UK’s Sunak is the first PM of color but the fight for equality is not over

LONDON (AP) — Harmeet Singh Gill was thrilled to learn that Rishi Sunak would become Britain’s first colored prime minister — news that came as he celebrated the Diwali festival in an area of ​​London sometimes called Little India.

“It’s almost a watershed moment,” the 31-year-old said as he volunteered at the cavernous, domed shrine that serves the Sikh community in West London’s Southall borough . “It’s just a sign of 21st century Britain, where no matter where you come from now, you can rise through the ranks to positions of power.”

But, for many people of color in the UK, it’s not that simple. Sunak, 42, will be the first Hindu and the first person of South Asian descent to lead the country, which has a long history of colonialism and has often struggled to welcome immigrants from its former colonies – and continues to fight against racism and wealth inequality.

King Charles III asked Sunak, whose parents moved to Britain from Africa in the 1960s, to form a new government on Tuesday, a day after he was chosen leader of the ruling Conservative party.

This milestone is doubly important for many people of Asian descent because it occurs during Diwali, the five-day festival of light celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.

Earlier this year, Sunak, a practicing Hindu, spoke about the importance of lighting Diwali candles outside the official Downing Street residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post he held for two years until his resignation in July.

“It was one of my proudest moments to have been able to do this on the steps of Downing Street,” he told The Times of London. “And that meant a lot to a lot of people and that’s an amazing thing about our country.”

It has not always been so in Britain.

In 1968, conservative lawmaker Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech denouncing mass migration and advocating for help for immigrants to “go home”.

As recently as 1987, there were no people from an ethnic minority in the House of Commons. One Asian member and three black members were elected to parliament that year.

The numbers have risen steadily since, with 65 people from minority ethnic groups, or 10% of the House of Commons, elected in the last general election in 2019. This is still not fully representative of the UK as a whole, where 13% of the population identify as ethnic minorities.

Sunak’s victory is proof of that progress – a step towards something better, said Tariq Modood, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

“I would say the most important thing about today is that the majority, the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs, chose a young man of Indian descent as their first choice, making him the first British Prime Minister color,” he said. Monday. “And I think other parties will notice that, Labor most certainly, and want to catch up on that, if not try to do better.”

But Sunak is not typical of the millions of people of Asian, African and Caribbean descent who still face barriers to employment and education.

The son of a doctor and a pharmacist, Sunak earned an undergraduate degree from Oxford University and a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University before going to work for Goldman Sachs and then into the hedge fund industry, where he made his fortune in finance. He is married to Akshata Murty, daughter of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, founder of global information technology company Infosys.

Sunak came under fire earlier this year when UK media reported that his wife had taken advantage of rules allowing her to avoid UK tax on her overseas earnings. She has since promised to give up her “non-domiciled” status and pay all her taxes in Britain.

On a broader level, Indians fared better economically than other minority groups in Britain.

Indians earned an average of 14.43 pounds ($16.29) an hour, 15.5% more than white British residents, in 2019, according to the latest figures available from the Office for National Statistics. In contrast, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis earned about 15% less than whites, and blacks earned 6.9% less.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to serve in Cabinet when she served in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, said she believed Sunak would be a unifying figure for all British Asians.

“But there’s been a huge debate about whether it’s something we should be celebrating or not, and I think we’re celebrating that it’s about visible diversity,” said Warsi at the BBC.

“But it has to go beyond visible diversity. There must be young children today from poor homes, going to mainstream public schools, who say they too could become prime minister.

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank focusing on immigration, identity and race, called Sunak’s victory a “historic moment” that would not have been possible just a decade ago. . But, he said, the fight to end discrimination is not over.

“I hope Sunak will recognize that not everyone has taken advantage of their benefits in life,” Katwala said. “Rishi Sunak reaching 10 Downing Street does not make Britain a perfect meritocracy. Although much remains to be done, it is an encouraging sign of progress against the prejudices of the past.

Sathnam Sanghera, a columnist for The Times of London, said Sunak’s promotion was “incredible” as he recalled the hatred and violence faced by black and Asian people in Britain in the past.

Immigrants of his parents’ generation still remember white gangs roaming the streets “looking for West Indians, Africans or Asians to mug”, and returning home to find excrement stuffed in their boxes. to letters.

“Some people on the left seem reluctant to say this, but it is undeniably a good thing that in Rishi Sunak, Britain has its first brown prime minister,” Sanghera wrote. “Frankly, I did not expect to see such a thing in my lifetime.”

But while Sunak’s success will boost the aspirations of young people across Britain, there is still work to be done, Sanghera said.

“Just because we have a British Hindu in charge and because some brown ethnic groups are doing well doesn’t mean Britain has overcome racism,” he wrote. “No more than the election of Barack Obama as president represented the defeat of racism in America.”

These challenges are on display in Southall, where two-thirds of the population have roots in South Asia and real incomes are around 20% of the London average, according to the local council.

This means that residents of this community will be disproportionately affected by soaring energy prices and rising food bills that have pushed inflation to a 40-year high of 10.1%.

But shopkeeper Pratik Shah was optimistic as he stood before a wall of shimmering pink, mint and silver sarees and spoke of the potential for progress he sees in Sunak’s leadership.

“It could help the country achieve a higher position,” he said. “And I feel that the whole Asian community has that confidence in him.”

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Jo Kearney contributed.

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