By Clinton Sealy
Black people have been present in Britain for many centuries. Africans were part of the Roman Army, Catherine of Aragon had African servants and Queen Elisabeth I was entertained by Africans in her court. Despite this she actively discouraged such migration and ordered their deportation from other parts of the country to avoid too many ‘Blackamoors’ being brought into the land.
The slave trade ensured further migration to Britain as the wealthy found a black servant a novelty; this can sometimes be seen through its documentation in paintings. There is also much to suggest that black people faced prejudice throughout those early years, just as it continues today.
With the abolition of the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807 in Britain and 1808 in US., trade had been abolished, but slavery hadn’t. In 1833 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act. British slave-owners were recompensed under the Slave Compensation Act of 1837 to the tune of £20 million, which amounted to 40% of the Treasury’s annual budget. Britain’s Slave Owner Compensation Loan was finally paid back in 2015. This was the biggest loan the Government had ever taken out, and remained the biggest until the bank bailout in 2008. See Legacies of British of British Slave Ownership Project.
After 1807, a further wave of migration into Britain evolved as slaves were liberated from illegal trading ships off the coast of West Africa, and over the years as slaves escaped their masters in the Americas.
Anthropologists and social scientists went to lengths to try and demonstrate the inferiority of the black race, although none of the theories stand up to any scrutiny. For example in 1864 James Hunt, President of the London Anthropological Society wrote a paper, The Negro’s Place in Nature Society, and concluded the negro is inferior intellectually to the European, without a strand of empirical evidence.
During the two great wars a marked increase in the black population took place in Britain, as people from the colonies supported the war effort of the Motherland. The recognition received for this role loud by its absence.
Post WWII another wave of immigration came from the West Indies, invited by the Tory government of the day to fill job vacancies in Britain. Encouraged to believe they were part of the ‘Great British Empire’, and that a warm welcome awaited them in the Motherland. This has become known as the Windrush Generation, and is intrinsically linked to the emergence of racism as we know it today. The term Black British developed in 1950s and at that time referred exclusively to people of West Indian origin.
During the 1970s the use of Black British extended to other people of colour, and took on a political persona as the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) battled against the rise of the National Front (NF). Nevertheless the term has always been contentious in respect of who it described; some feeling empowered by the term, others marginalised. Over the years people have risen up to challenge racism in Brixton, St Pauls, Toxteth, Moss Side and Tottenham.
Racism is entwined with colonialism and the attitudes of those who ruled over the former colonies. Through their power, wealth and control of the media, they have created a popular myth that skin colour indicates something more than it actually does. This in turn gives us someone to blame and through populist politics of divide and conquer they are able to encourage those views to embed themselves in the British psyche. The issue is really the British Class system, but they have successfully distracted us from that with their ‘common sense’ ideologies.
Various studies published in 2014 and 2015 claim racism is on the rise in Britain and this is linked with factors such as levels of unemployment and immigration, when the issue we should be tackling is the growing gap between rich and poor.
Racism is complex, but is ultimately about power and prejudice. We can site prejudice throughout and between different groups in society, but without the power of the ruling class to withhold resources, prejudice is different to racism.
Institutional and systemic racism exists in all our institutions with clear examples in the Police, Prisons, Education and Criminal justice systems.
On a cultural level racial sterotyes were everywhere on television, radio and in the newspapers and magazines. Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death us do Part being examples of British sitcoms that encourage such stereotypes. Social media has too opened up a hornets nest with anonymity fuelling insults.
Brexit has lent a voice to those closet racists we now see crawling out of their closets emboldened by the leaders of western ‘democracies’. Undoubtedly progress has happened, but it’s regressing now and if we don’t make a stand we could see history repeating itself.