Being Black in Britain: Navigating the 1970’s

The 1970’s has become cemented in public memory as a decade of divisions. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to the issue of racial discrimination and violence that occurred nationally during this period.

Britain experienced a sharp rise in immigration from the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s. The so-called ‘Windrush Generation’ came to Britain as Empire spluttered its final dying breaths and this was accompanied by a simultaneous rise in insidious racism. Unlike the Irish migrants to Britain who had been more able to assimilate into British culture because of their ‘whiteness’, these new immigrants stood out and it was this visible difference that made them easy targets for a disillusioned and weary British society.

This hostility had its roots simply in the fact that black and Asian people were different. They dressed differently, they sounded different and most crucially they looked different. They were outside the norm, and at a time when Britain was facing the breakdown of post-war consensus, society increasingly looked backwards. This dangerous nostalgia was born of a fear for the future and it distorted memories of post-war affluence of harmony that were then dredged up to justify racism and proved to be a major factor driving intolerance.

Capitalising on this panic was the National Front. The fears over immigration and the associated perceived loss of law and order that came along with a rapid criminalization of black people in particular, meant that their popularity swelled. In 1970 the National Front won a mere 12,000 votes but by 1974 this showed worrying increase to 77,000. This increase can be seen as reflecting the strength of feeling that black and other minorities were unwelcome additions to British society and portrays the extreme reluctance of the British public to truly accept them as equal citizens. This intolerance was only to be exacerbated by the remarkable show of state racism that was the Immigration Act of 1971. This Act effectively took away the rights of black and Asian Commonwealth citizens to come to Britain.

Thankfully, for those who agreed with the National Front’s racist rants, there were those who espoused acceptance and assimilation; those who believed that Britain could be better if it embraced its multiculturalism. The importance of Rock Against Racism in the mid 1970’s cannot be underestimated in its impact on a national level, as it helped to bring attention to issues of racism on the streets and supported crucial fights against racial discrimination in the workplace. Mass organizations such as Rock Against Racism helped to encourage Britain to celebrate its multi-culturalism rather than resenting it. Success for this message can undoubtedly be evidenced by the passing of the Race Relations Act of 1976. This was by the far the most serious attempt by government to quash Britain’s racism, as it attempted to tackle both direct and indirect racism.

Of course, this Act was by no means an immediate solution to the multi-faceted and omnipresent issue of racial discrimination that existed in Britain. But the passing of this Act served as a symbol of hope for the future, much needed when in the very same year a PEP Survey reported that 79% of whites with a college degree were in managerial or professional roles whereas only 31% of black individuals with the same qualifications occupied the same jobs.

The 1970’s was a decade of tumultuous race relations set in the wider context of a socio-economic chaos and political instability that characterize this decade. But an understanding of the real hostility that minorities faced in Britain is crucial to an understanding and appreciation of the experiences of the immigrants who struggled but ultimately succeeded to build a life within it.

Image Credits: BBC, .

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