Did you know that the 22nd June is Windrush Day? It is the anniversary of the day when the first large group of migrants from the West Indies arrived in Britain on the ship, Windrush and it is also a day to celebrate the contribution of migrants to our society. So, in this post I look at our immediate reaction to the death of George Floyd and touch on the Windrush scandal, which points to the structural racism within our institutions, government and society.
And apologies for being rather late in commenting on this but maybe that’s good, in that we don’t want the death of George Floyd to be momentary and a thing for a week and then dropped and forgotten.
There was a march in Brighton soon after George Floyd’s horrific murder that had been caught live on a phone. Looking at this positively, and I can’t speak for London where there were some clashes with the far right, but well done everyone for the great atmosphere in Brighton and the numbers attending. I didn’t go as my marching days are over, and I have thought who am I to speak on this? I am a privileged white woman who has never suffered any racism, what do I know? However, I do have some views because I too want to advance equality and justice for black people.
Consequent to the death of George Floyd there has been lot of debate here in the UK on racism and the plight of those BAME people who’ve died in police custody – because, oh yes, it happens here. There’s been discussion and even some outright denial that we are not as racist as over there in the States. And, of course, we don’t have police forces armed in the way the US kits out its police, but racism is rife in our police force – to believe this just read the experiences of BAME police officers who’ve suffered it themselves and then sadly, look at the stats of those who’ve died in police custody.
But the discussions on television have been interesting and thoughtful. In one, a pundit (who was black) said in response to a question ‘what is your experience of racism’, perhaps the question to ask is ‘what is it to be white?’ Because, he explained, as a black his experience of racism is a response, so what is it to be white? Very good point, I thought.
Yes, this is about the structural endemic racism embedded into our society, which could be changed if there was a will to so do. And what is the immediate solution to this emanating from our government? It was announced that there will be a government commission on racial inequalities headed up by woman who is, I give you that, a BAME woman, but who doubts the existence of institutional racism and has criticised David Lammy’s review on inequalities in the judicial system. I hesitate to say you couldn’t make it up, but really, is that the best you can do? And the answer is yes, that is the best, because the elite won’t want real change, will it? Perhaps I have seen too many enquiries, but I am not holding out much hope for much change when everything rests on a ‘commission’.
I contend that here in the UK we are racist, and it is a racism that is deeply embedded in our culture and society. You think not? I’ll say one word in response: Windrush.
I cannot and won’t speak of the contamination that Americans suffer to their psyche as a result of slavery, that is their burden that I know nothing of, although, of course, we have our connections to slavery that must and needs to be acknowledged. But Windrush is a stain on our stature as a nation, which, while we may throw up our hands and say how awful is this, how could this happen, we haven’t exactly been out of the streets demonstrating that we reject this horror visited upon our citizens. Instead it’s been a dull acceptance that maybe it’s wrong but, what can I do? Include me in this, by the way, as there have been many articles, news items, documentaries, and now a play on television about Windrush, and I can hardly bear to watch or read any of them, and I hesitate to say, because it pains me so. Because, I am hurt? What about those who have been deported to a country they do not know, leaving behind family and a lifetime of work and paying taxes to a country they believed was theirs.
For those of you living outside the UK here in the UK there is a belief the government’s intimidation against citizens who are black and of Caribbean origin began with the 2012 ‘Hostile Environment’ legislation. This is a myth, as is the myth that after the war the government invited people from our Caribbean islands to come to the UK to make up the shortfall in the labour needed to rebuild Britain. In actual fact, the authorities were highly alarmed at this influx of Caribbean people and much correspondence can be seen in records around the potential impact from the worrying number of people from the Caribbean coming over and taking jobs from British citizens – see the documentary, The Unwanted for more on this .
To understand why people from the Caribbean came over to England in the late 1940s it is important to note that the 1948 British Nationality Act allowed all members of our Commonwealth (or Colonies as they were known) to come to Britain and have the right of settlement with the authorities very much hoping that this would result in migration to Britain from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, the HMT Empire Windrush ship, en route for England from Australia, docked in Jamaica to pick up soldiers going on leave to England, but there were berths going free. It therefore put advertisements in local Jamaican newspapers for cheap crossings to England, which were eagerly taken up. So yes, this ship brought the first groups of Caribbean people to the UK in the late 1940s and early 50s, people who saw Britain as their mother country and who wanted work in the new NHS and other industries such as building work, the buses and underground transport. These heroic people did not find, as they thought, a welcome from this mother country instead they endured a lot of challenging and very sad racism before establishing themselves and becoming as they thought citizens of Britain. Unfortunately, one of the key components to the scandal is that many of the children who came over with the Windrush generation came on their parents’ passports and did not regularise their status. The ‘Hostile Environment’ of 2012 that endeavoured to make it impossible for undocumented migrants to live in the UK, placed the burden of proof on those caught out with no passports. People had to produce a document for every year they said they had lived in the UK. As many of these children of the Windrush could not do this and as the government had destroyed thousands of landing cards that would have proved they arrived when they did, they were unable to work, use the NHS, get their pensions, have driving licences, bank accounts – the list goes on. And many were put in detention centres and deported to a country they knew nothing of.
It makes me weep and rage at the same time, at the thought that some of the nurses I worked with as colleagues and friends are in that category. I worked in the NHS with many nurses who were not born in the UK but came in the 60s from the Caribbean. I am so glad that my very good friend from St Lucia went back to St Lucia. To think…no I don’t want to even begin to think of her being abused by a Kafkaesque, inhumane bureaucracy that took no note of people’s pleas that they were British and had lived in Britain all their lives.
This scandal continues because although the intimidation has ceased the compensation is slow to arrive and there has been no real apology for the way they have been treated. It is a disgrace. (But see the P.S below for an update)
Instead of denials or falling back onto the idea that things have changed, and we are so much less racist, let’s just accept that we as a nation are racist, and ask how can we change for the better?
I would now contend that it is not a matter of being ‘nicer’ the answer is education, education, education, of the elite, our decision makers, our civil servants who quite obviously need to understand the history of the people they are dealing with, and above all, our children at school. Because why do we have a multi-cultural population? In the crudest of terms, have you ever heard of the phrase, that they (sorry) are over here, because we were over there? As a nation we had an Empire, and we were directly involved in the slave trade. Are we truly aware of what this entailed? Do we know and own the consequences of Empire and slavery? Unfortunately, there are those in power at this precise moment who want our children to have a glorified idea of our history. Brave men, brave battles, and be proud of our brave and magnificent history. Well, look at this another way, why can’t we be truly brave and face what we did?
And the old, old argument that it was of its time? Yes, I accept that and then again, no, I don’t accept it. That’s a tired old argument, that everybody did it, they went out and conquered the world and traded slaves and nobody stopped us and gosh, everybody did it, so….. Instead let us think of this. Numbers of people taken from Africa vary between 9 and 11 million and could be more, did they think slavery was good for them? No. I dare say they did not. That is a substantial number against the slave trade, in that era and that time. So let’s not rest on the argument that everyone did it, and while there were those who objected, let’s not romanticise the few abolitionists around. And why? Because there were huge numbers of people against slavery and yet, and yet it continued for centuries. And, of course, slavery in a number of forms is still around to this day.
Meanwhile I also contend that the slave trade did not exactly benefit the working population of Great Britain, it was always the few who benefitted, facilitated and enabled by the law of the land. And at the end of slavery, as you know, the reparation paid did not go to the slaves it went to the slave owners. And so, do you ever ask where the riches of the aristocrats came from, with their great houses and castles? I believe that a favourite past time for many is to go around these castles and old country houses a la Downtown Abbey. I am such a prig, really I am, as when I have done the occasional guided tour of one of those monuments to our class system, I just tut-tut my way through it thinking how did they come to such wealth? Because if it wasn’t the slave trade it would be India, or if they acquired their money earlier, being a robber baron and sacking the surrounding villages. Not a lover of our aristocracy, I have to say, and I am glad to hear that the National Trust is going to expose the links of these great houses to slavery. About time too.
I just hope the racism debate that seems to have died down a bit (but hopefully not forgotten, please no) doesn’t get bogged down to one single question; that of our statues. For those of you living outside the UK there was a moment shortly after George Floyd’s death when emotions ran high and in Bristol the statue of a notorious slave trader, Edward Colston was brought down, rolled to the harbour and sent tumbling into the sea, like so many of his slaves on the way to the Americas. I hesitate to say I support the people that did this, as I am not keen on activities coming from any march or crowd, or group, or mob that results in violent actions. But I do in this instance, as there had been a long campaign to rid the city of the Colston statue, which had been ignored, so with the statue recovered from the briny and a plan to put it in museum with a full explanation of his role in the slave trade, all I can say is, good.
And then there was a little flurry of anxiety amongst some regarding the statue of Churchill, when a few hotheads tried to burn the flags around it. For a short while this statue was boarded up. And then there was the case of the Baden-Powell statue (the founder of the boy scout movement) being guarded by scouts and a few other types. But any worries about statues being torn down by a mob seem also to have dissipated somewhat. Again, good.
However, the thing is we are back to education again. Churchill is revered for being a great leader during the Second World War. That cannot be denied, he was. However, he did have some dreadful views on India and Indians, and I don’t think the Welsh like him all that much. Great men who rise to the top are not saints. And he did not win the war on his own, that comes from the dire British exceptionalism view that we are a plucky little nation that can do things on our own because look how we were in the war (don’t start me on that road!) because let us not forget all the other countries who were with us even in those early days of the war. It is a myth that we stood alone.
I believe that the statues that are part of the furniture of towns and cities should come under scrutiny and quite rightly so. Because who are these people that are literally placed on a pedestal above us all? I have walked past many not knowing who they are, I mean they’re mostly men for a start. But really, a critical look at who we are meant to revere is no bad thing.
Above all, I think we need to look clearly at ourselves and not through a glass darkly, and definitely not through rose tinted ideas of the past and our glory. Let our children see and understand more about our past. And can we all accept that any glory we obtained was at the cost of much suffering.
Penny Kocher 23 June 2020
P.S. Today (24 June 2020) I read this morning that the UK government is to act on all 30 recommendations contained in Wendy Williams’ report Windrush Lessons Learnt. I quote from the article (see below for link) that
“Patel’s decision is also an implicit acknowledgement that systemic and cultural change is necessary.”
“….. agreed that Home Office staff needed to be made to ‘learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of black Britons’.”
Wow – to be made to learn about the history of back Britons – so good.
PK 24 June 2020
Nazir Afzal, Black people dying in police custody should surprise no one. The Guardian, 11 June 2020
Caroline Davies, National Trust hastens projects exposing links of country houses to slavery. The Guardian, 22 June 2020
Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment. Try various bookshops
Amelia Gentleman, UK government to act on all 30 Windrush recommendations. The Guardian, 23 June 2020
David Allen Green, Law, history, slavery. The Law and Policy Blog
Martin Kettle, Fighting over statues obscures the real problem: Britain’s delusion about its past. The Guardian, 11 June 2020
Keith Lowe, Did Britain Stand Alone in WW2? History Extra, February 2019
Also BBC News , Windrush: Grave risk of scandal repeat, warns review author.