There are moments in the history of racism when everything appears to be in flux. Suddenly there are new and militant forces on the streets.
This mood takes incremental changes that have occurred over years and moulds them into something new and powerful.
These are times when the tide of prejudice can be turned from one direction to another—with dramatic effect.
The period following racist Tory MP Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in April 1968 marks one such turning point.
For completely opposing reasons, the aftermath of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 marks another.
Powell’s speech unleashed a wave of racism. It legitimised pent-up hatred against migrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
And it led directly to blood on the streets as racists turned words into action. “Enoch is right,” was the battle cry of those who bashed, bruised, and burned their way through Britain’s inner cities.
Labour politicians attacked Powell as “evil” and racist. But Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in 1964, had also played an abhorrent role.
In the mid-1960s British capitalism entered a period of crisis that would last for decades.
Under pressure from the City of London, Wilson responded with measures designed to make the working class pay.
The early optimism of the 1960s, with its talk of replacing slums with new housing, and drudgery with technology, now looked like a cruel joke.
Millions of people who had put their faith in Labour felt utterly abandoned.
Their demoralisation fed the notion that immigration was putting Britain under strain, that there were not enough jobs, homes and schools to go round.
The working class’s loss of confidence in its own ability to resist the attacks helped those that wanted to cast migrants as an enemy.
In 1967 new groups of Asian migrants tried to flee to Britain from persecution in Kenya. A racist backlash grew. Labour’s shameful response was to declare a national crisis.
MPs rushed a bill through parliament that stopped Kenyan Asians, but not white settlers, from coming to Britain.
The political effect of such controls was to confirm that immigrants were a “problem” that needed to be controlled.
The waters were poisoned further by trade union leaders who shielded the government and instead argued for restrictions to “stop immigration driving down wages”.
This racist consensus filtered through the wider labour movement. It confined opposition to racism to migrant organisations and the radical left—forces which at the time were not significant enough to drive back the wave of prejudice.
So by the time that Powell took to the podium in Birmingham to declare that immigration must be stopped, he found layers of people willing to listen. They had been prepped by decades of racism from the ruling class and the media.
Within a few years support for Powell would provide the bedrock for the fascist National Front. But the tide did turn against racism. It took a conscious intervention by anti-racists in the working class movement.
Workers in most industries began to rebuild rank and file union organisation and put up resistance to the government and employers’ offensive in the early 1970s. Soon whole industries struck with devastating effect.
With the increased combativity came a revival of working class confidence.
Black and Asian workers were very much part of the new spirit. They fought against the gangs of racists that toured their areas, and also against the employers that tried to exploit them.
The idea that migrants were passive victims to be used and abused by the bosses took a battering.
There was nothing automatic about this process—it was an argument taken up and won in the movement by anti-racists.
The once isolated, small groups of socialists found they could now more easily connect their anti-racism to newly radicalising workers. This was to have huge implications.
In 1976 a strike by a small group of Asian women at the Grunwick photo processing plant in west London became a rallying point for workers.
Delegations of dockers, miners, builders and postal workers all played a crucial role in the mass picketing that became the hallmark of the dispute.
And the new traditions were also behind the spectacular rise of the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism which went on to defeat the fascist National Front.
Twenty five years after Powell’s speech, the murder of Stephen Lawrence in south east London in 1993 marked another dramatic shift in anti-racism.
Stephen was not the first young black man to die at the hands of a racist gang—far from it. But his killing unleashed a tidal wave of revulsion that went far beyond the black community.
Most people were shocked by the vicious hatred of the thugs who wielded the knife. But their anger reached new heights as they learned of the police racism and corruption that deliberately bungled the initial murder investigation.
The idea that the state and its pillars in the police and judicial systems were “institutionally racist” had been prevalent among radicals. But in the wake of Stephen’s murder they became common sense for millions of people.
In shopping centres, workplaces and colleges activists were suddenly inundated by people who wanted to sign their petitions calling for the Metropolitan Police chief to be sacked.
Meetings and marches were packed—and the best reception went to those who called for the most militant action.
Many of those who were politicised by the campaign learnt an important lesson —that the state is the main driver of racism in society. But this turning point in the fight against racism was the culmination of interwoven struggles.
The demoralisation associated with long years of Tory government had by the end of the 1980s given way to a new combative mood.
Prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policy, the poll tax, had been sunk following mass protests—and once again people began to feel they could fight collectively and win.
The cancer of racism did not disappear automatically with this new hope of class struggle. But fighting together meant people were more receptive to radical anti-racist arguments.
For many workers, the multicultural society was a simple fact of life as families, friends and workmates from different ethnicities intermingled.
The campaign against the Nazi British National Party’s (BNP) only councillor in east London in 1993 helped turn that anti-racist sentiment into a movement.
Some 60,000 marched to demand the BNP’s Welling HQ be closed down after Stephen’s murder only a few miles away.
Shortly after the march Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, received a standing ovation at the unions’ TUC conference. It agreed to call a major anti-racist demonstration in the spring of the following year.
The scale of the campaign led the Labour Party, then in opposition, to commit to a judicial inquiry into Stephen’s murder and the failed police investigation. When elected by a landslide in 1997, it kept its promise.
The hearings were a revelation, attended by hundreds every day and regularly televised on TV news. On the day Stephen’s killers were forced to attend they came face to face with throngs of young people who swore and spat at the five swaggering racists.
The resulting Macpherson report concluded that the police’s failings in the Stephen Lawrence case were the result of “institutional racism” in the force.
Police chiefs and right wingers were livid. They have tried to undermine the report and its conclusions ever since, insisting that “political correctness” is preventing them from doing their job.
Despite our victories, we can today hear many echoes of Enoch Powell’s racism.
Few people openly talk of the black man having “the whip hand over the white man” anymore.
But the idea that “white working class culture” has been taken over by “multiculturalism” is given regular airtime, and is nodded to approvingly by right wing politicians.
And the lie that immigrants are to blame for falling living standards is once again repeated by some Labour politicians and trade union leaders.
For ideas about how to respond we need to look back to our history and the struggle to combine anti-racism and class struggle into a hammer against prejudice and bigotry.
And ultimately the fight to end racism once and for all means getting rid of class society as well.