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An Obama moment? Not even.

Rishi Sunak's rise to No.10 is a great step for one British-Asian man, but a much smaller step for minorities. 

October 28 2022, 18.42pm

The cost-of-living crisis is not hitting everyone the same way, and I don’t just mean class-wise. Obviously, it impacts working-class people the worst. But it is also a deeply racialised crisis, particularly hard on people and communities of colour. 

The New Economic Foundation warned this summer that Black and Asian households will see the cost of living increase a further 60% higher than the average UK household. They are also twice as likely to face food insecurity as their white counterparts, and are considerably likelier to struggle to pay their bills. All this was already true before Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng crashed and burned the economy and walked away. It is only expected to get worse. 

What better time, then, for a son of immigrants to enter Downing Street as the first British-Asian prime minister? But Rishi Sunak’s rise to leadership isn’t just a story about race. It is a story about class, wealth and privilege. 

It’s true that Sunak’s parents were a GP and a pharmacist, immigrants both. But aside from the occasional stint of summer jobs in restaurant kitchens, Sunak’s own life was fast-tracked away from these relatively humble roots: Winchester College, Oxford, Stanford, the City, Wall Street, and, finally, a fairytale marriage into India’s richest family. Sunak is no scrappy self-starter. Nor is he a harbinger of change, some kind of walking proof-positive that the British-Asian community has “arrived.”  He is a banker twice as wealthy as the King. 

Inasmuch as Sunak’s origin story is a political one, this contrast should have been front-and-centre: a single British-Asian man reaching one of the pinnacles of British society, even as his community is kept down by the policies the party he leads chose to pursue. But far from asking what a PM from a minority community will do for minority communities nationwide, most of the discussion of Sunak’s background was reduced to regurgitating the fantasy that just like in the United States of America, anyone can make it - including, touchingly, the multi-millionaire, privately educated son of middle-class immigrants. And underneath this fixation runs a dangerous subtext: if one of them can become prime minister, we’re surely not as institutionally racist as all that, are we? 

The fact the story doesn’t add up doesn’t seem to be a problem for many, including opposition Labour MPs who don’t want to acknowledge the full complexities of one British-Asian man being voted in as prime minister by his fellow Tory MPs. 

We minority Britons are supposed to suspend critical and independent thinking and turbo-charge one emotion at Sunak’s rise to the top, to affirm and enhance everyone else's comfort, and to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice. 

Sunak will, of course, be subjected to high levels of racist abuse and smears, and will be the target of white supremacists and the organised far-right - perhaps even as much left-wing politicians like Sadiq Khan and Diane Abbott. This abuse will need to be condemned and rejected unequivocally. But it should not hold anyone back from pointing out the damage that Sunak's actual policies will do to the communities he purports to represent. Both these positions can be held at the same time. 

Representation is complex, as is life. The optics of a brown Asian man becoming the leader of the country which, through its empire, made brown and Asian a challenge to living and creating a life of equality and hope to begin with, are immensely powerful. It reminds us how much of the hierarchies and legacies left behind by that empire, at home and abroad, still need to be undone. 

And yes, it does make a difference to how you carry yourself on the street, on campus or in a job interview when you know you don’t just look like the stereotyped Asian neighbourhood shopkeeper or dentist, but like the prime minister. It goes without saying that young people of British-Asian descent can aspire and strive for the top even more openly now. Sunak’s actual good fortunes are almost impossible to precisely emulate. But this visualisation of the broad possibility of a non-white prime minister cannot, and should not be dismissed. 

So much for optics. Political representation, however, means actioning policies that - at the very least -  don’t harm the people and communities you come from, the very people and communities disproportionately harmed by the multiple crises this country is facing today. Labour, in fairness, has fallen far behind the Tories on visual representation: we’re yet to see a Labour leader who is not white and male. Are Labour better representatives of minority ethnic communities than the Tories? Not in the literal sense - the Labour leadership doesn’t look like us and hasn’t lived our story. But it would represent our interests better than an ultra-wealthy new British Asian prime minister and a government of millionaires leaving us behind.