1960s >> 1968 >> no-764-april-1968

Prejudice and Pride

Her Majestie understanding that there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready too mannie, consideringe howe God hath blessed this land with great increase of people of our owne nation . . .  those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande . . .

Apart from the government’s feeble, obligatory excuses, both supporters and opponents of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act are agreed that it is a measure designed to discriminate against people on grounds of colour.


The Act was rushed through in deference to a widespread feeling that it was needed, which is what Callaghan meant’ when he spoke in the debate on the Bill:

Pledges had been given to people which, if carried out. could cause great political turbulence and place Britain’s services under a far greater strain. (Daily Telegraph, 28/2/68.)

Labour politicians have learned their lesson; the name of Smethwick is graven on their hearts and it will be a long time before they again risk going against the popular conviction that immigration should be restricted, if not stopped altogether, and that coloured immigrants are especially undesirable.


This last prejudice, which was behind the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, is a complex matter which has been the subject of much investigation. We do not need to be a probing sociologist to know what it amounts to — the opinion that coloured people are sexually dangerous, emotionally unstable, mentally retarded, lazy. Some think that a coloured skin must be dirty, like the chauffeur who was surprised to find Negresses working in the kitchens at London Airport. “. . . because they are usually so careful about hygiene here.” Others do not bother to think out their prejudices even to that extent; to them, a coloured skin is strange and that is enough to condemn it.


We must be careful not to exaggerate the size of this feeling. In his book White And Coloured Michael Banton sums up one aspect of his investigations:


  It would appear that the proportion of the British population who consciously subscribe to doctrines of racial superiority is certainly less than 4 per cent, while the proportion who are prepared to translate such opinions into active hostility is very much smaller still.

Banton’s carefully qualified statement is probably correct; but behind that 4 per cent lies a much larger proportion of people who have prejudices which are perhaps less conscious but which, when they are tested by an influx of coloured workers, can be provoked into activity. This is what has happened in recent years. Banton found 62 per cent assenting to the proposition that “It would be a good thing if people of different races mixed with one another more’’. But that was in 1956; if 62 per cent of the electorate were now in favour of racial integration there would probably have been no such thing as a Commonwealth Immigrants Act.


A lot of the objections to immigrants are based on the fears that they will swamp the hospitals and social services. In its most extreme, but by no means rare, version, this pictures the Negroes and the Asians coming here with an enormous family and heading straight for the nearest office of the National Assistance Board, then settling down in slumland, performing the miracle of running a big flashy car and several women on unemployment pay.


To some extent this was answered in the Sunday Times of March 3, in an article which pointed out that, with the exception of Education and Child Care, the average cost per head of the immigrants to the social services is below that for the total population. This is because the immigrants tend to be younger than average, which also means that their national insurance payments are higher than the average.


We should realise that facts like these only put some prejudices into perspective. What, it may be asked, happens when the immigrants get older? Does the case against them become stronger because they are more of a burden on the social services? In fact, the whole issue is irrelevant. People who object because there are some — even many — coloured faces in an already overcrowded, understaffed hospital are overlooking the fact that it is only one social class which always has to rely on such hospitals and that the best medical services are reserved, not for coloured workers but for the economic masters of workers of all colours.


By the same token immigrants are forced to move into areas which are in a state of slow decay and accelerate the process. A large, depressed migrant population, fleeing from destitution or oppression, is usually forced into this (have a look at Cecil Woodham Smith’s story of the Irish emigration westwards in The Great Hunger). But the solution is not to keep the immigrants out, so that at best the decay advances only slowly. The root of the problem is in the fact that we live in a social system which frankly admits that it cannot stop producing slums.


To illustrate the point, here are a couple of extracts from A Question Of Colour?, a book by Peter Griffiths, the man who won the notorious election at Smethwick. These are supposed to be justifications for the objections to immigrants but in fact they show up the negative attitudes behind the objections:


People who have perhaps been evicted from one overcrowded dwelling after another are bound to feel bitter when they hear of houses being occupied by several families or used on the shift system.


Housewives, waging a never-ending battle against industrial dust and grime in an attempt to turn mean little houses into real homes, are highly critical of any lowering of standards.

Working class fear about lack of housing, hospital accommodation and so on, is only the sauce on the pudding. Without it, there is still an indigestible lump of what can only be called prejudice, or sometimes simple insularity. In Southall, for example, the elderly Sikhs regularly gather in the park — whenever they can in the open — and converse in a large circle. Sometimes younger men join them. It is all perfectly harmless, all very sociable — the kind of thing that does not normally happen in an industrialised city and is all the more poignant for it. But many local white people think it is a cheek, to take up so much of the park and others that it is a strange and sinister thing to do.


In the same way, there is a reluctance to accept, or even to evaluate, any different sexual standards which immigrants may have. The West Indians regard marriage with rather less reverence than do the British — which has the effect of making their families almost matriarchal and their old men sometimes almost discards. This attitude has nothing to do with any inherent Negro characteristics, as many white workers think. It is no more than a product of the immigrants’ history. In West Indian Children In London (Occasional Papers on Social Administration) Katrin Fitzherbert outlines the results which slavery had on the family in the West Indies:


Family life was barely possible under slavery; the marriage customs of a particular tribe could not survive when slaves from different parts of Africa were put into the same compound; English-type marriage was forbidden for most of the period of slavery — on some plantations to the very end. For two centuries the institution we consider most fundamental to human society was forgotten.

A British worker has to make some sort of an effort, if he is to realise that the family organisation he has been conditioned to accept as eternal and invulnerable does not hold good for all time and all over the world, and that different social circumstances will often result in different sexual conventions. At the moment he prefers not to make the effort; it is easier to reject facts and surrender to prejudice, sexual fears, the jungle standards of competition on the labour market. It is easier to try to keep out anything foreign, with different customs and culture.


A lot of the reason for these insular prejudices can be found in the fact that many workers, after perhaps decades of hard work, have painstakingly sunk their roots into mortgaged houses and have embellished them with hire-purchased durables (which is not our word for them) like cars, television sets, refrigerators. They have revealed remarkable talents in decorating their rooms and laying out their gardens. They are proud of what they have done.


In these little homes, within the confines of their families, many workers feel they have built themselves a fortress. They will defend it against all comers — and at the moment the enemy they see coming is the coloured immigrant. They are fighting him now with their votes. Who cares to say how they will fight in the future?


The tragedy is that those little homes are not fortresses so much as prisons. Capitalism is a massive confidence trick which convinces workers that their chains are ornaments, that their poverty is prosperity, that cheap, cramped houses are objects of pride — because they have had to be worked for. Coloured workers are equally deceived—the limits of their ambitions is to get a clean passport into the working class with all its poverty, fears and suspicions, probably to set up their own prejudices and insularity.


Capitalism is strikingly adept at erecting barriers among its people. It divides them into nations, income groups, races — all of them inspired by false notions of economic and social interests. It is a desperately inadequate society, in which for millions of people the highest achievements is to close themselves up into the confines of a little home and a little job and a little family. These confines are self-productive; they encourage the neuroses and prejudices which fear a different skin colour, and which insist that I shall keep in my small corner while you must keep in yours.