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70 years after Windrush, anti-migrant racism persists in Europe

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It's right that so many today applaud the contribution made by the Windrush Generation, but the racist attitudes they faced have been ignored

On the 22nd June 1948 the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury carrying 492 British citizens.

The government at the time had delayed the docking and had considered rerouting the ship to East Africa. After being advised that the people on the boat had British passports and were British subjects, they had no choice but to let the boat dock.

It is right that so many today are applauding the contribution made by those that came from the Caribbean - to rebuild the county after the second world war. But in the scramble to herald the Windrush arrival as a landmark moment in the emergence of a multicultural Britain the racist attitudes that greeted many of the passengers, and that echo through the decades, have been ignored.

Britain’s dire economic situation and an acute shortage of labour should have meant the arriving citizens were greeted with open arms. They weren’t. 

A letter from MPs to then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee complained that unless controls were introduced on the movement of black British subjects into Britain, the country would become an 'open reception centre' for immigrants. The MPs objected to the fact that entrants were not selected on the basis of health, education, training, character, customs or above all, whether assimilation is possible or not.

In highlighting the feasibility of assimilation, these MPs conveniently forgot two important realities. 

Firs, that these citizens were a product of Britain’s slave and imperial legacy without which the British West Indies would not exist. 

Their forebears had been forcibly removed from, Africa, stripped of their names and their language. Made to adopt British customs and religion on pain of death, they were subject to an education (if they were lucky) that insisted that British history was their history, and they were subjects of the crown. 

Second, that Black workers from the Caribbean had been coming to Britain for decades and that significant numbers had come to Britain from the late 1930s to fight for Britain in the Second World War. 

It was not assimilation that was the issue.  It was race. It was the belief that these people were inferior, and that numbers needed to be limited in order to protect racial purity. 

Modern Britain is portrayed as tolerant and post-racial, racist attitudes are presented as an unfortunate part of our history and, occasionally, as the result of pockets of ignorance among misguided sections of the working class. In this portrayal, it’s only the supporters of the BNP, EDL or the latest far-right emanation the Football Lads Alliance who are racist.

Unfortunately, closer examination of public debate over the last few years shows that it’s not true.

After the riots in 2011 David Starkey popped up to tell Owen Jones “what has happened is a substantial section of the chavs that you wrote about have become black.” 

As former Prime Minister David Cameron felt that it was perfectly OK to warn us that “you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. 

In 2015 current Chancellor Philip Hammond declared “Europe can’t protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa”. 

The British political establishment is still reeling from the exposure of Theresa May's hostile environment, and the brutal effect that it has had on the lives of the very same generation of British Citizens perceived as a threat to the fabric of British society in 1948.

These attitudes are not confined to Britain and are not part of the political fringe. Fine words about European values of justice, equality and the rule of law are undermined by the recent saga of the rescue ship Aquarius carrying 629 rescued refugees, refused entry to Italy. 

An attitude summed up perfectly by Katie Hopkins when she said she’d use gunships to stop migrants "No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care." 

Yesterday, Italy’s Deputy Prime Ministers and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini chillingly called for a "cleansing” of migrants from “entire parts” of the country. A view that is shared by powerful far-right politicians that are now active in governments across much of Europe. 

Ineffectual policies cannot challenge and defeat racism. To stop such attitudes resurfacing as the norm, now more than ever, we need action.

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