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The grim reality of life for black Britons

03 August 2018

The country appears to be ill at ease with matters of race and immigration, argues Guy Hewitt


A woman wearing “Black Lives Matter” earrings at a protest in Windrush Square, Brixton, south London, in April

A woman wearing “Black Lives Matter” earrings at a protest in Windrush Square, Brixton, south London, in April

WEDNESDAY marked the 184th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and the end to the greatest scourge of modern life. Even in the Caribbean, however, where Emancipation Day is a public holiday, there is a lack of appreciation for what transpired in an institution that Lord Mansfield held to be “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it”.

It is important to note that not all slavery was eradicated. Regrettably, like so many plagues, this has mutated, and modern-day slavery exists: women forced into prostitution, men forced to labour, children forced to work in sweatshops, or girls forced to marry older men. The systematic dehumanisation of horrendously exploited individuals continues.

Based on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, it is estimated that, between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Caribbean, and North and South America. This figure becomes even more revealing when you consider that, in 1800, the population in Britain was 10.4 million, in the United States 5.3 million, and, in the British Caribbean, 430,000.

IN A speech in 1961, President John F. Kennedy, quoting Edmund Burke, suggested: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Incongruously, most slaveholders would have not defined themselves as evil. In fact, George Washington and many of the abolitionists had interests in slavery. A recent study published by University College London, Legacies of British Slave Ownership, concluded that as many as one fifth of wealthy British Victorians derived all, or part, of their fortunes from the slave economy.

The atrocity of slavery was fuelled simply by greed, often under the guise of carrying out a civilising mission, and purported to be divinely ordained.

But what is almost unfathomable is that less than a century after emancipation, while still facing many injustices, black West Indian men volunteered to fight and die in the Great War and the Second World War for the King and country that had enslaved them. What amazing grace and love.

WE NOW skip to 70 years ago, and the call from Britain after the Second World War to her then colonies for workers to migrate here to address the critical labour shortages. West Indians again heeded the call from the “Mother Country”, and, between 1948 and 1973, approximately 550,000 migrated.

But this journey was not without peril, and migrants faced outright racism. Some recall the infamous Teddy Boys and Notting Hill race riots, and the signs that read “No Irish. No blacks. No dogs”. None the less, they persevered, and with toil, sweat, and tears played a pivotal part in helping to build a modern global Britain.

It is against this backdrop that many of these migrants recently despaired when confronted recently by a new wave of hostility (Comment, 13 April). This time, it was predicated on their “irregular status” in a “hostile immigration environment”, which resulted in the denial of their right to work, denial of benefits, denial of health care, and, for some, detention and deportation.

April this year, for me, could be described only as a modern-day miracle. In less than a week, the Windrush scandal, which had been for too long begging for attention, became front-page news. In the process, it won the hearts of a nation, and engaged the mind of the Government, who apologised and offered full British citizenship with compensation for those who suffered (News, 20 April).

I endorse the commitments made on Windrush by the Prime Minister, and the comments she made on her first day as Prime Minister, when she said: “I want to see this country working for everyone — a country where, regardless of where you live or what your parents do for a living, you have a fair chance to build a life for yourself and your family.”

NOTWITHSTANDING the sentiment, the reality is that the situation among blacks in Britain is grim. The summary findings from the Ethnicity Facts and Figures by the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Audit show, for example, that:

  • Asian and black households are more likely to be poor and to be in persistent poverty;
  • attainment for black Caribbean pupils in education is very low;
  • about one in ten adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or mixed background is unemployed, compared with one in 25 white British adults.
  • black men are almost three and a half times more likely to be arrested than white men;
  • black adults are more likely than adults in other ethnic groups to have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

I raise this as a concern not only for the Caribbean diaspora, or for black, Asian, and other minority-ethnic groups in the UK, but for the entire nation. As Martin Luther King Jr held: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

There is an urgent need to bring a sense of unity in the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and there is no better time to start than now. In 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival the MS Empire Windrush, on the 50th anniversary to the day of Enoch Powell’s odious “Rivers of Blood” speech, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the incontrovertible truth is that Britain appears ill at ease with matters of race and migration.

Perhaps the lessons to be learned from Windrush will help give effect to the reality that, as President Lyndon B. Johnson declared, “Until justice is blind to colour, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the colour of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”

Perhaps Windrush will provide the opportunity finally to bring this multicultural society together and eliminate the boundaries of intolerance, discrimination, and cultural denigration which constitute the legacy of that horrific past, and, in the process, give birth to a truly United Kingdom.

The Revd Guy Hewitt is the High Commissioner for Barbados to the UK, and an Anglican priest in the diocese of Barbados, with permission to officiate in the diocese of Southwark.


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