Thoughts from a Windrush child
WE DOCKED AT SOUTHAMPTON IN 1959. Like most West Indians we survived on the margins, eking out a living in the only places we could get - London’s slum housing.
Boarding up the windows gave some protection but nothing could save us from the terrorism of neighbours who painted swastikas on our walls, put dog shit and petrol through the letterbox.
Nothing could save us from state racism. We were rehoused next to the river, against doctor’s advice, a place more recently cleared of the black poor to make way for ‘development’. Yes, the river was a death sentence for mother but we were lucky, they told us. After all, our (Labour) council, like my local grammar school, operated a colour bar that mostly ensured people like us wouldn’t darken their doors.
As ‘luck’ would have it, my mother’s early death, and being taken into care, saved me from becoming a victim of Theresa May’s 2014 Immigration Act. The local authority had insisted on giving me a full British passport. As years passed my good fortune continued. Despite the covert, overt, structural and, no doubt, unconscious racism that contextualises my present every day, I’m privileged. I made it – one of the few middle class blacks, a status that gave me some access to the public stage.
The list of MPs who backed the 2014 Immigration Act, who encouraged a regime of harassment, feels endless, particularly in the light of recent debates on race. Six Labour MPs, including the present Labour leader and the shadow Chancellor and Home Secretary, voted against – and let’s not pretend, MPs were warned of the consequences. Voting Yes was politically expedient. We deserve better.
We depend on our representatives to stand above the popularist politics that saw government-sponsored vans with slogans against immigrants loosed on our streets. We deserve better than Miliband’s Labour merchandising tea mugs stamped with ‘controls on immigration’ across their socialist-red glaze. “Labour strategists are relaxed about a few bruised feelings among lefty activists on Twitter”, the New Statesman reported.
We deserve better. We need representatives brave enough to stand up and be counted, because if those who have access to power sit on their hands, we have nothing.
There is an increasingly urgent need to discuss ‘race’ in Labour. This scandal on the Windrush generation should act as a reminder. Black people vote disproportionately for Labour. We know black representation in the party, at many levels, is falling. We remain under-represented in Parliament and also in the structures of the party, at all levels.
The fight for black sections, hard fought for and won, was reversed. The gate-keepers to power remain white. Given the contribution of Momentum to recent debates on black representation, and repeated objections to the admission of black groups to slate selecting processes, I find it hard to believe there’s a will to change this any time soon.
The Windrush was a founding moment, a barely acknowledged chapter of the extraordinary history of Caribbean identity, a people brought into life by kidnap, rape, slavery, genocide, imperialist oppression, courage, resilience and resistance. Until this history is taught, commemorated, and properly acknowledged, little will change.
One image remains. In the area where I now live, a Labour stronghold, almost majority black with significant Caribbean descent population, I remember the night of the last election. Despite a local campaign where blacks were barely visible, in literature or in the party, lines of mostly working class blacks, many carrying shopping bags and children, were waiting quietly to vote for a party that was their only hope for fair representation and radical change.
It made me weep. As a Windrush child I’m waiting, we’re all still waiting. But the hope? It’s wearing thin.