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What We Owe To The Windrush Generation

Today is Windrush Day, a day to honour Caribbeans who made Britain their home after 1948. Elsewhere on this site Patrick Vernon OBE – who led the campaign for Windrush Day – writes about that campaign and the journey this generation embarked on. That journey began with hostility they faced on arrival and continues right up to the present day ‘hostile environment’ which has seen Caribbean elders, who came here as British citizens, targeted and deported by immigration officials. Plus everything in between.

Our director at CLASS, Dr Faiza Shaheen, has been a vocal opponent of the hostile environment. Theresa May and her Government took an age to understand and react to public outrage over the treatment of the Windrush Generation, failing to grasp that the public saw them as part of Britain and having ‘earned’ their right to stay.

The rhetoric may have softened under new Home Secretary Sajid Javid, but weeks after the Government pledged to sort the issue, the Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman continues to discover unresolved cases of older people living in destitution. As Patrick Vernon rightly points out, we cannot truly have a celebration until the Home Office get a grip and give the Windrush Generation the citizenship they thought they had in the first place when they were invited here to rebuild our post-war economy.

I was part of the original campaign to have Windrush Day recognised, along with Patrick and Operation Black Vote, and I set up a petition in 2013 which attracted significant support from many public figures.

As a journalist I have interviewed characters from the Windrush Generation, and some made a particular impression on me. Sam King was one of thousands of Caribbeans to have fought for the ‘Motherland’ in World War II – he became an RAF pilot – and settled in Britain when the war ended. He said that he was made to feel welcome during the war, but that the atmosphere changed after Hitler was defeated. Suddenly he was no longer welcome, seen as competition for jobs (and women). He headed back to Jamaica but later returned on the Empire Windrush because he believed Britain was inviting Caribbeans to rebuild the country. But on his return he encountered the same hostility and barriers; however this time he resolved to work hard to put down roots and later he became Britain’s first black mayor.

Another character was actor and pilot Cy Grant who was imprisoned in a German prisoner-of-war camp but survived to become a barrister and TV celebrity. The there was race equality and anti-Apartheid campaigner Ben Bousquet, who almost made it to Parliament as part of the Labour Party Black Sections wave that saw Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott get through, and did most to draw Britain’s attention to racial discrimination in rental housing lets with an undercover BBC documentary. All three men, who have since passed away, fought to overcome barriers but remained disappointed about how much progress had really been made.

Today, black Caribbeans are the most likely to be in a mixed relationship of any ethnic group. One survey found over half had a white partner. This is the epitome of integration. Yet ethnic mixing has not brought about equality in the workplace. Indeed Caribbeans have historically suffered among the worst levels of disproportionate unemployment, police harassment and mis-education in the school system.

Tributes to the Windrush Generation typically praise their contribution to public services, and how they have enriched British culture, sport and food. While this means well, it is viewing the community through the lens of service providers; opening doors, issuing tickets, making beds, selling jerk chicken and generally entertaining. Yet the community is so much more than that. They are survivors - of enslavement and hostility – and they are innovators and alliance-builders. The Windrush Generation forged new partnerships across communities to demand rights and justice, and brought a tremendous work ethic.

The inner city uprisings of the 1980s created a stereotype of rebelliousness, reinforced by Jamaican Roots Reggae, but what is remarkable about that pioneering generation is not how much they rebelled but how much they took and how little they complained. Partly as a result of efforts to fit in and get on, and partly due to the passage of time with Caribbeans and their descendants being ‘normalised’ in society over 70 years, the community is now accepted as firmly part of Britain, at least in terms of the public narrative. However, as we witnessed after Brexit, when the n-word and other racial slurs, last heard openly in the 1970s, reappeared on our streets, there remains an undercurrent of ‘othering’ for all UK-born British citizens of colour. Integration may have occurred to an extent, but equality remains ever elusive and systemic biases ever present.

After being invited here to rebuild Britain's war-ravaged public services the sons and daughters of the Windrush Generation are now bearing the brunt of public sector austerity cuts.

Those of the Windrush Generation that did not go into public services headed for manufacturing and light-engineering, but those jobs have also gone now. Criminalisation by the police through unfair targeting and disproportionate school exclusions have prevented many from utilising their talent in new career paths, demoralising an element of the Caribbean community mired in generational unemployment. Even today, we see the legacy of young black men being held back. 70 years after Windrush, the struggle to succeed remains. Caribbeans are more likely to work after gaining a degree but that is because they are more willing to work in non-professional jobs for which they are over-qualified

Caribbean culture has always been a blend of social justice and social conservatism but demographically the community is in many neighbourhoods is now being eclipsed by African communities, while the fastest-growing black group is mixed heritage black Caribbean and White British. Yet a distinct identity and history is intact. A renewed entrepreneurial spirit is apparent, as is the commitment to social and racial justice witnessed in support from black communities for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

As we commemorate Windrush Day and celebrate the contribution Caribbeans have made to Britain, let us also dwell on how much greater that contribution might have been if only the playing field had been level and barriers did not exist. Let us recognise the faith that the pioneering generation placed in Britain, and the hope that their descendants continue to nurture that this country will one day be a more equal place for their children. The Labour and trade union movement has been enriched by racial diversity by the likes of Lord Bill Morris, the former TGWU general-secretary. As we look forward to political change, we all owe it to the Windrush Generation to ensure that when change happens there is a spotlight on eradicating the barriers that the likes of Cy Grant, Sam King and Ben Bousquets fought against all those years ago.

Lester Holloway is Communications and Events Officer for CLASS.