The Politics of Racial Justice in Britain is the Plantation Politics of Britain’s Anglicised Black Slaves?
Anyone that has been involved in the politics of racial justice in Britain in previous decades will understand that the discourse around Black Lives Matter is not new and has existed amongst Anglicised descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean for more than 400 years. With the coming of the Windrush Generation in 1948 and the influx of Britain’s overseas slave class from the British Caribbean into the capital, the British state and society was confronted with the horrors of the history of its overseas slave plantations.
The arrival of the Windrush Generation would be the beginning of Black politics in Britain and the beginnings of a history of confrontation between British Caribbean or West Indian communities, the state and the police force. The narrative of Black Lives Matter in Britain derives from the experience of British Caribbean’s, the first people of African descent and dark skin to settle in modern Britain as a substantial community.
There had been a dark skinned visitors in Britain before; Kwame Nkrumah spent some time in London as a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and later at University College of London in the 1940’s. Marcus Garvey lived and worked and died in the city, after attending Birkbeck College in 1914. Exiled Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, sought refuge in Britain in the 1930’s, living in Wimbledon and later Bath during his 5 year period of exile. However, there are no records that any of these figures experienced racial animosity. They were not rejected from housing or universities. They were not the victims of SUS laws. All of them were adequately housed and treated respectfully by British citizens. However, the coming of a large dark skinned community from Britain’s overseas plantations in 1948 and beyond would mark a shift in the relations between Britain and it’s dark skinned visitors.
From their first arrival, the Windrush Generation became the victims of social and racial prejudice in housing and education. After hundreds of years of slave labour and Anglicisation, and their understanding that many people from African and the Caribbean visited the mother country, it was not what was expected.
Britain was fine with a few visitors from Britain’s overseas colonies and slave plantations but the influx of a group large enough to form a visible community in Britain heightened the anxieties of white Britain, particularly the working class. Members of the Windrush Generation were shockingly refused housing, they faced racial violence and conflict and were often harassed by the police and young white thugs. In response to the racial prejudice that the Windrush Generation experienced they began to form community associations in order to seek for racial justice, these community groups initially began as West Indian organisations but by the 1960’s and the coming of Black Power in the US they were being referred to as black by both the government, the community and White Britain. Thus began the history of the struggle for racial justice in Britain and the formation of a Black identity, politics and community in the British Isles.
In 1959, the killing of Black West Indian, Kelso Cochrane, by a gang of youthful white thugs was the first of many racially motivated incidents that shocked the community and the nation and brought racial discrimination to national attention. Emerging proponents of Black British identity began to lobby the government for legal protection from the discrimination that they were experiencing and in 1965 the Race Relations Act was passed by Parliament, making racial discrimination a crime.
The coming of the Race Relations Act came directly out of the lobbying of the West Indian community and its allies who were dismayed at the high-profile murder of Cochrane and had begun to resent the racial discrimination that they received on arrival.
In the 1970’s the Mangrove Nine were a high-profile group of West Indian Black activists who frequented a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, where they were often harassed by the police who suspected them of Marijuana possession. One night the harassment led to protest which led to violent confrontation between these self-styled black activists and the police. 9 activists were arrested and charged with riot and other offenses. The accused were eventually acquitted but the case would be another move towards Black British identity. The black that Black Lives Matter signifies.
In 1981, Brixton had become a centre of what was now termed, Black Britain. A place where those like my Father, that had formally been known as West Indian had developed an enclave where they could develop and define their own concept of Black British identity. Some individuals that had been trialled as part of the Mangrove Nine had set up offices on what was referred to as the Frontline in Brixton and it was a centre of political activity and black culture.
The growing enclave became a place of suspicion for many whites and the police force, perhaps anxious about what they may have considered an invasion. The high unemployment rates — that often came out of racial discrimination in the community — led to a need to engage in lumpen proletariat activities. The cultural use of marijuana — a growing trend with the coming of Rastafarians — amongst many of the youth made them a target and they were often stopped and searched by the police. In April 1981, the Metropolitan Police introduced Operation Swamp along with it’s use of SUS laws that enabled them to stop, search and detain on suspicion. It was targeted at the black residents of Brixton and over a period of weeks many black West Indian youth experienced what they considered to be police harassment when they were stop and searched or detained on suspicion.
One evening, the tension between the police officers undertaking Operation Swamp in the community and the Black West Indian community led to violent confrontation that escalated to a riot. More than 200 police officers were alleged to be injured and numerous members of the community. Brixton was a battleground with blood and fire in the streets.
Once the dust began to settle, the government were forced to investigate the incidents and conditions that had led the Brixton riots. A investigative commission led by Lord Scarman was set up that included dialogue between Scarman and community groups that represented the black West Indian community in Brixton and it produced the historic Scarman Report. The Scarman Report argued that the violent protests in Brixton had come about through “complex political, social and economic factors”. Many of which would have had a root in the 400 years of enslavement in Britain’s overseas plantations, at least from the perspective of the community of Brixton. The report argued that “Institutional Racism” was not a factor, as some had argued and more pointed to the issue of “Racial Disadvantage” and “Racial Discrimination”; which for the black people of Brixton would have had its roots in the plantations of Jamaica and Grenada and other Caribbean islands.
Scarman referred to this “Racial Disadvantage” as “endemic, ineradicable, disease, threatening the very survival of our society”. In his recommendations he argued that “Positive Discrimination” in the context of Black West Indians was a “price worth paying”.
Unfortunately, Lord Scarman’s recommendations went unheeded and there was no programme of “Positive Discrimination” as he had advised would be needed for the very survival of our society. The historic failure to respond to the racial disadvantage in the way outlined by Lord Scarman has led the black West Indian community to become further mired in unemployment, imprisonment and income poverty, disproportionate to the population size. Often the compounding of these issues leads to dalliances with drugs such as crack cocaine and the use of marijuana as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder developed behind enemy lines.
In 1997, the historic murder of black West Indian Stephen Lawrence at the hands of young white thugs sparked accusations by the black community of “Institutional Racism” in British society. The subsequent investigation led by Sir William Macpherson produced the Macpherson report. The report would become a landmark in race relations in Britain after it identified aspects of “Institutional Racism” in the Metropolitan Police Force of London. The report argued that the recommendations that had been proposed in the Scarman Report in 1981 had not been implemented. Up until 2014, the investigation had not been completed and there had been some confessions by former police officers of foul play.
In Britain the discourse associated with racial struggle comes out of the experiences of the Black West Indian community in Britain. The politics of Black Britain is the politics of racial justice in Britain. It is the historic struggle between Britain’s black Anglicised population from its overseas plantations and the British state that has shaped the call Black Lives Matter in Britain. It is the black Anglicised community that have been at the forefront of fighting racial justice that has enabled other minority communities to somewhat escape the narrative and experience of racial injustice.
The language and the narrative of Black Britain and its struggle is the language and narrative of the Caribbean’s. Black British identity and politics arose out of decades of racial strife between the black Anglicised that share names, language and a Head of State with white Britain and the British state. This is not to argue that other minority communities such as the Pakistani community or the Bangladeshi community or the African community have not been the victims of racial slurs or racial violence. It is to claim that the historic narrative of Black Britain, that has brought forward the identity of black Britishness and the language of “Institutional Racism”, “Positive Discrimination”, “Racial Disadvantage” and Black Lives Matter in Britain and the US is the language of those descendants of 400 years of slavery and colonialism in Britain’s overseas plantations.
This is not to belittle the racial experience of other minorities in Britain that are of African continental descent but to clarify that the 400 year period of slavery and colonialism experienced by the descendants of Anglicised African slaves cannot be compared- in terms of its ability to disenfranchise and stigmatise- to for example the 60 year period of colonialism experienced by Nigeria or the 64 years of colonialism experienced by Ghana both of which gave birth to a substantial African elite that have never had the experience of slavery.