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The state of racism in Britain

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
In the second of our articles marking Black History Month, Ken Olende looks at how racism in Britain has changed over 50 years of struggle
Issue 2325
Black and white workers protesting together against racist work permit laws in 1979 (Pic: John Sturrock)
Black and white workers protesting together against racist work permit laws in 1979 (Pic: John Sturrock)

The experience of being black in Britain has changed beyond recognition after 50 years of fighting racism and being part of working class struggle. It has changed Britain for both black and white people.

Current developments are full of contradictions. On the one hand there is vicious state racism. Asylum seekers face terrible treatment while politicians have created a fortress Europe.

Yet working class people are far more likely to have black and white relationships and friends than they did in the 1960s and 70s.

Racism has been challenged on three fronts—by familiarity, class struggle and anti-racist action. The crudest stereotypes are hard to maintain when living in close proximity to people from different backgrounds. But racism is not a set of old fashioned ideas that is slowly being eroded.

People at the top of society constantly reinforce it because it is useful to them. But they aren’t always against immigration. In fact, capitalism could not work without mass migration. It has created the greatest movements of people in history.

At various times Britain’s rulers have called for immigrants to come and settle in Britain, including Indians and West Indians in the 1950s.

Bosses have always tried to exploit differences between groups of workers. Sometimes it finds a resonance in the trade union movement.

In the 1950s there were even some strikes against bosses’ taking on immigrants. But as working class militancy grew and people became more confidant to fight these ideas were pushed back.

In March 1968 the right wing press and the Tories whipped up a scare that Asians in Kenya who held British passports might “flood” into Britain.


The then Labour government rushed an immigration bill through parliament in a day and a night. The blatantly racist law restricted the right of Kenyan Asians to enter Britain.

This was when Enoch Powell made his notorious anti-immigrant “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell was sacked from the Tory shadow cabinet, but racists gained confidence and racist attacks increased. Dockers in the East End of London and porters in the Smithfield meat market struck in support of him.

Immigrants facing bad housing or lousy work conditions were seen as the cause of the problems they suffered. Yet eight years later more confident workers, including dockers, struck to support Asian women striking at Grunwick in north West London.

A working class culture of resisting racism was developing. It was the reverse of what we are often told in the media about a working class that has supposedly lost its culture.

Grunwick’s was the first strike by largely Asian women to get support from the TUC. Though as strike leader Jayaben Desai commented, “Official action from the TUC is like honey on your elbow. You can smell it, you can see it, but you can never taste it.”

But as workers’ action built unity the Tories returned to office with a more overtly racist agenda. Before her election as prime minister Margaret Thatcher said, “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”

So her government treated immigrants as a problem and brought in new anti-immigration legislation. They developed riot police to hold down workers, like miners, striking against attacks and young black people fighting back against police racism in Britain’s inner cities.

It is no coincidence that the police called their operation that sparked the 1981 Brixton riot “Operation Swamp”.

Resistance to this threw up a new layer of black leaders. Governments ever since have led a concerted effort to divorce such people from the poor working class areas where most of them started out.


Socialist Worker has always emphasised how racism is intimately linked to class. This is not to downplay racism but to show the most effective way of fighting it.

A socialist and trade union movement that organises against racism shows the best way to win. If trade unions don’t take racism seriously it doesn’t just weaken black workers—it makes the union less effective in defending anyone.

United struggles over other things undermine racism too. When workers fight and win they are less likely to accept the scapegoats they are offered by the establishment and the press. And in the process of striking attitudes change as they discover who their real allies are.

An anti-racist movement that is not connected to working class action is also weakened. Black leaders who look to a black business class had nothing to say to outraged young people who rioted last year after police shot Mark Duggan.

The response of the state is not always the same. After the Macpherson inquiry into the botched police investigation into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, police behaviour changed—for a while.

Reluctant chief constables were forced to shift because what ordinary people would accept had changed. But that shift did not survive the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008.

The policing of the riots in 2011 and the racist backlash that followed would have warmed the heart of any racist cop from the 1970s.

That is not to say that racism ever went away, even in the early 2000s. Police in Bradford attacked local Asians who had defended themselves against the Nazi National Front in 2001.

The state can never do without racism. But organised resistance can hold it back, build working class confidence and win real changes.

Labour’s record of failing migrant workers

Until 1964 the Labour Party leadership spoke out against immigration controls. It stopped doing so for two reasons.

First it accepted ruling ideas that scapegoat minorities. Second, it often assumes that its supporters are mildly racist and will be put off if it takes a firm line against racist ideas.

Labour caved in to calls for immigration controls in the 1960s after losing a seat in Smethwick in the 1964 general election to a Tory.

The Tory ran a viciously racist campaign. Gangs of children were organised to chant, “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour.” From that point a cynical and opportunist game of racist trumps became a feature of the election trail.

Labour did not stand up to the capitalists nor to the racists. In the 1970s the party found itself in government as workers’ living standards fell for the first time since the Second World War. The fascist National Front made electoral gains.

Labour introduced the Race Relations Act to outlaw discrimination. But it also created the disgusting spectacle of immigration officials demanding that Asian women arriving in Britain undergo virginity tests at Heathrow airport.

Labour leader Ed Miliband wasn’t breaking new ground at this year’s Labour Party conference when he embraced the Tory “One Nation” idea that ignores class. He claimed that immigrants “undercut workers already here”.

Only last year his then advisor Maurice Glasman said Labour needs to openly recruit racists, including the thugs of the English Defence League. “To build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party,” he said.

Glasman is a key proponent of the right wing Blue Labour philosophy. He has also said he wanted to ban all immigration.

‘You don’t get tea breaks in the jungle’

Dennis Lindo, a mechanic, arrived in Britain in 1962 from Jamica. He told Socialist Worker about his experience.

“You had to be careful where you went as a black man in those days, particularly late at night. White guys in a pub in Shepherd’s Bush didn’t like us drinking in there and started a fight. Some pubs wouldn’t serve you, in others they’d practically throw your drink at you.”

But work was easily available. Dennis got a job within three days. He said, “I was at my first job for nine years, I was the only black guy in my section, but I have friends from that job I’m still friends with now.

“After that I took a job as a mechanic for WH Smith. No one would talk to me, no one called me for tea break when they went. When I asked them why the man said, ‘You don’t get tea breaks in the jungle’. I put my toolbox in the car and never went back.”

Dennis later got a part time job at a college. “I connected well with the students, with the exception of a few who didn’t want to accept a black man teaching them.

“But I told them, ‘You have a choice—either listen or go away.’ Most of them stayed. They call me Old GD, Old Granddad.”

Read the other two articles in this series: The roots of racism and Taking on the racism of Jim Crow

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