Race, culture: Britain's enduring infatuation

13th May 2005 at 01:00
1949: When racists in south-east London, attacked a group of black immigrants. Labour MPs were quick to blame the victims. The under secretary of state said: "I am informed that towards midnight on 18th July, some coloured men began to shout abuse to passers-by from a window of a common lodging house - a large crowd gathered and there was some disorder. The police were assaulted and obstructed by these coloured men."

1958: Following the race riots in Notting Hill, black immigrants were blamed. North Kensington MP George Rogers voiced the consensus view: "The main cause is housing - people living in overcrowded conditions... some West Indians make no effort to adapt themselves to the way of life here." West Indian culture, the argument goes, is why they do not respect British institutions; and being lazy explains black unemployment

1950s: A police raid found black men playing cards. The raid was justified thus: "When police find a house of this description, every endeavour must be made to suppress it. The majority of men are not working. Many have never worked while they have lived in this country and have money from various means."

1960s 1970s: Like many police stations in London, Brixton had a bad reputation for mistreatment of blacks. A house on Mostyn Road was raided under the pretext of stopping the sale of unlicensed alcohol. The occupants convinced magistrates that they were enjoying a private party. However, hundreds of other black victims of police repression were not so lucky.

1970s: The focus turned to controlling blacks in Britain's inner cities.

Suspicion was enough to justify police harassment. This resulted in riots around the country. Police policy was justified by media campaigns about mugging, a term synonymous with black youth.

1980s: Under Margaret Thatcher, things intensified. In the , police organised a campaign of harassment called Swamp 81. Nearly 1,000 people were subjected to stop and search in Lambeth over the course of a few days.

It resulted in the national riots with street violence in Brixton, Liverpool, Bradford, Bristol and Birmingham and many towns nationwide.

There were disturbances in Tottenham and Lambeth in the mid-80s.

Although there was sympathy for black youth, there was a general acceptance in political circles and the media that black people were criminals who could only be managed through repression. One headteacher called the police into her school to question four black children. She was suspicious of the youngsters because she felt "that they had money on them which they should not have". The Department of Education and Science, as it then was, conceded that the head's actions were racist but still considered her approach legitimate. The children were aged between four and six.

1990s: Black people's demonisation was largely organised around cultural and sporting figures. Mike Tyson became a code word for black male licentiousness. The rising reggae star Shabba Ranks admonished for his views on homosexuality. His view was considered to be the black perspective. Today, we have the popular image of guns, bling and girls representing what it means to be a black male and endorsed at the highest cultural levels (BBC 1Xtra). Britain's infatuation with race and culture is a long and enduring one.

Emmanuel Ohajah

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today