My parents came over from Barbados in the late 1950s and early 60s. My father was a lorry driver and my mum also worked. I was lucky to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and become a professional actor in my 20s. No one ever mentioned the colour of my skin. It was only when I came out of Rada that I suddenly realised that people started to refer to me as a black actor.
Initially I found work very easily and then I just sort of fell off a cliff. There are lots of roles for young black men but very few for leading black men in the UK. No one’s writing those roles, or commissioning those dramas as they are in America. I’ve spent the past five or six years in America where I can play leading, authoritative characters – such as a CIA director in Homeland.
I’m very used to turning on my TV in the US and seeing black generals, sheriffs, chiefs of police, politicians, financial experts, political experts and news anchors, and I realised that I still don’t see that in the UK. I’m 51 years old this year, and coming back to the UK to make the BBC2 documentary Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?, I would have thought that things would have got better. But when I looked at the data it was very sobering. It took the wind out of my sails.
As many as 45 per cent of all black children here grow up in poverty compared to 25 per cent of white children, according to government statistics. That has an impact on their early development – by the time they start school, the vocabulary of the poorest chil dren lags more than a year behind that of wealthy children.
White pupils are also more likely to get three As at A level, and a state-educated black boy is more likely to be excluded from school than get three As. We also found that black students are less likely to be offered places at top universities than white students who have the same predicted grades – that’s according to research by Dr Vikki Boliver at Durham University.
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Boliver thinks there could be an “unconscious bias” in the admissions process. Whether you want to call it unconscious bias or institutional racism, let’s all acknowledge there’s a problem and make it better. We still don’t have any black judges in the Supreme Court or High Court, or generals in the British Army. We’re still not taking charge.
When you ask whether the UK will have a black prime minister, you have to bear in mind that only two per cent of our MPs are black – black people make up four per cent of the wider population.
It’s deeply frustrating that we’re finding it so difficult to reach those higher echelons. It’s partly down to the education system and partly because we have to filter ourselves through this very British system. Personally I think we have to have some kind of radical change, perhaps legislatively, because I don’t think it’s happening of its own volition fast enough.
As far as a black prime minister goes and who it would be, I think it’ll happen very suddenly. Somebody will be on the ballot and everybody will go: “This person ticks all the boxes.” But first we have to get more black people into politics. Hopefully, a voice will emerge that puts everybody at ease and makes everybody excited, just like Obama did in the US. Maybe in the next ten years somebody will come up who has that fire, who is unafraid, who is articulate, who can stand up and be the one.
David Harewood spoke to BBC Stories. Follow BBC Stories at facebook.com/BBCStories
Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2