Leila Hassan Howe is a veteran anti‑racist who in 1981 helped organise the famous Black People’s Day of Action march that followed the New Cross Fire. She was an active member of the Race Today Collective, edited its journal, and was involved in all of its key struggles. She spoke to Socialist Worker on the eve of a British Film Institute retrospective centred on her partner and collaborator, Darcus Howe.
SW: Following the huge success of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe TV series, how have you coped with the sudden interest in radical black British history and struggles you played such a leading role in? And did you find yourself looking at the programmes and getting cross about missing details?
LHH: I am grateful. When Darcus died five years ago, one of the intentions of the small collective I am part of was that this history should be told.
We wanted to tell people that there was a struggle that went on intensely in the 1970s and early 80s and which had not really been recognised.
We questioned why, when people in Britain were talking about black history, they were always talking about the United States, not black history here.
Both the Black Lives Matter movement and the television documentaries opened the whole thing up.
I did get cross a little with missing details in the documentary Uprising.
When it focused on the Black People’s Day of Action march, I realised that they were not going to cover the political organisation that went behind it.
They wanted to base it around personal testimonies.
But on the other hand, what they achieved with the personal testimonies, particularly from those who were in the fire, I think made it much more emotionally interesting.
Perhaps another missing element of the films was an in-depth exploration of the politics of the time, specifically, the question of ‘Political Blackness’. Why was that concept so important to you?
As a collective, we were very much embedded in the immigrant struggles of the late 1960s, 70s, and early 80s.
Those struggles for us were Asian, West Indian and African—and of the young people who had been educated here were born here.
At that time there was a feeling of unity between different nationalities.
We’re now in the phase of identity politics but I don’t know that you can politically mobilise around identity. But at that point in time, the immigrant working class and their offspring were demanding equal rights and justice in this country. So we represented that.
Farrukh Dhondy, an Indian member of the collective, said that this approach stemmed from the Black Panther Party in the US. The Panthers were very much about oppression being coloured by being black.
So you could be from the Middle East, you could be from India, you could be Mexican-American and be part of the black struggle. I think we carried on that unity in Race Today.
For example, we supported the Bengali community in East London in their housing movement—the big squatting movement of the 1980s. The Race Today offices got a phone call from a Bengali who said, “We understand you help black people, and we need help.”
You were very involved in the wave of factory workers’ struggles led by Asian workers in the 1970s. How did that come about?
Back then, the fight for Asian workers wasn’t just against employers, it was also against the unions.
They had a kind of Empire view that as immigrants we should be grateful for what we got.
And they thought that by working for low wages, we were undercutting the rest of the working class.
So those struggles were characterised by the demand to change the unions as much as against the employers.
The Race Today Collective had a particular orientation on the black working class. What did that mean?
Our whole reason for being was to support and encourage black working class movements. And, at that time, the black middle class was just a few handfuls of professionals. There were very few of them.
Even if you came to Britain with higher education it meant little.
Darcus was very highly educated but went to work in the Post Office.
So that concept of having a professional class or even, as we have now, a moneyed middle class—black or Asian—didn’t exist.
So we were absolutely embedded in working class struggles. And those politics were heavily influenced by the black radical CLR James.
The Race Today Collective was more pessimistic about the prospects of black and white unity at that time than much of the left. Was that a product of experience or theory?
It was both. Black self‑organisation and self‑determination came to us from the United States and from Pan-Africanism.
I wouldn’t say we were pessimistic. But I will say that one of the signs of how things have changed is that when I was in the Black Power movement and in the Collective we organised demonstrations. But the only people who would support us would be members of the Socialist Workers Party.
We never got any mass support.
Whereas with Black Lives Matter today, you’re seeing for the first time, hundreds and thousands of young white people coming out saying racism is wrong and we want justice.
When I grew up, that did not exist. In fact, it was the opposite. Most definitely something has changed.
I went on a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London last year, and what struck me was the hundreds of thousands of young white people. That was the first time I had ever seen that.
And the power, and the feeling on the march showed they really meant it.
It wasn’t just a symbolic thing. They absolutely meant it when you saw their faces, when you saw them taking the knee, when you looked at the placards they made. They absolutely believed it.
So that is a huge change that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Now, we have a right-wing Tory government pursuing a hard racist agenda, and yet they’ve got black ministers fronting up their policies. Does that surprise you?
No, because what we’re seeing is the development of a class that has no concerns for working class lives, and how poor people live. We don’t have anything in common with Tory ministers Rishi Sunak or Kwasi Kwarteng.
It’s wrong to suggest that somehow these black people have been incorporated by the state.
Sunak is a millionaire, he has a genuine class interest with the Tories.
He is as anti-black working class as any white person in that government. That being laid bare is a good thing.
Lots of people involved with Black Lives Matter have come to understand racism in structural terms, but also agree when they hear a call for more black people in positions of power. Is that a contradiction?
There is no doubt we do need more black people in positions of power.
Even in terms of democracy alone, there has to be more black representation in all areas of life. But what those people do once they are “the representatives” is another story.
As the civil rights leader Al Sharpton put it at George Floyd’s funeral, “Black Faces in High Places” did not mean change for a lot of black people in the US. Darcus always used to say to students, some of whom were very successful, it’s a question of whether you become like the institution you join or can affect change in that institution.
Of all the lessons you’ve learnt in struggle, what is the one you most hope will carry over to the new generation?
The need for collective action. No matter what they tell you, you cannot do it by yourself.
For me, acting in common cause with others is more effective, not only for change but for yourself too.
That’s how you stop being a victim and actually start doing something about it.
It’s about how you change yourself and your whole perspective.
BFI African Odysseys, celebrate Darcus Howe, BFI Southbank, London, 5 November—14 November, Featuring: A Date with the Devil—DarcusHowe’s journey from Black Power to Broadcasting, Sat 6 November. This session will include a discussion with Leila Hassan, writer Farrukh Dhondy and activist Tariq Ali Tickets on sale now at bfi.org.uk/whatson
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