Last year Boris Johnson cut funding for Black History Month and gave it to “America Day” celebrations. This year, in the absence of funded BHM activities, he ran a free popularity poll of the most influential black people. An unknown pastor won, beating Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
The poll was devalued from the start with the absence of some of the most prominent black British and international names, including Bernie Grant, CLR James, Mary Prince, Malcolm X, Toussant L’Ouverture, Lee Jasper, and Darcus Howe.
Instead, we were offered Whoopi Goldberg, Trevor McDonald, Zadie Smith, Rio Ferdinand, Naomi Campbell and Estelle. Being a celebrity or entertainer is enough to quality as an historical figure, it seems.
The runaway winner was Jesus House pastor Agu Irukwu (right), with a whopping 54 percent of the vote, ahead of Mandela on just eight percent.
The absence of great black historical figures is perhaps not surprising, given how the list was organised. As Lee Jasper notes:
“Hilariously and as a result of the acute shortage of senior black staff at City Hall his officials were reported to be ringing round black organisations asking for the telephone numbers of long deceased historical figures such as Marcus Garvey and Claudia Jones.”At least Britain’s first black cabinet minister, Paul (now Lord) Boateng, was on the list. Unfortunately he scored nil points. The Metro newspaper, which ran the competition in partnership with City Hall, even managed to misspell his name on the online voting page.
Leona Lewis was voted the second most influential black woman, just behind Marva Rollins, a headteacher from Edmonton.
The victory for pastor Irukwu is clearly down to his congregation being urged to vote for him, no doubt to boost his already inflated ego. Not content with raking in ten percent of his flock’s hard-earned wages each week, the god-like leader got his poor churchgoers to vote him the most influential black person in history to earn their place in heaven.
It was quite clear to me that the popularity poll failed to catch the public’s imagination, not least because it lacked all credibility from the start, and could not disguise the absence of any real commitment to Black History Month.
One of Boris Johnson’s first acts as mayor was to scrap the RISE anti-racist festival, which began in honour of Stephen Lawrence. The promise of a memorial in Hyde Park to the transatlantic slave trade has quietly been shelved. The London Schools and the Black Child conference – which Diane Abbott ran when Ken Livingstone was mayor – also seems to have gone, in favour of the less political achievement awards.
Johnson has also failed black London on major fundamental issues. He fiddled on holiday while inner London burnt earlier this year, while his ‘mayors fund’ to tackle gang crime which has petted out due to lack of effort. Similarly, his wish to activate Londoners in mass volunteering has evaporated since he lost Ray Lewis as his deputy mayor.
Perhaps this is not surprising, as Johnson is effectively a part time mayor who fits his day job of running the capital city around writing books and a column for the Daily Telegraph.
But perhaps the mayor’s most serious failing so far is the awarding of a £1.3m contract to mentor 1,000 black boys to a pair of organisations with no track record of working in this field, both of whom scored lower than a black consortium in the bidding process.
So far, 1,700 volunteers have come forward as potential mentors but only 21 have been matched with black boys. The target of mentoring 1,000 boys has now been downgraded to “around 300″ by next years’ London elections, presumably because the chosen bidders cannot cope with administering the scheme.
Paul Lawrence, one of the leading figures on the black consortium that lost out, told the Dotun Adebayo show on BBC London last Sunday that they remained deeply unhappy about the situation. Lee Jasper has organised a public meeting this Thursday in City Hall to debate the way forward.
It is a scandal in the making; the mayor is a patron of one of the winning bidders, the London Action Trust, who were paired with the University of East London during the bidding process as the black consortium were squeezed out. Unable to cope with the contract, the London Action Trust have now pulled out of the scheme.
The black consortium, who have an excellent track record working with black youth in London, came out top in the bidding process and committed to deliver 1,000 mentors matched with 1,000 young men. But they were marked down for “financial diligence.” This despite the fact that Charity Commission records appear to show the London Action Trust in bad financial shape.
A network of Tory crony links between the London Action Trust and Ray Lewis’s East Side Academy raise serious questions about the whole process. I suspect this issue will rumble on until the London elections.
All of which proves that Boris Johnson is not just making a mess of symbolic matters like how we celebrate Black History Month, but has also made a complete pigs-ear of vitally important services like mentoring black boys and diverting them from gang life.
He might have come to office with pithy jokes, but the joke has worn thin. It is time for a mayor who is not just on top of his game but also understands multicultural London.