Black History Month

How Does Britain’s History Affect its Contemporary Relationship with Race?

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This article is a response to our ‘Making History’ campaign for Black History Month. If you would also like to submit a piece for this, please get in touch at editor@bbench.co.uk.

The history of Great Britain is like Great Britain itself – diverse, but fraught with tension. Great Britain prides itself on values like mutual respect and tolerance, yet the nation has a long-standing pattern of discriminating against Black communities.

Anti-Black racism has persisted in Britain, even though Black individuals have been historically present in Britain as early as the Roman period. As a global leader of the international slave trade, the British Empire became one of the biggest perpetrators of anti-Black racism. From the sixteenth century, thousands of Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and transported to the British colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas. 

These enslaved Black people laboured in inhumane conditions, which allowed the British Empire to acquire great wealth. In 1833, slavery was abolished in all British colonies, but it was the British plantation owners who were paid millions in compensation. So, slavery played an integral role in entrenching systemic racism towards Black people in Britain.

The twentieth century saw widespread anti-Black racism in Britain. In 1919, there was an outbreak of race riots, fuelled by fears that people of colour were ‘stealing’ jobs from their white counterparts. Anti-Black racism was also legally enforced. Between 1950 and 1975, a series of legislation was passed which restricted entry to Britain, including the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962) and the Immigration Act (1971). 

Additionally, in 1968, Enoch Powell MP criticised mass immigration in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, labelling Britain “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” Thus, the law and the government was discriminatory towards Black and migrant communities in Britain.

The twenty-first century has also witnessed a wave of anti-Black racism in Britain. In the Windrush Scandal of 2018, Black Britons (known as the ‘Windrush Generation’) who emigrated from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973 were denied their benefits, wrongly detained and threatened with deportation. This catastrophe occurred because the then-Home Secretary, Theresa May, tightened UK immigration laws. An investigation is underway as to whether or not the Home Office breached equality law by failing to protect the rights of Black Britons. The government’s hostile measures left the Windrush Generation jobless, stranded and in legal trouble. Hence, the Windrush Scandal exposes the blatant racism within Britain’s immigration system.

Anti-Black racism also launched the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. The global campaign has attracted protestors all over the world, mainly due to the tragic murder of George Floyd earlier this year. Among the Movement’s demands are an end to police brutality and the dismantling of institutional racism. 

Britons are also marching in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because of issues like racial disparity in healthcare and over-policing of Black youths. In fact, the deaths of Stephen Lawrence (1974) and Mark Duggan (2011) show that anti-Black racism and racially motivated violence towards Black men was, and still is, a generational issue.

In more recent news, a powerful anti-Black racism statement backfired during the Britain’s Got Talent live finals. Ofcom received 24,500 complaints after the dance group Diversity performed a politically charged routine which highlighted police brutality. The talent show received further backlash after judge Alesha Dixon wore a Black Lives Matter necklace and contestant Nabil Abdulrashid made jokes about race and Islamophobia. None of this content warranted an investigation by Ofcom. But, this controversy shows that Britain is still very much divided on the issues of race.

Anti-Black racism is perpetuated by the erasure of Black history in the British educational curriculum. The contributions and struggles of Black people are not widely known because educational curriculums do not place enough emphasis on the cultural histories of ethnic minority groups. Whilst Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a GCSE topic, few students get the opportunity to learn about Black British events such as the Bristol Bus Boycott (1963), which successfully overturned Britain’s colour bar in bus crew recruitment. If we equip students with a fair and accurate portrayal of history, then hopefully, our classrooms will become an environment where all pupils feel included and valued.

The historian David Olusoga recently observed in The Guardian that in 2020, people are engaging with ideas of race and racism like never before. This is due to, he writes, “the concept of ‘anti-racism’ has caught the imagination of the young.” But Britain has a long way to go. 

The work starts here. We must decolonise the educational curriculum in order to uplift Black voices and encourage our younger generations to challenge racial injustice in every form. There is a lot to be proud of in Britain’s history; but in order to build a more inclusive society, we should recognise how the seeds of systemic anti-Black racism were planted.

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