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Rishi Sunak becomes the U.K.'s first prime minister of color

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, it took the resignations of two prime ministers and the withdrawal of all the other candidates, but today, Rishi Sunak has ascended to become prime minister of Great Britain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: It is only right to explain why I'm standing here, as your new prime minister. Right now, our country is facing a profound economic crisis.

CHANG: Sunak rose in British politics as the former top official of the Treasury, and now he takes the helm of a country that is in economic turmoil. And he has become the first person of color to lead the country. Sunak is of Indian descent. His parents emigrated from East Africa. But he didn't bring any of that up in his speech today, nor was any of that prominently celebrated across the country to the extent it might have been here in the U.S. To talk more about this, I'm joined now by professor Avinash Paliwal. He's a senior lecturer at SOAS University of London. Welcome.

AVINASH PALIWAL: Thank you.

CHANG: So given the milestone of Rishi Sunak becoming the first person of color to become prime minister in the United Kingdom, why hasn't there been greater fanfare in the country about his race?

PALIWAL: His race has been noted by the people in United Kingdom. It has been talked about. The significance of the moment is being appreciated. But we need to appreciate also the fact that the wider electorate in the United Kingdom is very exhausted. It is exhausted by the cost of living crisis. It's exhausted by the fact that the political leadership cannot get its act together globally, when you're facing the Russia-Ukraine war, among other things, and you're still kind of figuring out the after effects of Brexit.

So these are the day-to-day routine crises that the country has to face under the Conservatives over the past three years, is something that has kind of dampened the enthusiasm of having an individual who is of color to lead the country. And then there is the fact that there is a degree of discomfort within certain sections of Tory voters, Tory supporters that openly voiced the discomfort of having someone of color to take office, going as far as calling Rishi Sunak not being British thanks to his skin color.

CHANG: Right. I mean, you are basically saying that for Rishi Sunak, his skin color is a political liability given the party that he leads now.

PALIWAL: It probably could become, yes. And it could become an increasing liability if he fails at delivering. If the policy measures that he introduces do not address some of the structural problems that this country is facing, Rishi Sunak would be judged much more harshly than perhaps Boris Johnson or even Liz Truss ever were. Yes.

CHANG: Could another factor to explain why Rishi Sunak has not made his race, his ethnic background part of his driving political story, could another factor be his personal wealth? I mean, he is quite wealthy. Some estimate that his personal wealth is greater than even that of King Charles'. Do you think Sunak's economic class shapes how people in Britain see him more than his race does?

PALIWAL: Most certainly. I think class is very important to factor. You're looking at an individual who has been educated in some of the most expensive private schools in the country, who has had access to resources, personal and political, which many other people, especially coming from minority communities, perhaps don't have readily so. And that degree of class cushion that comes with that kind of wealth perhaps protects someone like Rishi Sunak - but not just him - from racial politics, the brunt of racial politics in the United Kingdom in a daily, routine sense. I think that will change from now on. I think Rishi will have to deal with the race question much more openly now that he holds the public office.

CHANG: Let me ask you, as a person of color yourself, how does it feel for you personally to see someone like Rishi Sunak rise to become prime minister?

PALIWAL: It's bittersweet. It's sweet because it's very good to see someone who's not - you know, a person of color, a minority from a minority community lead office and especially someone of Indian heritage. I myself am - I'm an Indian. So that is something which is very nice to see. It would instill a lot of faith among many people from different communities, not just South Asian, to have that kind of ambition in the future. So that is something which is worth celebrating. And I completely, you know, I'm very happy about that.

But it also underscores that you need to have the kind of wealth that Rishi has to be able to protect yourself and to rise to the position within a party, like the Conservative Party, to become the prime minister. So it also, you know, the parameters that are needed for someone who comes from these communities to even reach that stage are just too high.

CHANG: Class still matters.

PALIWAL: Yeah, absolutely.

CHANG: Avinash Paliwal, professor at SOAS University of London. Thank you so much for joining us today.

PALIWAL: Thank you so much for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.