Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Institutional racism

by Marika Sherwood

In times past, many black residents and visitors to Britain noted in their memoirs instances of racial prejudice. Yet until the 1900s there was little formalised institutional racial discrimination, if by this we mean laws and regulations discriminating against 'people of colour', as existed in the USA and South Africa.

That does not mean, of course, that it did not exist. When people are of like mind, they do not need regulations to act cohesively. So discriminatory practices and cultures within organisations including churches, banks, pubs and hotels, the military, mills and other workplaces were widespread.

Colonial segregation and the military

It was different in the colonies where discrimination was overtly regulated: Britons in India, the Caribbean and Africa lived in segregated locations and there were regulations preventing the promotion, for example, of British-trained African doctors in the colonial medical service.

From the beginning of the twentieth century there was legally enshrined discrimination in Britain. For example, the British military had what was called a 'colour bar' clause from 1912 which carried on throughout the World Wars. This meant, for example, that 'coloured' men were very rarely commissioned as officers in the army. Until the pressures of war, the Royal Air Force too had a whites only policy.

An exception was the famous footballer Walter Tull who was a second lieutenant when he died at the 2nd Battle of the Somme in 1918. Also, in the RAF by 1945 there were around 70 black commissioned officers including Cy Grant from Guyana, the navigator on a Lancaster Bomber who was shot down in 1943 over Holland and kept as a POW by the Nazis. Grant later went on to become a lawyer, actor for film, TV and theatre, musician and singer, and co-founded The Drum Centre for the arts of black people in London in the 1970s, and continues to inspire to this day.

Stephen Lawrence and institutionalised racism in the police

Discrimination by institutions can also simply be accepted, without being enshrined in law. The police stop and search many more 'people of colour', because the officers are sure they are guilty of something. Judges and magistrates have been shown to impose longer sentences on black people. In 1993 the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, was barely investigated by the police. His family mounted a huge protest and succeeded in persuading the government to scrutinise the non-investigation of their son's murder. Judge Macpherson in 1999 declared the police to have practised 'institutional racism'.

Discrimination by omission

Another form of institutional racism can be by the failure to include examples of people from different cultural backgrounds in history. For example the almost total omission of the histories and achievements of 'coloured people' in Britain from the National Curriculum until September 2008. This perpetuates the situation found by the League of Coloured Peoples, when the colonies were being asked to support Britain in World War Two:

'it can be stated positively that the subject of Coloured Peoples is virtually disregarded in

most of the History books…. Equally astounding is the virtual absence of any discussion of race relations' (LCP, Race Relations and the Schools, London, c.1944, p.10).

Further relevant writings by Marika Sherwood include:

'After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade since 1807' I.B. Tauris, 2007
‘Manchester, Liverpool and Slavery’, North West Labour History, 32,16-22 2007-08
'Perfidious Albion: Britain, the USA and slavery in the 1840s and 1860s', Contributions to Black Studies, 13-14 1995-6