The Talent of Black People is the UK's Great Untapped Resource

As we begin a new year, it's time to reflect on and evaluate the previous one and examine what we must do differently in order to move society forward.

Last year, during the course of Black History Month in October, I toured schools, universities and workplaces talking about my own story as the son of Guyanese immigrants and the importance of celebrating our nation's diverse history and culture.

Mixed relationships are on the rise and the number of Black and Minority Ethnic students at our universities has increased by more than a third since 2012. Diversity is back on the agenda, as confirmed by the Government's own racial disparity audit.

But this audit was more of a data collection exercise than a strategy for real change. The truth is that if we do not assert the arguments for diversity, our opponents will fill the space and we risk moving backwards.

There is a vacuum where policy proposals, practical tools and fresh ideas should be. In these troubling times, it felt to me that Black History Month was needed more than ever.

Having been in public life for close to two decades I am no stranger to the rough and tumble that is sometimes an element of our political discourse, but I have been taken aback by the racist hate mail and trolling that I have received in the wake of Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Dealing with malicious communications, racism and even explicit threats to my life has become part and parcel of the day-to-day operation of my office and it is this normalization of totally unacceptable behavior that is most concerning of all.

Part of my job as an elected representative is to speak truth to powerful institutions and stand firm, even when faced with the backlash I was met with when I challenged the universities of Oxford and Cambridge on their failures to improve access and reach out to students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds last autumn. Senior figures within the universities themselves joined forces with commentators in the media to accuse me of putting off applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds.

My answer to them is simple: Representation matters. If you cannot see, then you cannot be. A third of Oxford colleges admit no black British students each year—I think the figures can speak for themselves.

I've been travelling to BBC's Broadcasting House for interviews for almost two decades now, but all too often the only black faces I see when I'm arriving to face Andrew Neil or John Humphreys are security guards and cleaners. Two years ago, Undercover was in the headlines because we had a primetime drama on the BBC with two black leads—in 2016!

Diversity is now a Public Purpose written into the BBC's Royal Charter. None of the 10 members of the BBC's Executive Committee are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic—what does it say when our national broadcaster, paid for by all of us, doesn't actually represent our nation?

David Lammy
MP David Lammy hosts the 'Make Your Mark in the Music Industry' press conference at Portcullis House on February 4, 2008 in London, England. He is calling for diversity in leadership positions in the Uk to ensure the creation of a society where everyone can thrive. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

According to the "The Color of Power", a study by Operation Black Vote (OBV) in conjunction with The Guardian, "only 3.4 percent of the 1,000 most senior post[s] in the U.K. are held by BME [black and ethnic minority] people."

Without diversity in leadership positions then organizations lack new ideas and fresh perspectives and nowhere is this more important than in broadcasting and media —we need stories and storytellers that reflect the lives and experiences of their audiences.

It is for that reason that I welcome June Sarpong's contribution to this debate with her new book Diversify—a powerful polemic featuring new research by Oxford and The London School of Economics. Diversify makes the case for social, moral and economic benefits of diversity. It's quite clear—the time for talking is over, we must take action.

My parents and the Windrush generation stepped off boats to be met with "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish." Growing up in Tottenham in the 1980's, I saw the riots and experienced the "Sus" laws, and black role models in business, politics and the media were few and far between.

My own children are growing up in a Britain that has changed beyond recognition in my lifetime, but there is still a long way to go to make good on the dream of a nation in which people are judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Diversity is not an optional extra or an add on. Equality and inclusion is not a "nice to have." If we are not here to ensure that people from all backgrounds can thrive, and to create a society that captures and supports the talent of everyone—then what exactly are we here for?

David Lammy has been the Labor MP for Tottenham since 2000.
An activist, he served as a minister in the last Labour government, including as Culture Minister and Higher Education Minister. You can follow him on Twitter.