N.B. This post is exclusive to Race Card and not for re-posting without Baroness Lawrence’s express permission
“It’s an honour to be here with you tonight, especially alongside Hugh and Heidi. We’re here to celebrate a man who inspired so much hope and action across the world in the 50 years since he spoke here.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. Martin Luther King’s words, which we know so well, speak to a simple human truth – that we always look to the future.
From when we are children, we dream of the future, of what we might be and what we might do. Some of you probably wanted to be footballers, or doctors, or princesses, or singers, or lawyers, or firefighters. The dreams we had as children – and the hopes and ambitions we have as adults – they show that eternal human truth. Even if it’s not a conscious thought – we’re always looking forward. To tomorrow, to next week, to next year and beyond. It never leaves us. It’s what drives us to get on. It’s what gives us hope.
Stephen had it. He had the typical impatience of a young man to get started on his future. He wanted to be an architect. That he never got a chance to bring his dream to life is one of the hardest things to accept about his murder. He would have been 40 now and I often think about what might have been – where would he be in his career? Would he have a family? What would have brought him joy in his life? What would have made him smile his wonderful smile?
It’s made me realise how much the future matters to each of us. How precious it is.
And yet, as we remember Dr King’s visit 50 years on, we know that while all of us share that impulse to look to the future, the future doesn’t hold the same promise for everyone.
How can the young black man, a teacher and never in trouble, see promise when he is stopped and searched 20 times by police simply for being black?
How can the mother not worry about her child, when she knows that a child born in Richmond and a child born in Peckham can have the same IQ when they were born and at the age of 5, but there to be a massive difference when they reach the age of 15?
How can Muslim families feel secure and valued when their faith is often used to define a very particular brand of crime, when those crimes have nothing to do with the faith they know, cherish and practice?
How can people of colour feel safe, when in the years since Stephen’s murder at least 105 people have been murdered in racist attacks?
In every area of life – whether it’s the chance to get a great education, people in positions of leadership, or the likelihood of spending time behind bars – inequality persists. Yes – we have made progress since Martin Luther King spoke here. I think the fact that I now sit in the House of Lords is proof of that. But individual drops of change are not enough, we need a sea change of progress.
Individual progress is not enough while whole communities still feel the injustice of inequality.
What does that inequality do to our children? Nelson Mandela once put it this way “there is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than one you are capable of living.” Where there is no passion, no hope, there is only despair.
And despair spreads, like a cancer, to wreck lives, to lower our ambitions and is a danger to our communities. And you walk through parts of East and South East of London, you can see people with faces of despair. People who are struggling to find any hope. People who are surviving life, not enjoying it.
But we have to remember that it’s not just about the colour of our skin, it’s about the economic conditions you’re living in. Think of the old mining towns of the North East that have been stripped of their way of life. Think of Benchill in Manchester or the areas of Glasgow that have well over 40% of child poverty.
The people of those communities also struggle to see their life as one of opportunity. Especially after the Great Recession, life is tough and getting tougher. They don’t think that they’ve had a big advantage because they’re white. They work hard and are independent, but as the economy changes their jobs become less secure. It’s harder to put food on the table. In many cases they now feel forgotten, especially as government austerity has reduced the public services
There are some in our society – like UKIP – who would have us blame others. Who are trying to set our communities against each other. Who are trying to do what all the extremists of history have done: get you to blame the ‘other’. We can see it starting to take root in all communities across the country, in the cracks caused by the financial hardship.
What will that blame do to how our young people see the world?
Us versus them?
A never-ending war between the rich and poor?
People finding strength in anger at others rather than hope for themselves?
Frustration when others are able to do well?
That blame can only lead us to more blame. Anger to anger. Violence to violence. It’s a cycle that becomes incredibly hard to break.
I don’t think any of us truly want to live in a society where we are divided by anger and blame.
There is another way.
It starts with recognising that no matter the colour of your skin, we have the same dreams of the future. We want the same promise from this country, which is to live lives of opportunity – where you feel safe, where you can earn enough to not only look after your family but also to enjoy life, where you can make the most of your talents and your potential. Where stress, worry and insecurity are replaced by hope.
That is the promise we all want from this country and this society. And we all know that the only way any of us can see it is to work together. To create a future of hope through unity.
If we blame and divide, we won’t be able to succeed in the modern and interconnected world. We can only succeed if we – together – make the most of all our talents and potential.
That’s what the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust tries to do – to uncover potential from everywhere, because we know that education is the most precious gift you can give our children.
We can only succeed if we start viewing our diversity not as a cause for blame, but as a source of strength and wealth.
Think of how our different communities can connect us to the opportunities of the world.
Think of how different perspectives can come together to create new ideas.
Think of how different skills and talents can combine to a form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s great beauty and potential in difference – and we have to be clear about that. So when we talk about race and Dr King’s Dream, we have to remember he did not only say ‘that they should be judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’.
He also said “I have a dream that one day, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”.
As partners. As people with common hopes, wants and dreams. As people who recognise that a future of hope and opportunity for all is the responsibility of us all. Overcoming racism and its impact on life is not the responsibility of the black community or the white community. It’s the responsibility of every community and we each have different roles to play.
So at this moment in time, where as people, as communities and as a country we face so many challenges, we have a choice to make. Will we let our future be decided by division, or will we together make it a future of justice, of opportunity, of hope?
I hope that, in the memory of Stephen and so many others whose futures have been cut short by blame and division, we choose the path of unity and hope.