Racism In Britain Has A Long If Contested History

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The Brits practiced a nonjudicial form of Jim Crow against non-white immigrants from their colonial empire.

“Racialization is one way of dividing labor and resources along unjust and oppressive lines; class is another.”

The demobilized troopship HMT Empire Windrush that arrived at Tilbury Dock on 22 June 1948 was not Britain’s first migration ship, but its passengers were the first to be promised British citizenship, which the British Nationality Act of 1948 conferred on “every person born within the United Kingdom and Colonies.” Of the 1029 passengers, 802 from the Caribbean, 96 were household domestics and 85 were mechanics; there were also, in smaller numbers, scholars, civil servants and a judge. They had accepted an invitation to help rebuild the Mother Country and arrived full of hope for a warm reception. Two weeks later the NHS opened its doors to all. It could not have done so without the labor of migrants.

As migration to Britain increased, so did the number of small ads offering rooms to rent that stipulated “no coloureds.” In 2015, the Guardian published a letter suggesting that signs saying “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs” were an “old myth,” though notices aimed at Commonwealth immigrants (“no coloureds”, “no West Indians”) certainly did exist.” A few days later the Guardian published a response affirming there had been “notices galore that said ‘No Irish, no coloureds.”’ But the first letter has since been misused as evidence that such signs of discrimination never existed. Two commenters on a piece I wrote in July added their voices to the denial, with one dismissing the ads as ‘a familiar trope of anti-racism’.

The urge to impose a higher burden of proof on accounts of racism and racial discrimination – to demand photographic evidence, for example – than on other matters of similar import is itself worthy of further interrogation. Where were the demands for proof in 2016 of Vote Leave’s claim that Turkey was poised to join the EU? Or, in February this year, for the basis on which Boris Johnson reckoned Britain could use Covid-19 as an opportunity ‘to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other’? Or the challenges to Priti Patel’s suggestion this month that refugees’ asylum claims should be rejected if they entered the country illegally, even though that would contravene Article 31 of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees?

“No Irish, no coloureds.”

That ads routinely excluded Black, Asian and Irish people is a fact testified both by oral and documentary evidence (including stories I grew up with). My mother reliably – and why shouldn’t she be reliable? – recalls seeing them as a child in newsagents and sweet shops. Often they were written on the backs of envelopes; sometimes they were placed on removable boards outside. She used to read them when she was queueing with her sister for sherbet lemons in the postwar sugar rush. They didn’t deter her, on the brink of the 1960s, from marrying my Sri Lankan father.

He docked at Tilbury in June 1953, when he was 22. He saw the ads not in sweet shops but at railway stations, on the noticeboards next to the telephones and ticket offices at Greenford, Ealing Broadway and West Ruislip, where British Rail gave him his first job as a ticket collector. One landlady, he told me, asked him to describe the precise color of his skin: how did it compare to a cup of coffee, for example? She was pleased to establish he was ‘not black but brown,” someone who could be accommodated as part of a wider system of exclusion. That moment speaks to the need, more than half a century later, to acknowledge the different and often greater oppression to which Blacks are subjected.

Acknowledging difference doesn’t preclude solidarity. Working-class Caribbean, African and Asian communities have often come together: to protest against the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, for instance, or against state racism in education, housing, policing and the criminal justice system. The term political Blackness emerged from this united struggle in the 1970s. The imprecise, state-sanctioned and often alienating abbreviation BAME (or BME), however, replaces a progressive political unity with an umbrella term that is in danger of at once essentializing historically produced identity categories, and eliding or suppressing differences.

“She was pleased to establish he was ‘not black but brown.’”

My father, as it happens, is not embittered by the ads, or the landladies’ questions. Nearly seventy years later, he shows no more than just anger at the government’s chaotic response to the pandemic, which has let down the most vulnerable. As both older and Asian, he is among those disproportionately at risk to the virus. But he loves this country and is buoyed by hope.

When he left British Rail to work in a paint factory, in the autumn of 1953, he found in the managing director, Robert Morley (an Edwardian, if not a late Victorian), an early white ally. Having lost his father during the imperial war effort in Sri Lanka, when he was 10, he also found in Morley a father figure. When he was sacked by the foreman for being late (living in digs for the first time, with no alarm clock), Morley asked him to come back and gave him the money to buy a clock. He found one for a guinea and worked at the factory for a further 33 years, becoming a chargehand, until it was closed during the Thatcher years.

The history of white allies goes back a long way, though it’s never been straightforward. In 1865, J.S. Mill – no longer an East India Company colonial administrator, though still a theoretical supporter of imperialism – spoke out against British state brutality when the governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, authorized the killing of 439 unarmed Jamaicans. As chair of the Jamaica Committee, Mill spent several years campaigning for Eyre to be tried for murder and abuse of power. Other members of the committee included Darwin, A.V. Dicey and Leslie Stephen. Opposing them, Thomas Carlyle led the Eyre Defense and Aid Fund Committee. Dickens, for all his professed concern with English social justice, took the side of Eyre and Carlyle, along with Ruskin, Tennyson and Charles Kingsley.

Mill received plenty of hate mail:

As a matter of curiosity I kept some specimens of the abusive letters, almost all of them anonymous, which I received while these proceedings were going on. They are evidence of the sympathy felt with the brutalities in Jamaica by the brutal part of the population at home. They graduated from coarse jokes, verbal and pictorial, up to threats of assassination.

“The letters are evidence of the sympathy felt with the brutalities in Jamaica by the brutal part of the population at home.”

A year after the Eyre killings, James Hunt attacked Mill in the Anthropological Review for his ‘day-dream of racial equality’ and for substituting “abstract ideas” of “social justice” for “the facts of race.” Mill had argued in 1850 that “the Greeks learned their first lessons in civilization” from Egyptians, whom he described as black (and it has since been established that the Greeks did indeed acquire various elements of their culture from Egypt and Western Asia). He considered different countries to be at different historical stages of “civilization,” but defined this in terms of their collective ability to combat famine, disease and natural disasters. Hunt, by contrast, saw “historical evidence of inequality” as proof of a fixed, fundamental and essential racial hierarchy. He ridiculed Mill’s opposition to slavery, his support for the rights of women and Blacks to vote, and his insistence that liberty was “the possibility of all peoples.”

The paint factory where my father worked, founded in 1935, was a microcosm of progressive racial attitudes. Owned by an American company, selling German paint to the world, it was international in outlook. It was also a Transport and General Workers’ Union closed shop. The T&G, founded in 1922, campaigned for equal pay and for the repurposing of arms factories to make more socially useful products instead. Morley encouraged my father to become a shop steward, and to invite other people of color to join the company, at a time when there was growing hostility to migrants in Britain at large. By 1955, my father’s workmates included two of his Sri Lankan friends and several Caribbean men. He was, in his own words, no longer “the only one.”

“Mill argued in 1850 that ‘the Greeks learned their first lessons in civilization’ from Egyptians.”

My mother went to work at the paint factory in 1958. When my parents married, there was support and celebration in the factory, in both families, and in the Hoover factory where my mother’s father was an engineer – such different attitudes from those expressed by an agony aunt in a tabloid column I read as a child in a dentist’s waiting room in the early Thatcher years. She advised a white woman not to marry the Black man she loved because any children they had would be bullied. As I was.

Stories of anti-racist allies are an important part of Britain’s history. Too often, the white working class sees immigration as its enemy, forgetting that Britishness is not the same as whiteness. The separating of human beings according to skin colour for the purposes of capital – slavery, imperialism – has been a foundational fiction for much of the Global North. And this process of othering lies behind the morally bankrupt vote in the Commons yesterday rejecting the Lords’ amendments to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (Withdrawal) Bill. Progress and justice depend on understanding that race and class are both consequences of that division. To put it another way, racialization is one way of dividing labor and resources along unjust and oppressive lines; class is another. Both are part of the means by which groups and individuals are pitted against each other.

White defensiveness is often evidence, unfortunately, of how extensive and effective the process – and the internalization – of racial and economic division has been. We are more, and better, than this. If we discount the actions of white anti-racists, then we are being played by the great essentialist myth that underpins the racist logic of modernity. The racist ads in the shop windows and stations are part of Britain’s history, as are my parents’ experiences at the paint factory. We can and must include acts of solidarity and alliance in our reckoning of the past without whitewashing or denying histories of violence and discrimination.

Angelique Richardson is a professor of English at Exeter. Her books include Love and Eugenics in the Late 19th Century and After Darwin: Animals, Emotions and the Mind.

This article previously appeared in the London Review of Books  and Portside .