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The Windrush treachery 


Progress towards true equality has long been difficult, writes Wale Hudson-Roberts, but the destruction of the Windrush landing cards speaks of something much more malign


Enough 700


In 1965 the Race Relations Act came into force, outlawing discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins in public places. In the same year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B Johnson, giving African Americans the constitutional right to vote, a right they had long been demanding.
 
Both aimed to overcome the many legal barriers that racialised black people. In the aftermath of this new legislation, I and many others could have been forgiven for thinking that a new day was approaching as far as race relations were concerned.
 
How wrong we were. Just three years later Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of Blood” speech. He warned of what he saw as the apocalyptic consequences of continued immigration of people from the Commonwealth, and confirmed that the birth of a just society was still a ‘dream.’ The new law, a metaphor for possible change, was not changing attitudes.
 
There appeared to be elements of progress. By the mid 1970s Trevor McDonald and Moira Stewart were presenting the television news with such aplomb it made many black and Asian people feel a little safer in what had become a racially intoxicated country. The feelings of safety were short lived.
 
In 1981 violence flared up in urban centres across England as young black people played out their anger against institutional racism. Brixton, south London, was the first flash point. The Midlands, Merseyside, Bristol and Leeds followed. 
 
Again the aftermath gave the impression of progress: this time it wasn’t eloquent black presenters assuaging the country’s mounting racism, but the election of four Black MPs Dianne Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz. They were seen as the embodiment of progress towards a multicultural UK. 
 
The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 dispelled this myth. The initial investigation into Stephen’s death was hampered by incompetence, racism and possible corruption, and confirmed the worse fears for many black British people. We were living in a country marred by intentional, not unwitting racist attitudes and behaviour.
 
The resulting Macpherson Report exposed racism not only on the streets but inside the police ranks and structures. As a result measures such as the Diversity Crime Survey, Diversity Excellence Models and trained Family Liaison Officers were introduced to address the Met’s institutional racism. Again Black and Asian communities could have been forgiven for interpreting possible signs of progress: the Report’s stinging repudiation of the Met Police’s racist attitudes and practices and its obvious implications for wider society was a wake up call for many institutions. If there ever was a catalyst that could help the diminishing of racism rooted deeply in British society, this could be it.
 
How wrong we were.
 
The Windrush scandal has confirmed that on the matter of race, change is painfully slow, if sometimes impossible. If the policies from the Macpherson Report had impacted British society for good, the Windrush treachery would never have happened. Its exposure highlights a worrying malaise that runs deep in the underbelly of our institutions, not least the Home Office.
 
The case of Hubert Howard, 61, speaks to this disease.  He arrived in the UK, aged three, with his mother, and has never lived anywhere else. His problems began when he wanted to urgently visit her back in Jamaica when she became ill, but without the relevant paperwork, his mother died without him seeing her. Labelled an “illegal immigrant”, he then lost his long-term job with the Peabody Trust. ‘They messed up my life,’ he said.

There have been numerous stories like this, catalogued by The Guardian in the six months prior to the scandal erupting. 
 
But just when the Caribbean community thought the most heinous stories had been exhausted, it has emerged that the Windrush landing card slips have been destroyed. Threats of deportation and actual deportation explained away by the quiet removal of a key protection clause from the statue books is one thing, but the destruction of these landing cards is something else. 
 
There are two ways in which this act can be interpreted. On the one hand, as something pretty benign – the Home Office’s efforts to be compliant with data protection guidelines. But the other – justification for ‘Caribbean cleansing’ – is not quite as benign. 
 
With such a painful history, I obviously opt for the latter explanation. Why else would a government destroy landing cards, filled in by Commonwealth citizens arriving from the West Indies and elsewhere, and used by officials to help subsequent generations prove they had a right to remain in the UK? For decades this proof of identity confirmed the legal status of those invited to shore up the British economy. The main issue is not which government made the decision, but why it was made in the first place. (And why were they not offered to the national archive or to the black cultural archive?)
 
The cynic in me says now the post war building project is over, policies to remove the very generation invited to rebuild are now operational. “Surplus to requirements” comes to mind. Was this not the idea on which the British Empire was built? The destruction of the landing cards certainly illustrates how little regard the government has for black people in Britain.
 
As saddened as I am by this Windrush treachery, it has highlighted, not for the first time, that racism is not at surface level in this country. Rather, it continues to inform and shape institutional language and behaviours. It’s pernicious stuff and not in a hurry to leave. It seems that whenever British society takes a step forward on matters appertaining to race, it’s not long before the landscape is shaken again: a Brexit vote, Grenfell Tower (its response or lack of it), the creation of a hostile environment which seeks to justify the dehumanisation of a community that has proven its worth and commitment to Britain.
 
The Government has apologised, and is talking about compensation. On Monday it announced a national day of commemoration for Stephen Lawrence. The black community knows it for what it is – a strategic sop. 
 
The long struggle of people of colour tells us that genuine change remains some way off.

 

Image | Pixabay



Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Baptist Union's Justice Enabler


 
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