This morning on the radio I heard, again, horror stories of discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in areas like housing and education. Apparently there is a silent agreement in certain neighborhoods to keep Ethiopian Jews away and not let them buy or rent apartments.
It seems that in Israel today, discrimination, in many ugly forms, has become a way of life.
I would like to devote today’s post to the discrimination against black people, specifically the West Indians, from the British colonies in Britain during the 1950s. Although the circumstances are different, the content would seem very familiar.
The West Indians fought together with the British in WW2, and regarded Britain as their “mother country.” They were totally unprepared for what they found when they actually moved to Britain after the war.
The 1948 British Nationality Act confirmed the right of all citizens of the British Commonwealth and Colonies to settle in England. After the war, the West Indians were the first group of colored immigrants to come to the UK in significant number.
The West Indians were keenly conscious of their status as British citizens. They spoke English, and their education was focused on Britain and its history. The church, often the Anglican Church, had played a significant role in their lives in their home country, and their social values had been modeled after those of British society. West Indians who relocated to Britain referred to themselves as ‘migrants’ rather than ‘immigrants’, pointing out that since they were British citizens their ‘migration was essentially the same as internal migration within the British Isles. Thus they arrived in Britain fully expecting to be integrated into the new society, believing that their life in the West Indies had taught them what to expect in Britain.
Once there, West Indians experienced great difficulties in their search for housings in Britain. Clifford Hill, a minister who worked closely with the immigrants, testifies that in house-after-house they were met with ‘we don’t take niggers’, or were politely informed that the room was already taken. They were often driven into the mercenary hands of landlords who saw their plight as an opportunity to make money.
As many more West Indians arrived, property owners seized the prospect of buying up large old houses, sub-divided and ‘furnished’ them and then let out the rooms. The choice of location for West Indians was then very narrow; they needed to be fairly near to the central London labour market and according to testimonies they generally found rooms in miserable conditions and in noisy locations near railways or markets.
A report published by the Fabian Colonial Bureau at that time, cites that the status of colonial migrants was determined by three factors: first, as the West Indians or African migrants were people of color they were likely to face race-associated prejudice; second, since they were considered foreigners, they were subject to the attitudes directed toward foreigners regardless of race; third, because some Britons associated colored people with ‘extremely low social status,’ they were likely to suffer class discrimination.
The survey quoted a typical British response to the newcomers: “I dislike discrimination but I am obliged to practice it.” Overall the study found that the attitude to the black immigrants was that of superiority. The foreigner was inferior and not really regarded as British.
In Britain of the 1950s the insufferable conditions of the West Indians led to a series of riots known as the Notting Hill race riots of 1958.
Even if Britain today is not totally discrimination-free, this, previously insulated island, welcomes cultural and racial diversity and it has become a multi cultural society .
Earlier this year we witnessed the demonstrations protesting discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. I hope that we do not continue to turn a blind eye to the injustice in our own backyard. If we do, it is likely that an Israeli version of Notting Hill riots would have to wake us up.
P.S The information in this essay appeared in my published paper about the West Indians in 1950s Britain:
“From Greenland's Icy Mountains: The Church and the West Indian Immigrants in An Unsuitable Attachment.” Kunapipi 30/1 July 2008
The essay appeared in the Times Of israel