Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Black British population is made up predominantly of descendants of immigrants from the West Indies and Africa who migrated to the UK from the 1950s onwards. In the 2011 Census, out of a total of 1.9 million people (3 per cent of the UK population) who described themselves as black/Caribbean/Afro-Caribbean, of whom 601,700 (0.95 per cent) were Caribbean, along with 1.02 million (1.6 per cent) black Africans and 282,100 (0.45 per cent) other black people. A quarter of minority ethnic people placed themselves in these three categories. More than 615,000 people identified themselves as of mixed white and black descent in the 2011 Census. Most of the community live in the large cities.
By 1984 the Black British population in the UK no longer consisted predominantly of immigrants but was mainly UK-born.
The centuries-long history of black people in Britain began with the Roman conquest. The Roman army brought troops from across its far-flung empire. African soldiers were stationed at Hadrian’s Wall, and African slaves, as well as free women and men lived in various parts of Roman Britain. The Roman governor of Britain Septimus Severus was a black African educated in Europe. There are further records of black people living in Britain in the twelfth century.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, there was a small but growing black population in Britain. As a sign of the community’s increasing presence, in 1596, Queen Elizabeth I issued a decree for the arrest and expulsion of Africans as she had decided there were too many in London. But the slave trade conducted by some of her naval commanders and expanded by future generations continued to bring black people to Britain. By the eighteenth century there were distinct African communities in London, as well as in Bristol, Cardiff and Liverpool, the main slave-trading ports. The buying and selling of African women and men was taking place in numerous British port cities, especially London. Those trained in domestic service were held in an indeterminate status, as ‘slave-servants’. Black servants were kept by some British aristocrats and travelled with the rest of the households to other parts of Britain. Some were released, and others managed to escape, aided by other Africans. Members of the black community became prosperous traders and journalists in London and elsewhere. It is thought that by the end of the eighteenth century, at least 10,000 black people were living in London with a further 5,000 in the rest of the country.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Britain was at the centre of a vast slave-trading network spanning the Atlantic Ocean. More than a million African slaves toiled on plantations in the British West Indies, while many more lives were lost because of the inhuman conditions in which they were transported and then forced to work. The slave trade was banned in 1807. When slavery was abolished in 1833, the slave owners were compensated by the British government. The slaves, however, were not and faced extreme poverty in the monoculture sugar economies that Britain had set up in the Caribbean.
The first wave of mass immigration to Britain began during World War I when Afro-Caribbeans arrived to join the armed forces and to work in the war industries and merchant navy. The local population confronted the immigrants with hostility and sometimes violence. A similar pattern was repeated during World War II.
After the war newly nationalized public services, such as British Rail, the National Health Service and London Transport, recruited workers from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. The first arrivals were 492 Jamaicans who came on the ship Windrush in June 1948. By 1962 there were around 250,000 Afro-Caribbean migrants who had settled permanently in the UK. Racist attacks on the Caribbean community in the Notting Hill area of London in 1958 were followed by the creation of the annual Notting Hill Carnival by the community in 1959.
In the British West Indies the cost of living had nearly doubled during the war. Unemployment, social dislocation and poverty were widespread. Migration to the UK, where there were employment opportunities that failed to attract British-born workers, was a strategy imposed largely by necessity.
Most of those who came were young women and men in their early twenties, and almost all found work for which they were overqualified. The men worked in the metal goods, engineering and car manufacturing industries, and in transport and communications, while the women were concentrated in such occupations as nursing and catering.
Until 1962 all Commonwealth citizens could freely enter the UK to work. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act subjected Commonwealth citizens to immigration controls. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act required immigrants to show a close connection with the UK. In 1972 immigrants had to obtain work permits unless their parents or grandparents were born in the UK. Nevertheless, immigration from the West Indies and also African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria continued.
While the 1965 Race Relations Act made discrimination on ethnic and racial grounds illegal in public places, further reinforced by the 1968 Race Relations Act ban on discrimination in housing, employment and financial services, racist sentiments were inflamed by Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s warning in 1968 that continued immigration would result in ‘rivers of blood’. Although the Conservative Party sacked him from the shadow cabinet, workers went on strike in support of his views.
The Race Relations Act was revised again in 1976 to ban direct and indirect discrimination in a wide range of public and private services, but it did not include the police. Relations between the police and the black British community were tense on account of extensive police use of the so-called ‘Sus Law’, provisions of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which allowed the police to stop, search and arrest people they deemed likely to commit a crime.
In 1981 the stop and search policy led to three days of violent demonstrations in Brixton followed by protests in other cities leading to many injured civilians and police and millions of pounds worth of damage to property. The Scarman report into the Brixton riots urged the government to improve community policing and address deprivation. About half of young Afro-Caribbean men in Brixton were unemployed. The Sus Law was abolished and the Police Complaints Authority was set up. However, demonstrations broke out again in Brixton in 1985 after an Afro-Caribbean woman was accidentally shot and badly injured by police during a raid on a house. Protests spread to deprived areas of other cities, resulting in three deaths, many injured and ransacked property.
Anger at police failures in the investigation into the racist murder of the Afro-Caribbean teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and then the death of a young black man in police custody in 1995, resulted in more protests in Brixton. The report into the Stephen Lawrence case, published in 2000, accused the police of being ‘institutionally racist’. The police were included in the public services covered by the 2000 Race Relations Act, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission replaced the Police Complaints Authority in 2004. The 2000 Race Relations Act also requires public authorities to actively promote equality of opportunity and the elimination of racial discrimination. Greater attempts have been made to recruit more black and ethnic minority members into the police. But further violent demonstrations took place in Brixton in 2001 following the fatal shooting of an Afro-Caribbean man by police.
Black British people make significant contributions to all walks of life in the UK but continue to face very considerable levels of discrimination. There are highly placed black politicians, but the black population is generally under-represented in politics. Many black people – particularly in the inner cities – remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and discrimination in employment and housing. The gap in income is stark: UK-born black people earn on average 7.7 per cent less than white people. That figure rises to 15.3 per cent for those born outside the UK. This is not about educational attainment; in fact, the earnings differential rises dramatically for black people after pursuing higher education. Black people with university degrees earn on average 23 per cent less than white people with similar qualifications. Unemployment levels are also relatively high; in 2018, 9 per cent of black people were unemployed compared with 4 per cent of white people. Black people are more likely to live in poverty than whites: around 46 per cent compared with 19 per cent respectively. This affects health outcomes: in England and Wales, mortality rates for Black African and Black Caribbean infants were respectively 7 and 5.8 per 1,000 compared with 3.2 for white British infants in 2017 (using Office for National Statistics sources and categories).
An especially contentious issue is the disproportionate targeting of black individuals, particularly youth, by the justice system. In England and Wales, black men are more than three times more likely to be arrested than white men, with the disparities even sharper among black youth: young black people, aged between 10 and 17, appear to be nine times more likely to end up incarcerated in offender institutions than their white peers. This is illustrated by the disparity in the controversial practice of stop-and-search: data shows that black people are 9.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. The inequalities are even more evident with the use of Section 60, a discretionary power that allows police to stop and search in a particular area for a limited period of time without the normal requirements of reasonable suspicion. Black people are 40 times more likely to undergo a Section 60 search than white people.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the United States in May 2020, has brought renewed attention on targeted policing and other discriminatory practices towards black people in the UK. More broadly, protests have highlighted the continued failure to confront the UK’s legacy of racism, reflected in the presence of statues in cities across the country commemorating figures with strong links to slavery or colonialism. In Bristol, for instance, demonstrators removed the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent figure in the Atlantic slave trade, which had stood in the city centre since 1895.
The way that the UK’s history of racism continues to profoundly shape the experiences of black people in the UK today is illustrated by the challenges confronting many members of the ‘Windrush generation’, named after the ship that brought one of the first groups of Caribbean immigrants to the UK after World War II. Tens of thousands of British residents who had come over from the Caribbean, some of them more than 50 years ago, found themselves suddenly targeted as ‘illegal’ immigrants, excluded from basic health services and threatened with deportation. After widespread media coverage the government apologized for its actions. The Home Office admitted that the authorities had wrongly deported or detained at least 164 Black British citizens. Some 5,000 people have alleged that they have faced serious harm by losing their jobs or being denied public services. The case illustrates how negative discussions around immigration in general can impact directly on British minorities.
Updated October 2020
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