By Brian Richardson
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Style and Society: Say it Loud, Still Black and Proud

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
Brian Richardson explores how black culture has shaped post-war society.
Issue 291

Walk down any major high street or into any youth space in Britain and before long you will be confronted by the unmistakable signature of black British style. A uniform of hooded tops, trainers or Timberland boots and unfeasibly low-slung trousers.

As I write these words, Eminem, a white rapper originally promoted by the doyen of hip-hop Dr Dre, has just vacated top spot in the music charts. Close behind him in the pack are R&B group Destiny’s Child and the black American teenage heartthrob Usher. In other areas of British life the impact of black people is equally pervasive. At this year’s Olympic Games the most successful British athlete was the mixed race Kelly Holmes. And England’s Swedish football manager could easily name an international side made up entirely of black players.

Remarkable transformation

In many ways the transformation that has taken place in recent decades has been remarkable. In the early 1970s a frisson of excitement gripped our family home whenever West Ham football matches were shown on television. This was not because any of us supported the club. We were simply hoping to get a glimpse of Clyde Best, a big Guyanese striker who regularly made the substitutes bench for the Hammers at that time. Elsewhere the television choices included Love Thy Neighbour, Till Death Us Do Part and Mind Your Language – ‘comedy’ programmes whose casual racism would make viewers cringe today.

A major retrospective on black style currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London is surely proof positive of the now predominant position of black culture in British society. As you enter the exhibition the unmistakable vocals of East End rapper Dizzee Rascal implore the visitor to ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’. However, the exhibition is not simply a shallow glorification of the current zeitgeist. Rather it is a serious examination of the chequered history of black people in Britain.

The first exhibits are of the clothes worn by the generation of West Indians who came to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s and they are accompanied by video footage of new arrivals at windy seaside ports. The smart suits of those disembarking are a reminder that they were not poverty stricken. Those who came over on the Empire Windrush in 1948 were well educated and relatively prosperous (the desperately poor could not have afforded the £28.10 it cost to travel). The problem that these pioneers faced in their homelands was that in a Caribbean still dominated by colonial rule they quickly arrived at a glass ceiling beyond which they could not prosper. Many of the Windrush generation believed they could take advantage of an opportunity to make good money in the ‘mother country’ as it rebuilt its economy after the war, before returning ‘home’ enriched and better able to help develop their own newly independent countries.

The anguish for these immigrants was therefore heightened when they received, not just the bitter coldness of the British weather, but signs declaring ‘No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks’, and the worst paid and least prestigious jobs.

The V&A exhibition chronicles the determination and courage with which black immigrants have struggled for their place in British society. An early exhibit is an original ‘Free Angela Davis’ T-shirt complete with an image of the radical black American activist resplendent with a huge head of hair. The afro was of course an essential part of 1960s and 1970s style, but also a symbol of the powerful influence of cultural nationalism in the Black Power politics of the period. Interestingly, alongside this is a picture of Diane Abbott with her own afro at Labour Party conference in the early 1980s sporting a T-shirt calling for the establishment of black sections.

Exhibits from the 1970s and 1980s inevitably call to mind the battles that took place between black communities and the police, notably at the Notting Hill Carnival around issues such as the degrading stop and search ‘Sus’ laws. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s trademark hat is a reminder of these struggles and of the link between music, politics and dress. This is further cemented by the examples of clothes that black and white youth wore as punk, reggae and two-tone music drew them together and the misery wreaked by Thatcher’s government created huge urban upheavals. These more overtly political exhibits are mixed with others that symbolise the enduring influence of religion in the lives of black communities. There is an overwhelming sense that, regardless of their circumstances and despite all the shattered dreams of those now reaching retirement, they have presented themselves with dignity and self-respect.

Black British Style is an excellent exhibition. Seeing a pair of Batty Rider shorts and the description of them in the V&A is worth the admission money alone, as is the image of a mixed couple from the 70s proudly sporting their flares as they perch on the bonnet of a car.

However, the warm picture of integration and progress presented at the V&A, though real, is only part of the story. Beyond the relatively narrow confines of fashion, music and sport, black Britons continue to suffer disproportionate levels of exclusion and underachievement in education, unemployment and incarceration in the criminal justice system. Some commentators, including Voice columnist Dr Tony Sewell argue that the problem lies within black communities themselves. Indeed, the very culture celebrated in the exhibition – much of which is not really distinctively ‘British’ at all but imported from the US – is criticised for encouraging a hedonistic and anti-education materialism and ‘gangsta’ mentality among our youth. We are told that it is this ‘ghetto fabulous, bling bling’ attitude that explains why African Caribbean boys in London are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their white peers and why 70 percent of those leaving school do so without gaining five ‘good’ GCSEs.

Such arguments amount to a wholesale abandonment of the consensus that finally seemed to have emerged at the end of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999. After decades of struggle by activists the government finally accepted that institutional racism exists and promised that it would root it out of public bodies.

Institutional racism

The term institutional racism was first coined by the black American activist Stokely Carmichael in the mid-1960s. His central argument was that racism is not simply a question of individual prejudice and behaviour towards others. Rather it is deeply embedded within the structures of capitalism as one of the central means by which the ruling elite retains its powers. Properly understood, the term explains how the institutions of society underpin a social and economic structure that seeks to divide black workers from white, the better to exploit and rule over all of us. Education is the principal means by which the ideology and values of the ruling class are transferred from one generation to the next. Similarly, the criminal justice system is the means by which the bosses’ authority is legitimised and discipline is imposed. The disproportionate ‘failure’ of black children in school, an unemployment rate twice that of our white peers and a rate of imprisonment that is six times greater than the percentage of black people in the population are therefore not simply a result of our own shortcomings. Rather they are a direct consequence of this system of power. It follows from this that overcoming racism necessarily requires a radical challenge to this status quo.

Consequently, governments and the establishment have always been determined to resist accusations of institutional racism. In 1981 appeal court judge Lord Scarman was asked to conduct an inquiry into the urban riots that had recently rocked cities such as Liverpool, London and Bristol. In his conclusion he ‘totally and unequivocally’ rejected any suggestion that the police were institutionally racist, claiming that the problem was instead one of a few ‘rotten apples’.

It was the huge outcry at the injustice experienced by the Lawrence family and the overwhelming weight of evidence presented by activists at the inquiry that forced the conservative judge Sir William Macpherson to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism in his report. Even here though he couched his criticisms of the police in the most gentle of tones, describing their behaviour as ‘unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The immediate outcome of this was telling. During the inquiry the then Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Condon had also emphatically opposed any suggestion of institutional racism and declared that he would resign if any such conclusion was drawn. Instead of demanding his head, home secretary Jack Straw was delighted that Condon agreed to stay on and lead the efforts at internal reform.

Five years later the degree of ‘progress’ made, particularly in the criminal justice system, is grim. A Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) report admits that between 2001 and 2002 there was a 30 percent increase in stops and searches of black people compared with a 41 percent increase for Asians – presumably a consequence of increased harassment post 9/11 – and an 8 percent increase for whites. Stop and search was a specific focus of concern during the Lawrence inquiry and yet the MPA report states that there are now ‘deeper racial tensions and antagonism against the police’.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the institutions have since closed ranks to reverse the small victories against injustice that had been gained. In recent weeks the inquest verdict of unlawful killing in the case of Roger Sylvester has been overturned by a High Court judge. The Metropolitan Police ‘service’ hadn’t even bothered to wait for this announcement before it reinstated the officers involved in the incident that led to Roger’s death. Elsewhere damning evidence continues to emerge about the appalling levels of racism in the prison service.

Depressing though this predicament is, it should come as no surprise. The passage of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act in itself was never going to transform the landscape; neither would a few token schemes funded during that brief period when the government was ‘leading from the front’. It was sacrifice and struggle and the extraordinary courage and determination of Doreen and Neville Lawrence that forced the government to establish that historic public inquiry. Across the country, black and white people actively supported that campaign and it was underwritten by the trade union movement. We will require similar unity and further and deeper struggles if we are to turn the never ending rhetoric about race equality into a lasting reality.

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