General secretaries of the World Council of Churches are not given to irresponsible statements for public consumption. At Nairobi, however, Dr. Philip Potter evidently felt the need to create a diversion, for he fired an unexpected broadside at the British. That people he called “one of the most racist in history”; they have, he said, “established a racist system wherever they have gone in the world.” This remark, made in a press interview, has caused much ill feeling in Britain. Some of us wish that he would further underline his hatred of racial discrimination by directing his fire at a Russian Empire that was collecting dependencies when Britain was relinquishing them.
The normally irenic archbishop of Canterbury felt constrained to deliver a rebuke—in more courteous terms than this piece of crass non-ecumenicity deserved. Dr. Coggan admitted that the British and other Western nations had much to repent of. “We have been racist,” he said, “in many of our attitudes in the past, but during the last thirty years we have been engaged in a process … of rectifying the situation. Some kind of historical balance must be kept if the truth is to be told.”
The need for balance and truth-telling was stressed also by an African priest, writing in a prestigious Anglican newspaper. The democratic system Britain had given her former colonies, he pointed out, “has been dethroned and replaced by a bogus democracy which in fact is a cloak for African-type hitlerism and is dishonestly called a one-party system of government.” No one who looks around Africa today is likely to deny it.
But back to Britain. Let me update my race-relations comments on this page of six years ago when I forecast troublous days ahead. First a few facts about England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland are so far less affected). England and Wales have an area rather less than that of Florida but a population roughly equal to that of California, New York, and Texas combined.
Since Britain is edgy about identifying its residents according to color, one can only estimate numbers, but 1.3 million from immigrant families will not be far out. That means 2.6 per cent of the population trace their ancestry to former British possessions in Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa (the latter group includes a sizable influx of Uganda’s Asians whom President Amin deported in 1972, and whom Britain took in as an act of compassion against black racism that Dr. Potter might applaud).
How are the immigrant families as a whole faring? The Race Relations Act is there to protect their interests, but it would be foolish to deny evidence of race discrimination in a land that in modern times ruled millions of black and brown peoples.
A visiting American radio speaker this week advised the enactment of good strong laws against discrimination, lest Britain experience the agony America has known too well. I know what she meant, but you can’t legislate for changed hearts, and Britain is in any case finding variations on the problem that America has scarcely known. It could not be otherwise when Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims are transplanted with their languages, cultures, and traditions into a distant island nation that is nominally Christian.
That nominal Christianity is a real stumbling block to those educated in African mission schools; they are bewildered and distressed at the religious indifference they often encounter here. It is a stumbling block also to the West Indian community, which was greatly augmented after the 1952 McCarran Act made it more difficult to enter the United States. They had no difficulty with language, but they could not abide the lifelessness of church services, and so they formed their own churches in Britain. We cannot blame them. The indigenous British churches were the losers. And it underlined differences, for that section of immigrants looked for integration.
Not so the Asians, who generally form communities within communities. It is hard to fault this either, but conflict arises when, for example, a Sikh would rather go to prison than offend against his religion by replacing or covering his turban with a crash helmet, which British law requires of all motorcyclists.
The authorities have tried desperately hard to be fair to all. Sikh bus conductors, for example, have been allowed to retain turbans in place of the normally mandatory uniform cap. British publishers have been asked to “show black people in ordinary situations” in reading materials intended for young people. Immigrant communities, for their part, organize their lives to insure minimum exposure to potentially discriminatory situations, but this frequently involves withdrawal inward.
It is hard to put a precise finger on root causes. No one is likely to emulate the cartoon landlady saying to a black applicant for a room, “Sorry, no coloreds—it’s not the neighbors, it’s me—I’m prejudiced.” In Britain’s October, 1974, general election, none of the anti-immigration National Front candidates got more than a few hundred votes.
Where, then, are the tensions seen? In Leeds last November, five policemen were injured in ghetto violence. A few weeks later the city (population 750,000) opened its first race-relations festival in an effort to ease tensions among its 25,000 immigrants. City authorities, however, imposed “insensitive” restrictions on the festival, refusing to permit singing and dancing events to run beyond midnight in colored areas with high unemployment rates and poor amenities. This reportedly caused irritation and a sense of injustice in the colored community.
In Liverpool, Home Office minister Alex Lyon after a tour of the area described an immigrant group he met as “more desolate and despondent than any” he had seen. A community-relations officer in that city (5 per cent immigrant population) says that blacks, who live in their own areas, “have always been at the bottom of the list when it comes to homes, schools, or employment, and the feeling is that they always will.”
A survey of nearly 300 industrial firms showed that colored workers were at a disadvantage in the kind of employment offered and in the procedure of obtaining it. Most employers simply did not upgrade colored workers. Trade unions did little to help and were accused sometimes of allowing discriminatory practices to develop. During 1973–74, the Race Relations Board reported a 69 per cent rise in cases of alleged discrimination in England’s industrial northwest.
In a symposium on race held a few years ago, an Indian Christian said: “It is impossible to distinguish in Britain between a Christian and a non-Christian by his behavior. Where the colored immigrant is concerned they all behave alike.” I don’t believe this is true—but we do still have a lot to learn.
J. D. DOUGLAS
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