Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

UK government and racial discrimination

by Marika Sherwood

In the early twentieth century, the government in Britain did nothing to defuse racial discrimination; nor did it have to pass many laws to make sure it occurred. This was presumably because of a general consensus among whites about African and Asian people that allowed racial discrimination in Britain to exist.

The League of Coloured Peoples founded in London in 1931, and other organisations opposed to racial discrimination, such as those established in Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields did approach trade unions, local government and central government, and were listened to, usually quite politely. But nothing was done.

Economic factors

Occasionally there was 'popular' protest regarding the presence of 'people of colour'. For example, in 1916 there was a serious labour shortage because of the thousands of men slaughtered in the First World War. The government proposed importing 'colonials', who would be shipped home when the war ended. The Secretary of the War Emergency: Workers' National Committee (part of the Labour party) sent a resolution (dated 30 November 1916) to Prime Minister Asquith: '….the Committee, having to record the serious moral, social, industrial and economic considerations in any introduction of coloured labour into this country, supports the Labour party in its emphatic protest against such introduction'. This resulted in various attempts, both legal and persuasive, to 'repatriate' black people after the end of the First World War.

During the Depression, when Britain's maritime industry was badly affected, the Alien Seamen Order was passed by parliament in 1925 to bar foreign seamen from employment. However, perhaps in response to the racist National Seamen's Union, the instructions to chief constables stated that all 'coloured' seamen were to be registered as 'aliens' (almost all were from the British Empire, and thus not 'aliens'). However, as the wages of seamen from the colonies were legally much lower than those that of whites, not all shipping companies enforced the order.

Immigration control

But most government action was taken to restrict immigration. This began with the agitation of the British Brothers' League against Jewish incomers, and resulted in the 1905 Aliens Act, restricting immigration.

After the Second World War, Britain needed the loyalty of its colonies. So the nationality act bestowed British citizenship on them. Some West Indians were unable to find employment in their own countries after returning from war work for Britain. So they returned to Britain starting in 1948 on the now historic ship called the ss Empire Windrush. These West Indians were followed by others from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. Further labour shortages, caused by the numbers of Britons emigrating, led to recruiters from many industries rushing to the colonies, and now independent Pakistan and India, in search of willing workers.

The response in Britain to the new arrivals ranged from mild to aggressive protest. These protests included demonstrations, pickets, street fights and even lynchings, from 1948 onwards. In 1962 parliament responded by passing the first act limiting immigration from the colonies. This did not stop violence against visible migrants; there were sporadic anti-black riots up and down the country. For example, Liverpool in 1948; Notting Hill (London) and Nottingham in 1958; in Lewisham (London) and Ladywood in 1977; Brixton (London) in 1981.

Race relations

Further immigration-limiting parliamentary acts were passed in 1968 and 1971. Then the 1981 Nationality Act deprived many ex-colonials of British nationality. The governments of the day also decided that some attempt had to be made to alleviate the situations faced by 'coloured' immigrants and passed Race Relations Acts in 1965 and 1976. These, according to many, were mainly ineffective. For example, in 1991 there were 26,000 racially motivated acts of vandalism recorded, and 32,000 racially motivated assaults (The Independent 23 July 1998).

Despite governmental investigations into major riots, it was not until the judicial enquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence that the police (but not any other profession) had to institute 'diversity' training and begin a measure of accountability regarding racist behaviour or actions.

Government departments are now supposed to comply with standards regarding 'diversity' issues such as employment, promotion and consultation, but these are often not much more than 'tick box' exercises. However, some say that until the government demands to see the annual results of these 'diversity' policies, they will have little effectiveness.

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