Book Review: People Like Us by Hashi Mohamed

While the book is on the theme of social mobility, Hashi’s message to black and brown youth in Britain and the Western World in general can be summed up as: ‘shed the second-class citizen mentality’.

At the onset of his book, the story, like a common plot of a movie genre, sounds familiar—a young black or brown boy grows up in a deprived neighbourhood in a major Western city; his family lives on government support; has his own teenage drama though to a limited extent, and all over sudden, either through a self-discovery or some help from a mentor or family member; he makes a decisive but a positive trajectory, surprising himself and his community by landing at one of the elite colleges in the nation and pursuing a respectable career. The national media, or bluntly put the white media, features his story as a success.

But real life is more complicated than a simply orchestrated artistic decision by a movie director. And so is Hashi’s personal journey from fleeing his war-ravaged nation of Somalia at the age of nine to growing up in low-income area of Brent, northwest London, to making to the halls of St Antony College, Oxford and to the Bar, Britain’s prestigious association for barristers. His personal story is fascinating in its own right. The book delves into important themes pertaining to what it means to be ‘upwardly socially mobile’, and indirectly how avoid a downward one. But the bulk of his arguments is devoted to his scathing attack of the existence and continuation of two-tier society—rich neighbourhoods lying adjacent to areas of extreme deprivation.

His interest isn’t only in the geographical sense of the disparity but also their interaction, with the deprived ones often desperately and unsuccessfully attempting to move up the ladder and the resistance from the top which keeps them at the bottom either intentionally or inadvertently. In other words, keeping the white supreme and black and brown people in their place. The significant role of parenteral wealth and private education features strongly in the book as the ‘most important determinant’ of one’s lifetime performance.

Hashi urges projecting confidence, imagining a different life from the circumstances you grew up in. In other words, be ambitious. But man’s infinite nature of ambition has also been a source of trouble. From get-rich-quick schemes to resorting to dubious means in pursuit of accumulating vast wealth, the daily news is inundated with the law catching up with wildly ambitious people. But in the context of social mobility in the West, it appears that he means not aim less than your European peers despite having a vastly different upbringing in terms of the material wealth—relentless pursuit to achieve the British dream.

The elusive nature of the British dream and its core tenets for Britain’s significant BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) populations is a theme which their writers discuss with great regret. The American dream and its glacial pace for people of minority background hasn’t fared better either, preoccupying even its most brilliant minds. When Ansel Adams drew his masterpiece art of Usomytes in the Usomytes National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada, it was a mountain taller than the highest skyscraper built through the capitalist accumulation of wealth, more powerful than the mightiest corporation.

For others it was the expression of the dream in tragedy. The O.J. Simpson case is archetype of the American dream with an inspiring start and a tragic end. At a young age, Simpson’s athletic skills are amply displayed on the field. He quickly gains national and global stardom, and is accepted into the Beverly Hills white elite. At some point, he is reported to have said ‘I am not black, I’m O.J’. After the epic trial which acquitted him, he starts his own ‘go-back-to-the-root’ journey and re-embraces his blackness. He, however, never recovered from the spectacular fall from grace.

The trajectory of the gifted BAMEs are best illustrated by the nature of the headlines they make. Early positive coverage stops as soon as they publicly criticise racism. The national media quickly turns hostile and picks on their personal flaws. The fall is painful and dramatic, and by the time they hit rock bottom, the attention of the media had already shifted to another rising black or brown star. Simply put, for new stars to rise, others must fall. Both the rising and fallen talented BAMEs eventually realise that they hadn’t wholeheartedly been accepted into the white elite circles in the first place.

Hashi takes on the topic of discovering and harnessing talent of BAME youth at great length. His argument is that athletic, artistic or musical talent is hard to ignore compared to an academic one because it is a ‘raw talent’, and that is why people of minority background are relatively more visible in this arena. I think it is not only its raw nature but also it is the most publicly judged, often in full view of the media. Most talent shows are publicly judged unlike a normal job interview whose results are announced weeks or months after the interview, and decided behind closed doors.

Hashi’s most controversial argument is the ‘play the game’ attitude that BAMEs have to adapt to navigate the system and build a meaningful career in British society. His emphasis on adapting a posh British accent must have caught many by surprise. ‘I am an accents pragmatist’ he declares in the book. To him, it seems accepting this fact is less costly than ‘falling on the first hurdle’. Some may disagree with conforming to the racism-riddled employment system and not taking a ‘fight-the-system’ approach. His counter-argument of not being a ‘sacrificial lamb at the altar of authenticity’ is based on that for a real change to happen in the recruitment process, a critical mass is required, implying that it is not yet time and being an obscure martyr is not worth it.

The most unexamined topic of the book is the coming-of-age and the room for redemption of BAME youngsters. While Hashi himself stayed out of serious trouble; many of his agemates hadn’t. What does the future hold for the youngsters who had a dramatic loss of innocence: serious drug offences, stabbing or shooting someone else, robbery etc? Can the discussion continue to be confined to parenteral flaws or the lack of material wealth? How much can the society offer an opportunity for redemption to a young black man whose mistake cost him his freedom or at least the golden years of his life?

A collective assessment of the book paints a picture of an ambitious young man on to something big. I think whatever that big thing is will only be remarkable nationally or globally if it turns into a political success. Many young BAMEs have already achieved some financial and professional success in Britain. It is hard to speculate what that unprecedented noteworthy political achievement will be for Hashi at this time. I think Hashi’s political fortunes are not only determined by how much the English elite accepts him, but also how much he connects with both the BAME elite and masses. An early engagement with BAME grass root community organisations might be his best start.

What kind of challenges will his political rise face? Will carrying the most famous Muslim surname help or hinder his political career? Will his governmentless homeland of Somalia be used as a political weapon against him? Will the British media brutally scrutinise his personal life as soon as his political ascendancy comes under their radar? Will Britain’s large south Asian Muslim community see him as a fellow Muslim candidate or just a black candidate? A passingly said sentence in his book might be the most consequential for his political rise. Speaking on discussing with a Muslim South Asian man about Islamophobia, he states that they both agree on most issues and how much they share ‘but if I ask his daughter’s hand in marriage, I quickly revert back to a black man’ he states. It is this intra-minority relations that may determine a future political career.

People Like Us offers a real hope for change as much as it offers frank assessment of the ‘unwritten rules of British society’. It is told in a familiar language and takes us to familiar places, yet the description of events reminds us that, for anybody with a troubled homeland, Britain is still among the top destinations to build a new life. This significant act of kindness and what happens thereafter, is also a reflection of British society and our times. Such new migrant community are not only here for refuge and survival, but also to progress on equal footing with mainstream society. I think People Like Us is one of the most influential books on the social mobility genre. In an attempt to realise a fairer society, will the British policy makers ever pick it up!

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