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To Be Young, British, And Black

By Henry W. Mcgee

We've got nowhere to live; they shove the colored people into the dirty stinking flats that they moved whites out of long ago. We can't get work. I've got a cockney accent so over the phone they say okay. But when I go for an interview, they say fill in this form, and that's the last I hear of it.

We get framed. One day I was walking along, and a car pulled up and four detectives jumped out. They grabbed me, searched me. They found two medicine tablets I had to take. Then they took me to the station and said, "You're not leaving here until we find a charge." All we can do now is resort to violence. You're still going to get done if you do nothing, so you might as well inflict some real damage.

LONDON--You can hear it in their voices. You can see it in their faces: the frustration, the oppression, the growing anger of the young blacks of Britain. And while British officials busy themselves questioning the validity of black complaints and allegations, worried leaders of black communities believe that race relations in Britain are following the pattern set by America, with the problems of a racial minority seriously ignored.

As blacks move in, whites move out. Schools where black children attend are usually grim slum-buildings with little done to improve them. Relations between blacks and police can only be described as hostile, and not a week goes by without yet another incident pointing to the almost inevitable conclusion that Britain is moving inexorably towards a Watts-type explosion.

In Birmingham, England, this summer, Jennifer Williams, a pretty 13-year-old West Indian, was walking home from school when she was attacked by two white youths who hurled her into a gravel pit pool. Shouting, "You blacks can't come down here," the boys watched as Jennifer drowned. Later that same week, Ken Harvey, a 41-year-old white schoolteacher, and his family of 12 were burned out of their home in London's predominantly black area of Brixton by a gang of 20 black kids who had vowed "to get whitey out."

"Lots more work will have to be done to divert the rivers of blood," cautions Joseph A. Hunte, former secretary of the West Indian Standing Conference, a vocal but moderate civil rights group. It may already be too late, however, to heal relationships between white Britain and its half-million black residents, who live mainly in the nation's large cities.

Polarization is evident all the way from Newcastle to London. During the months of March and April, 17 black-owned businesses were fire-bombed in London, while a series of physical assaults on police by blacks in Manchester prompted one officer to say, "Things seem to be getting as bad as New York."

Britain's blacks, lured to the island from the West Indies during the late 1940s to "help the mother country" with her post-war labor shortage and shunted into menial jobs that white Britons didn't want, have spawned children who see Britain as their home and are burning mad over the discrimination they face.

"The blacks born in Britain are growing up, and they will not stand for their society's oppression," warns Christopher Mullard, 29-year-old community relations worker, author of the controversial "Black Britain" and something of a leader in Britain's black community. "Unless something is done to improve race relations in this country it will lead to unrest and riots."

And while there has been nothing recently on the scale of the bloody Notting Hill riots in 1958, in which thousands rampaged through London, there has been no shortage of major racial disturbances. In June, a knifing incident in Brixton's Brockwell Park exploded into a full-scale confrontation, pitting 200 taunting, bottle-throwing youths against 100 policemen with swinging truncheons.

It is understandable why Britain's blacks are so bitter. Though Britain's 1968 Race Relations Act has made most forms of race discrimination illegal, complaints of the color bar in employment, education and housing continue to mount. There has been a steady growth in unemployment among West Indians, and the 1971 census revealed that unemployment among young blacks (many of whom have been educated in Britain and therefore expect more than their immigrant parents) is twice that of white youths, despite the fact that West Indians are not predominantly located in areas of high unemployment.

Those not unemployed usually find themselves in low-grade jobs with little prospect for advancement. Blacks are ubiquitous in such lower status and low-paying jobs as bus conductor, railway porter and hospital orderly.

In Britain's highly stratified educational system, blacks are a rarity in the college-bound track. Only 500 of the 200,000 West Indians enrolled in British schools are in grammar schools, the more academically advanced of Britain's two types of public secondary schools. Five times as many--2500--are in Educational Subnormal Schools, the large majority of the students misplaced.

Culturally bound Standard English often presents the West Indian child with many problems, and he may not understand what the teacher is saying. Typically, the teacher interprets this as a lack of intelligence. As a result, one school in North London estimated that 70 per cent of its black pupils were incorrectly assigned, while a survey of the whole of London showed that 28 per cent of black children--compared to 7 per cent of white children -- were misplaced. Many in Britain's black communities have interpreted these grim statistics as a plot to keep blacks out of Britain's colleges.

A report by the London Community Relations Commission revealed that blacks face substantial discrimination when trying to buy a house and that the color bar is forcing many blacks to live in substandard housing. Charges of police brutality have become common, and earlier this year 31 community relations workers and teachers sent a letter to the Birmingham police chief charging that "the insensitivity of the police to the situation is deliberate [and] any encounter between the police and a group of black people can almost be guaranteed to result in violence."

You can feel the tension as you walk the streets of Brixton, a run-down, one-square-mile neighborhood south of the Thames where rows of closely built, rapidly deteriorating, Victorian-style houses serve as tenements for poor black families. Outside the ramshackle Apple Restaurant, a gang of gaudy but poorly clad teenagers hangs about looking for something, anything to do.

Farther down the street the soulful sound of reggae music booms out over the sidewalk from a record shop, adding a beautiful sound to an ugly and scarred landscape. Around the corner, train tracks run overhead, their heavy cargo drowning out the noise of the busy open-air market below. On the corner, a group of militant black and white Marxists bombards passers-by with pamphlets arguing the "class nature of the oppression of blacks on all fronts--economic, political and cultural."

But to Gerry, his "big apple" cap hanging to one side of his head, life in the ghetto is decidedly unideological. "We got nothing to do, maaan. There's no good telling me about jobs. I don't want any of them shitty jobs. I steal what I want and I'm going to keep on stealing."

It is this undirected anger that has most observers of black Britain worried. "I am quite concerned that the violence that is sure to come will do harm to blacks because it will be undirected," says Gilbert Brown, a Brixton community worker. For the most part there are no national black leaders, and the young take as their heroes Afro-American leaders like Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The black community center in Manchester proudly bears the title "The George Jackson Center."

There is a feeling of powerlessness among Britain's blacks. "In every arena where it is important to be, blacks are absent," notes one West Indian observer. There are no blacks in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, and only a handful of black elected officials.

There are several community political groups--the Black Panthers, the British Freedom and Unity Party, the West Indian Standing Conference--but none clearly has a leadership role. Many local groups have tried to discipline the frustrated young by offering classes in self-defense and athletics, but the young black British are without ideology. They have transcended, however, thinking of themselves as "Jamaicans" or "Antiguans" or "Bahamians"--divisions that stopped their parents from effectively organizing protest--and instead see themselves as "black" and pitted against "white" Britain.

Black Britons are also beginning to bridge the gap between themselves and Britain's other "coloreds"--the English catchall term applied to blacks of West Indian or African origin, Asians, and even Britons of Cypriot ancestry. Like blacks, Britain's other "coloreds" face substantial discrimination. Asian immigrants live in scandalously poor conditions, and if they are found to have entered Britain illegally, they are sometimes repatriated immediately without their families even being notified.

Britain's non-European population currently stands at more than 2 million, only 3 per cent of the total population. But the Third World community tends to congregate in large urban centers, and in London fully 10 per cent of the residents are now non-white, a potentially powerful political force.

But resentment in the large "colored" ghettos has yet to explode, perhaps because the fear of expulsion is a very real one. Now, however, one-third of Britain's blacks are British born and bred. Vocally and militantly they are insisting that discrimination must come to an end. But they face the major problem that many of their white fellow countrymen insist there is no problem at all.

British government officials are given to self-righteous declarations that Britain remains the classic bastion of tolerance and racial acceptance. "There can be few countries which have absorbed this great mixture of nationalities with so much tension and so little friction," Home Secretary Robert Carr told Parliament in June. "I do not believe that the British people react well to being constantly hectored and criticized over admitted failures when their record of tolerance is so basically good."

Many, however, don't share Carr's optimistic assessment. "Whites don't seem to be aware of the seriousness of the situation," says Ann Dumett, author of A Portrait of English Racism. "There seems to be the idea that we don't have to live in a society that's racially mixed, that somehow we can get rid of them."

Increasingly, whites are making no pretense of racial tolerance, and right-wing politicians like Enoch Powell are capitalizing on fanning the flames of prejudice. And his techniques seem to be spreading.

In recent elections, a new National Front Party has made its bid for political power through a platform calling for the compulsory expulsion of every non-white in Britain. "We are out to preserve the integrity of the British people," claims Martin Webster, party head. "The multiracial experiment hasn't worked elsewhere and Britain is not going to be any more successful than anyone else has been. We're going to end up with a bastardized, polyglot nation with none of our culture left, and we refuse to let this happen."

Some steps have been made towards easing the tension. The government has established a Race Relations Board, and most cities have community relations commissions, but these half-hearted efforts have met with little success.

One survey indicates that half the non-white population has no confidence in the Race Relation Board's ability to redress their complaints, and the board is self-admittedly powerless to actively pursue and root out discrimination in an effective manner.

A similar situation exists with the community relations councils. As a member of one council explains, "The only thing we can do is make positive noises and hope somebody listens. Don't forget we're talking to a government which is Tory-controlled and sensitive to its own right wing."

Whether or not the government's failure to redress the grievances of its growing black population, coupled with growing black anger, will result in massive rioting remains to be seen, but the potential is there and growing. One thing is sure: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

'The blacks born in Britain are growing up, and they will not stand for their society's oppresion," warns onw author and community realions worker. 'Unless something is done to improve race relations in this country it will lead to unrest and riots.'

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