How and When did Black Britain Become the Dangerous Class?
Black Caribbean’s are the most likely of all ethnic groups in Britain to develop mental health issues. Black Caribbean’s have a rate of detention under the mental health act at a rate of 254 per 100,000.
Black Caribbean’s and those of mixed black Caribbean and white British heritage make up those most likely to be stop, searched and arrested. At a rate more than 20 times that of white Britain. Black Caribbean’s are also 9.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched without arrest than white Britain, at a rate of 26 per 1000 people. A rate higher than all ethnic groups in the nation. It had previously been at 153 per 1000 in the last decade.
Black Caribbean’s have the lowest percentage of youth that complete A-levels at Grade A and above, at 3.5%. 55% of black Caribbean primary school children met the standard in Key Stage 2 of reading, writing and maths; only Irish Traveller and Roma Gypsies scored at a lesser rate.
63% of Black Caribbean’s live in social housing or are rentiers compared to 68% of White British and Indian families that own their homes. With almost half the black Caribbean population living in social housing.
In order to understand the struggle for racial justice in Britain from which the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter have arisen it is important to know the struggle of the black Caribbean or West Indian community in Britain and how that struggle shaped the livelihoods of Black Britain and the political discourse surrounding race in this nation.
When the Windrush Generation arrived in England, they had been part of the British Empire for hundreds of years. It had been just over 100 hundred years since slavery had officially come to an end. They had British names, spoke English and were Christians. They wore the fashionable clothing of the day and considered themselves to be British.
Although they were of African descent, they knew nothing much about Africa and many would not have come into contact with a continental African ever in their lives, until they came to England and met those of the African student population. Those that arrived as part of the Windrush Generation, were not radical or promoters of any Pan-African philosophy. Their desire was to become part of British society. They went to Church every Sunday, they read the Bible, they played cricket and drank tea. The process of slavery had transformed what were once African slaves into Anglicised blacks. After decades as free blacks in a white led colony, the people of the British West Indies, apart from a small group of Rastafarians, considered themselves to be part of a Global Britain.
Since the end of slavery the people of the British West Indies had begun to form a growing working class and shared the same ambitions as many of the working classes located on the British Isles. As there had been workers struggles in Britain, there had been working class struggles in the West Indies. Struggles that were fundamentally the responsibility of the British Empire.
In the 1930’s there had been workers struggles in the West Indies that had been noted by the British government. There were recommendations made by government officials for the British Empire to do more to improve the conditions in the West Indies. The recommendations went unheeded. By 1948, Britain’s post-war reconstruction was on it’s way and Britain needed the support of its Anglicised black colonials to rebuild what had been destroyed during the war and perhaps to replace the generation of young men that had died in the war.
The people of the West Indies were encouraged to come to Britain by various employers such as the London buses and the National Health Service. Initially in 1948, 500 hundred West Indians docked at Tilbury but as more became aware of the economic opportunities at the centre of the Empire, more made the decision to go and seek their fortune. By the 1950’s, tens of thousands of West Indians were making the trip to the heart of the Empire.
As the numbers began to grow and more West Indians started to come into the country, the English public began to become angry with what they considered to be an invasion of foreigners. Their anger was misplaced because as subjects of the British Empire, the Windrush Generation had as much right to be in Britain as white Britain’s and understood British culture, often times better than Britain’s public. Many West Indians had a greater command of the English language than their English counterparts but still faced anger from the English population.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the golden age of capitalism was under way and there were jobs available in manufacturing, the government was expanding the NHS and the opportunity for employment was high. Like those black Americans that travelled from the Southern states of the US to the Northern cities of Detroit and Chicago, West Indians were able to sell their labour for better wages than before. Many were able to send for their relatives but as depression started to hit the economy in the 60’s and 70’s at a time when Britain was deindustrialising and the golden age of capitalism was coming to an end, the economic pressure on Black Britain became immense.
As jobs started to dwindle, the racism increased and by the 1970’s there were growing movements like the National Front fighting to keep Britain white.
On arrival in the British Isles, West Indians, were turned away from good quality housing by posters in the windows that stated “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. Most lived in terrible accommodation and were pushed into areas such as Brixton in South London. Brixton had once been a place of vagrancy and prostitution and as if in preparation for the arrival of Black Britain on the island, a prison had existed there for some time.
Due to discrimination in housing on arrival, the Windrush Generation was located in inner city areas that had bad housing stock. As local borough councils struggled to provide housing they turned to building large council estates in the 70’s and beyond. Eventually, these council estates would become the home of Black Britain.
As the economy when into spasm and Britain looked to the IMF for support and joined the EU, the Black Britain’s of the West Indies were now no longer able to enter the country in the same way as before. Maybe, some may argue, this could have been because by that time the islands of the British West Indies had already gained their independence so therefore there was a need for a restriction on entrance. This was not the case because although the nations of the British West Indies had independence, the nations were still led by the representative of the British Empire and the Crown, the Governor-General. As is still the case in 2020. From then until today, we operate in a system of two societies, one system, one Head of State.
Unlike African and Asian governments that had sought independence from the 40’s onward, the islands of the British West Indies, did not totally separate from the Empire. We maintained a relationship that is not often spoken about in British schools. Our politics is a reflection of our cultural experience as Black Britain. We are tied to Britain, we have been tied to Britain for hundreds of years and shall be for the foreseeable future. We more than even Australia and Canada truly represent the concept of Global Britain.
As the economy went further into depression and Britain’s GDP was falling the first people to be laid of were the working class West Indians. As unemployment spiralled, Black Britain was hit hard. Unable to purchase housing, experiencing excessive levels of unemployment and racism from racist popular fronts and harassment from the police for not being at work turned Black Britain’s dream of economic advancement into a nightmare.
From the 70’s onwards, the working class of Black Britain began to become an underclass, a lumpen proletariat, a raggedy worker that could not sell their labour for capital. This led to many become convicted for offenses such as selling marijuana or holding illegal night clubs. SUS laws were introduced that meant that the police could stop, search and arrest on suspicion of loitering with the intent to commit a crime. Many black youth were convicted on trumped up charges, such as the Oval Four, who were arrested in 1972 and served prison sentences for crimes that they did not commit and which were only removed from their records in 2020. This seriously hampered their life chances and the life chances of their children.
By the 80’s, Black Britain’s were largely occupying social housing or privately renting rooms. Many of the men had criminal records, were unemployed and mental health issues were skyrocketing amongst both sexes. Many children were categorised as Educationally Sub Normal and stigmatised for the rest of their lives. The scars of false imprisonment, racism and police harassment were beginning to take a toll on the mental health of the population. Black Britain began to change considerably from the Windrush Generation who were working class and became a dangerous class.
Unlike their forefathers, the British born West Indians did not feel British. They believed that they were being treated as an enemy in the country of their birth and as if they were not part of British culture. Many began to seek for alternative forms of identity. Many became enamoured by Rastafarianism, Black Power politics and Afrocentricity, which lead to further alienation from British society. Many became engaged in crime as an act of rebellion against the system. The idea that Britain was institutionally racist started to permeate in the minds of a generation who had good reason to believe it and the politics of rebellion became tied to Black British identity. Successive generations continued the rebellion against the state and society and the police continued to harass black boys.
As rebellious youth became men, some who had avoided imprisonment began to become intellectuals and write about the experience of Black Britain and it was clothed in the language of rebellion and the language of anger, anguish and trauma at past hurt. A past that had significantly disenfranchised black families and forced them into a permanent underclass. Locked into social housing. Unemployment. Unprofessional employment. The criminal justice system and violence.
As people struggled to survive and make ends meet, many who became part of the illegitimate capitalist market of drugs and racketeering became competitors trying to survive on a dwindling pool of drug addicts. With everyone trying to make it out of the economic and social predicament of the underclass via lumpen proletariat activities, gangs started to develop which brought conflict into the communities. The now culturally embedded anger, anguish and trauma became not something that was expressed in conflict with the police or through intellectual means as had been the case with figures such as Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Colin Prescod and John La Rose. The anger, anguish and trauma became expressed through black on black violence.
Thus began the trend towards gun and knife violence amongst our youth. It was not a trend that had its roots in the West Indies, the Windrush Generation or the very first generation that were born here who confronted the police and the state. It was a trend that grew out of the lumpenisation of the proletariat of Black Britain since the late 70’s. There has been a similar trend in the US and Jamaica. The black youth populations have become lumpenised.
Many will argue why is it that Black Britain were not part of the economic boom of the 80’s? Why did Black Britain’s not invest in property? The answers to those questions can be found in the historical narrative that developed since the Windrush Generation.
Of course there were some that managed to improve their housing and economic conditions ten-fold and become homeowners and generate wealth. Some became footballers and athletes. A space where they are over-represented. A handful became politicians and they make up the 37% of black Caribbean’s that own homes, however, the 63% of those that don’t are not simply in their position out of sheer laziness. There are a myriad of factors that I have tried to explain in this essay. Some have developed out of cultural experience that we created but others have been born out of the way the state and the society have treated Black Britain and the historic economic conditions of the West Indies, where slaves were not given a chance to develop generational wealth and of course were devoid of the wealth to steady themselves and survive without getting a serious hit during economic depression. The economic depression of the past has been able to be avoided by many white British citizens and Indian British citizens because their ability to develop wealth over generations was not stolen from them over a period of almost half a millennia.
Black Lives Matter