There are two aspects of the government’s austerity policies of which Zita Holbourne is absolutely certain – first, that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are disproportionately affected and, second, that as an issue it has been noticeably absent from the wider public discourse around cuts. “This needs to be understood and it needs to change,” she says, pointing out that this sector of society is “already more likely to be poor or to live in deprived areas … and to face existing discrimination in the jobs market” on top of being overrepresented in low-paid, vulnerable work even before austerity was introduced.
Holbourne, 47, is co-founder of the anti-austerity group Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (Barac). Since the summer of 2010 the organisation, which she set up with Lee Jasper (a former adviser to Ken Livingston when he was mayor of London), has been challenging austerity policies and attempting to shed light on the numerous negative effects on minority ethnic individuals, families and communities. Comprised of a mixture of trade unionists, grassroots activists and voluntary groups across the UK, Barac was born of a sense of urgency when it became apparent how severe and enduring the coalition’s austerity project would be, Holbourne says, adding that she “just knew” that the ramifications would be “horrific”.
Barac (as the name suggests it was inspired by the election of Barack Obama and chosen for memorability) evolved in much the same way as other equalities-based anti-austerity organisations such as Dpac (Disabled People Against Cuts) so that the people most affected had a voice, Holbourne says. “What we aim to do is bring the perspective of the black community, the migrant communities in the UK and the disproportionate impact of all of the cuts and attacks.”
Calling austerity “economic vandalism”, Holbourne says the cuts “represent the literal death of hope and opportunity” within impoverished communities. She speaks of the “interconnected” issues of austerity, cuts, poverty, racism, injustice and discrimination, before running through the litany of “multiple” disadvantages.
“We are particularly concerned about the double impact [of cuts] on black women and young black people because of the elimination of the education maintenance allowance [EMA], public sector job cuts and [cuts to] the voluntary sector, another area where there are a high number of black workers,” she says. In addition, the fact that so many minority ethnic women tend to take on caring responsibilities adds even greater pressure to families as local statutory and voluntary services, such as advice centres or children’s groups, face cuts, Holbourne says.
She believes the abolition of EMA to be one of the “most devastating” for minority ethnic families because it offered “a lifeline” that encouraged youngsters to go on to further education. “This was [already] a society where black boys are more likely to go to prison than to university,” she says.
Pointing to government figures released last month showing that minority ethnic workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts, she says the “barriers” to stable employment are higher post-recession, as zero-hour contracts have proliferated and public sector opportunities have disappeared. “And, if you lose your job as a black person it’s going to take a lot longer to get another because of the discrimination that already existed in the labour market,” says Holbourne.
Holbourne has been involved in the trade union movement for more than two decades, working on “everything from wage disputes to discrimination”. She says minority ethnic workers feature prominently in the public sector, due, in part, to “generally better equalities policies”. For this reason, she says, the cull of public sector jobs, along with wage freezes is a major example of disproportionate impact.
A performance poet and artist, as well as campaigner, Holbourne speaks enthusiastically about her work in the community and in schools with children, including running poetry workshops on subjects such as black history. “It’s just as important as all the other work,” she says.
She has been an activist almost her whole life, against racism and wider social injustice. Her mother was a primary influence, inspiring her to speak out. As a child in London, she watched her mother face down “blatant” racism and believes this meant she absorbed messages about prejudice and discrimination early on. When she was six, she recalls, her mother challenged a local shopkeeper for stocking products from South Africa and told him she would organise a boycott of the shop. “At the time you don’t think these things are influencing you, but of course they do.”
As for Holbourne’s father, a white Welshman, his work for the UN meant she visited a number of developing countries including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh while growing up and it cultivated a broad political perspective, she says. While on a trip to South Africa she couldn’t eat in the same restaurant as her father. This had a profound effect on her, she recalls. Such experiences helped lay the ground for years of anti-apartheid campaigning while at art college in London in the 1980s, and for her later community activism and trade union work.
Other major influences were events such as the Brixton riots and, later, the death of Stephen Lawrence, as well as ongoing issues such as stop and search by the police, which adversely affects young black men. But if one thing galvanised her more than anything, she says, it was the birth of her son, who is now at college. “He’s been the driving force throughout my time as an activist. I did not want him and his life path to be blocked because of racism.”
Holbourne says she worries for the younger generation because of the far right’s resurgence and the presence of more “overt racism” as the government ratchets up anti-immigrant rhetoric. But she says what people worry about most is that the economic landscape for young people and the poor remains difficult, with more cuts to come. Recovery, she insists, “is not being felt” by the poorest or most excluded.
Some people have questioned why Barac focuses on one group within society when so many are affected by cuts. Holbourne stresses that Barac and other rights groups form alliances and she says that links forged with other groups, such as the People’s Assembly and the Justice Alliance to save legal aid, are crucial to nurturing an anti-austerity movement. “It’s all part of the same attack [from government]. It’s the same for disabled people and other groups. It’s a multiple impact, multi-layered attack,” says Holbourne.
Organisations such as Barac also remain necessary, she says, because so many of those affected disproportionately by austerity don’t hold out hope that a Labour government will reverse cuts. “Where do you go if the mainstream political parties are not going to represent you,” she asks. “It’s about people power isn’t it?”