapons across the continent (often falling into the hands of terror groups), and a refugee crisis that has further cheapened the lives of Africans.

But the deeply alluring symbolic power of a Black president of the United States was just too much to resist… right?

I was working at the BBC when Obama was leaving office – to largely unquestioning fanfare. In light of what made Obama unique, I developed an idea to host an all-Black debate focusing on the Obama years. We invited the pinnacle of Black intellectual tradition from across the diaspora (prominent African Americans, Black Brits, African-Caribbean people, continental Africans – including Ben Okri, Afua Hirsch, Joseph Harker, Eddie S Glaude, Esther Stanford-Xosei, Kehinde Andrews and more) to debate the impact of Obama’s presidency. The giant of journalism that is Clive Myrie took the reins as host. At the close of the debate, the audience was invited to vote: were the Obama years a victory for symbolism or substance? In a truly electrifying moment the audience, largely made up of Black professionals (Obama’s natural base), voted that it was indeed a symbolic victory and Obama “had failed to deliver for Black people”.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr represented the two main competing strands of the civil rights struggle, but they agreed in one area: the pacifying nature of the narcotic that is symbolism. Malcolm X warned that the establishment would “try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice”.

Dr King who, believe it or not, said much more than “I have a dream”, warned that many of the gains of the civil rights struggle came with no dollar cost, but the next stage of the struggle was going to lose friends as it came with a price tag.

In his immortal words (initially intended to be secret): “Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now.”

This is where the likes of deprived Haringey is too – right now.

The idea of the Conservative government’s levelling up agenda is welcome but it must be rooted in substance not just symbolism. If it is, there is no way somewhere like the desperately deprived areas of Haringey can be ignored. I would happily take Michael Gove and Lisa Nandy on a guided tour of the area and the issues.

The overemphasis on symbolic victories has not placed a single potato on a plate, a textbook on a table, or a betting shop time-waster in a good job with serious prospects. The various movements towards equality must be resolutely focused on the serious, urgent and substantive need to improve lives – especially economically.

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Read the most recent article written by Nels Abbey - Steve Baker, John Brown and the role of white Christianity in Black History

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