Windrush and Britain’s Long History of Racialized Belonging

Solidarity with Windrush Protest, central London, May 5, 2018 (Steve Eason, Flickr).

In November 2017, 61-year-old Paulette Wilson decided to publicly share her story of being detained in the infamous Yarl’s Wood immigration detention center and threatened with deportation because of her inability to provide the British Home Office with acceptable proof of citizenship. Wilson had arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1968, joining her grandparents as a Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. At the time, this category of British citizenship made no distinction between those born in Kingston and those born in Kensington. Over the course of five decades Wilson lived, worked, and made Britain home. But during the two harrowing years following the receipt of a Home Office letter in 2015 that classified her as an “illegal immigrant” subject to deportation, Wilson suddenly found her claims to citizenship routinely denied. The “papers please” logic of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policies presumed that she was alien, criminal, and subsequently ineligible for any of the legal protections and social benefits affixed to what it meant to be a British citizen. Ultimately, this resulted in two years with no access to the National Health Service that she had paid into for 34 years; two years of disability benefits withheld; two years wholly dependent on her daughter for basic necessities including food and shelter.

In the last eight months, the national media attention garnered by Wilson’s case proved to be the tip of the iceberg, precipitating intense public scrutiny of the precarious position of a generation of Black British citizens and others who arrived between the late 1940s and 1960s from various parts of the Commonwealth. Their status, and their ability to sufficiently document that status for the state, remains tenuous. These citizens have been popularly described as the “Windrush” generation, a name that both conjures the news-making arrival of the S.S. Empire Windrush from Jamaica seventy years ago in 1948 and erroneously conflates postwar Caribbean migration with the emergence of a multi-racial British nation. They came to Britain by way of the birthright accrued through the relations of empire but have found themselves in a legal quagmire designed to question the validity of long-held citizenship claims. Some have been deported; some are in medical limbo, waiting for necessary treatments that require proof of the right to live in Britain; others have lost jobs, faced eviction or been unable to travel outside of the country without documentation certifying the time of their arrival in Britain. Even worse, government officials, including Prime Minister Theresa May, have been complicit in mobilizing the power of the British state to systematically dismantle the citizenship rights of an entire generation of Black Britons, as revealed by the news that the UK Border Agency destroyed thousands of landing cards that could have proved citizenship more cheaply than the expensive option of obtaining a passport.

The “Windrush scandal” is the most recent example of a fundamental truth about modern Britain: there is a set of political and cultural assumptions, often unspoken, that Black people in Britain are not and cannot be British. Black people are instead regarded as inherently foreign and therefore outside of the boundaries of full citizenship. British citizenship has always been a process of racializing belonging, and it has a history that long predates the Windrush generation itself. The association of Black people in Britain as inherently foreign is in part the product of nearly two centuries of Britain’s attempts to keep freedpeople and their descendants in the Caribbean invested enough in British identity to be useful to the Empire and the metropole, but separate enough to keep actual “Britishness” from attaching to them.

Black people across the British world have understood this and pushed back against it. After the abolition of slavery, freedpeople raised grievances in the language available to them as British subjects with (in theory) equal standing before the crown. In 1861, for example, the testimony of a mixed-race Jamaican woman, Ann Pratt, transformed how the Colonial Office dealt with an ongoing scandal over the abuse of patients in the Kingston Lunatic Asylum. Published as a pamphlet, Pratt’s testimony inspired Colonial Office bureaucrats to investigate asylum abuse more thoroughly, even though local officials questioned whether she was of sound enough mind and morals to be trusted. In response came New Lights on Dark Deeds, another pamphlet that angrily defended Pratt’s text through a compilation of journals by Richard Rouse. Rouse was a Black man who had previously been warden of the asylum before his death in 1858. Rouse’s son, who went by RBR in the text, used his father’s journals to verify Pratt’s grim picture of the institution. RBR situated his indictment of the asylum within the language of Britishness. He argued that since the asylum was in a British colony, the conditions were especially objectionable and the pamphlet ended on this note, “How long shall such a state of things be allowed to continue with impunity, nay, be fostered and encouraged by the ruling authorities of a Colony under the British Flag?”1 In other words, Afro-Jamaicans like Rouse and Pratt understood themselves as British subjects and leveraged that affiliation to make claims upon the state.

Moreover, freedpeople had been encouraged to embrace Britishness by British missionaries, who tried to impart on their parishioners a specific set of moral values that included monogamous marriage, sanitary and sober living, wage work, and loyalty to the British Crown. While some West Indians of African descent adhered to these values, especially members of the burgeoning middle classes, others used British values and the rhetoric of Britishness more strategically or rejected them entirely. Nevertheless, these values became the indicators used to measure whether emancipation had succeeded. The more freedpeople and their descendants exercised autonomy, the less British observers believed that the “experiment” of emancipation was a success. Thus, well into the twentieth century, vague notions of Britishness remained the dominant but shifting mode of determining belonging within the symbolic British world that extended across the empire and Commonwealth. That symbolism was important because it was all that was offered, even though Black subjects in the colonies and metropole demanded more as they experienced a limited ability to participate in British life, despite the passage of formal policies defining their status as British citizens.

A little more than a decade after the passage of the British Nationality Act of 1948, which adopted the language of citizenship and formalized long-held rights of migration to Britain as a condition of imperial belonging for colonial subjects, British politicians considered laws that would begin stripping away the right of British commonwealth citizens to live in Britain as citizens despite their place of birth. In the fall of 1961 when British Home Secretary R.A. Butler publicly announced plans to pursue the border controls that would become the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, Trinidadian-born activist and journalist Claudia Jones understood that this policy would fundamentally recalibrate the conditions of citizenship for Commonwealth populations who intended to migrate to Britain and for those already settled there. As advocates made a case for “colorblind” border controls that applied quotas to those without prearranged employment or specialized credentials, Jones used the pages of her West Indian Gazette newspaper to protest what she described as a “Colour-Bar Bill” intentionally designed to disparately impact a largely Caribbean-born population of Black British citizens.2 In the pages of the Gazette, Jones developed a powerful case for understanding how immigration policies extended the powers of the state to regulate the terms of entry and exit as well as the rules of occupancy for Black people in a manner that produced a host of constraints rendering their citizenship unreliable at best and null and void at worst.

Participant in the Solidarity with Windrush Protest, central London, May 5, 2018 (Steve Eason, Flickr).

Jones assessed the detrimental effects of Butler’s bill as Parliament considered it, and rather than simply viewing immigration controls as a racist measure of determining which Commonwealth citizens could be kept out of Britain, she brought attention to the systematic way in which immigration policies inherently affected the quality of citizenship for its imagined targets on both sides of the border. In particular, Jones focused Gazette readers’ attention on the new powers granted to the Home Secretary under the provisions of the bill to deport Commonwealth citizen. Having entered Britain in 1955 after her own deportation from the U.S. because of her political activities, Jones knew firsthand about the precariousness associated with a deportable status. Along with members of the newly established Afro Asian-Caribbean Conference (AACC), Jones protested Parliamentary debate on the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill in February of 1962. The lobby, which included London’s first Black councilor, David Pitt, and members of the West Indian Students Union, the Indian Workers’ Association and the African National Congress made it clear that they considered the bill a form of “legalised apartheid.”3 Moreover, the group drew from Jones’s arguments in the Gazette to outline the specific ways the bill set in motion legal rationales for racial discrimination by transforming a majority Black and Asian migrant population of citizens into potential suspects whose presence invited profiling, surveillance, policing, and encounters with the criminal justice system. More specifically, the AACC highlighted a sub-section of the bill that made it a crime to harbor anyone suspected of entering or remaining in the country in violation of the law. They argued that the provision would ultimately offer landlords a license to refuse to rent to Black and Asian tenants out of fear of exposure to prosecution or unwanted scrutiny of their property. Through this calculation, those Black and Asian citizens visibly racialized as “immigrants” would have the most to lose as they now faced the prospects of gaining access to the resources of settlement, including housing, within a market that the state had now sanctioned to exclude them. In this sense Jones and her compatriots presciently anticipated the pre-Brexit “hostile environment” anti-immigrant policies pursued under Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office which effectively transformed housing authorities, medical officers and employers into de facto border control agents empowered to police citizenship and deny access to public resources to those deemed unlawful immigrants.

The problem of the Windrush generation, as far as the British Government was concerned, was the fear that migration would be infectious; slowly and surely changing the “character” of British society, culture, and cities. And what Jones understood was the governmental fear that limiting or barring the entry of Afro-Caribbean migrants would not erase the impact on the country’s culture as generations of Black people had been and were settled in Britain. Thus in the aftermath of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, Black children, migrant and UK-born, became a new site for white fears about the “immigration problem.”

In June 1965, the Department of Education and Science published “Circular 7/65: The Education of Immigrants” proposing a voluntary system of dispersal for immigrants—in particular Asian but also West Indian—children to ease their presumed language difficulties and lessen the impact of their foreign cultures on white children. In this moment the status of immigrant, already racialized, became inheritable as well. There was no conception that Black and Asian children born or living their entire lives in Britain would be native English speakers or British; their race made this an impossibility. Blackness became a marker of immigrant status and foreignness and Black youth, regardless of their citizenship status, were effectively kept out of accessing the same social privileges as their white peers from the 1960s onward. This reality is almost universally understood as the impetus for the 1981 Brixton riots, where Afro-Caribbean youth rebelled against frustrated educational and employment opportunities.

On its face, Lord Scarman’s report on the Brixton disorders was an earnest attempt to understand the reasons for Black youth rebellion in South London. The report listed areas of discontent which closely mirrored the grievances of the Windrush generation: lack of employment opportunities, police harassment, and limited access to educational attainment. Lord Scarman identified a variety of remedies such as youth employment schemes, police training and minority recruitment, even though these recommendations had been part of the race relations conversation for at least a decade. But the Scarman report also gestured toward the possibility for Black youth to become British in a way their parents could not, because “they (the second generation, whether born in this country or not) and the third generation which is now emerging share, for the most part, the aspirations and expectations of other British young people.”4 In fact, the door is opened for Black youth by reifying Windrush migrants’ exclusion, once again denying their historical and legal relationship with the former imperial metropole.

The Scarman report contributed to a popular narrative since the 1960s that interrogated and defined West Indian migrants only through the prism of foreignness. The report was similar to the wave of sociological publications from the 1950s and 1960s, exemplified by Sheila Patterson’s Dark Strangers, which attempted to explain the “peculiarities” of Black families and communities based on their differences from a supposed white norm. Again, Black was made synonymous with immigrant as these narratives erased out of hand the imperial relationships that structured migratory patterns. As mentioned above, Caribbean societies and cultures had been expressly shaped to conform to British social norms. Thus even in a moment when Black youth in early Thacherite Britain were given the opportunity to “become” British, whatever claim they made on a national belonging was built on an imperial denial. Thus the Scarman report famously rejected accusations of institutional racism because Lord Scarman would not concede that Black children were frustrated with their employment opportunities and educational attainment nor harassed by police precisely because their migrant parents had been erroneously framed as foreigners/immigrants rather than citizens/migrants for no other reason than their Blackness.

When news coverage of the crisis describes Windrush-era migrants as deserving of citizenship, especially because of their service to Britain or their respectable middle-class professions, or when the Home Office proposes schemes for speedy citizenship attainment, they only perpetuate the erasure of the fact that they were already citizens. That these migrants now lack the ability to prove their British citizenship is the result of the narrowing policies in the intervening decades, which gradually and systematically stripped Windrush migrants of their membership within the British nation. Thus, this current crisis is a product of the specific forms of British racism where Black people are always assumed to be foreign. While the reverence for the Windrush narrative as a popular representation of British liberalism and racial progress (but not Windrush migrants themselves) has fed the outrage at their predicament, it has not, as of yet, led to a larger conversation about the racialized and xenophobic fictions that undergird British immigration policy, past and present, and indeed the British nation itself. This summer’s seventieth anniversary of the Windrush is the time for that larger and more difficult conversation.

  1. Richard Rouse, New Lights on Dark Deeds: being Jottings from the Diary of Richard Rouse, Late Warden of the Lunatic Asylum of Kingston (National Library of Jamaica, ref. 362 Ja Rou), 37.
  2. Claudia Jones, “Butler’s Colour-Bar Bill Mocks Commonwealth” West Indian Gazette, November, 1961.
  3. “Anti-Colour-Bill-Lobby-Feb 13” West Indian Gazette, February 1962.
  4. Sir Leslie Scarman, The Scarman Report (Harmandsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 8-9.
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Christienna Fryar, Nicole Jackson, and Kennetta Hammond Perry

Christienna Fryar is a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Liverpool. Follow her on Twitter @jamaicandale. Nicole M. Jackson is an Assistant Professor of History at Bowling Green State University. Follow her on Twitter @nicole_maelyn. Kennetta Hammond Perry is an Associate Professor of History at East Carolina University. Follow her on Twitter @@KennettaPerry.