For Windrush 75, Jeremy Crook and Dr Liz Mackie, from our funded partner, Action for Race Equality, reflect on what the anniversary means, and the ongoing fight for racial justice.
Thursday 22 June 2023 is the 75th anniversary of the arrival at Tilbury docks of the Empire Windrush from which, among other passengers, 492 Jamaicans disembarked to seek jobs and homes in Britain. This event has come to mark the beginning of the post-war settlement of citizens from Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Most of the one million plus people of Black Caribbean heritage in Britain today are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the settlers who arrived in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, known now as the ‘Windrush generation’.
In recent years, Windrush Day has become a fixture in the British events calendar. It's fantastic that the contributions to British society of Black Caribbean settlers and their descendants are being recognised and celebrated. The achievements of the Windrush generation are remarkable. They came to fill labour shortages in the British economy, taking on factory, labouring, transport and cleaning jobs. They worked long hours on low pay, often taking on two or more jobs to earn a living. They had to deal with racism in housing, in employment, in education, in church, on the streets, from the police. They had to be resilient, had to organise, had to stand up for themselves, had to campaign for racial discrimination to be made illegal. They helped to shape modern British society.
The achievements of the Windrush generation are remarkable. They came to fill labour shortages in the British economy, taking on factory, labouring, transport and cleaning jobs. They worked long hours on low pay, often taking on two or more jobs to earn a living.
And yet, alongside the growing recognition of Black Caribbean contribution sits this government’s appalling treatment of those of the Windrush generation caught up in its hostile environment policy. Thousands of Caribbean migrants who had worked and lived in Britain, many of them since early childhood, were challenged to prove their legal right to remain and if unable to produce the correct documentation were arrested, deported, lost their jobs, their homes, access to NHS care and other public services. Many more lost any faith that the government cared about or valued the Windrush contribution, or cares even now. Despite a government apology and promises of restitution, thousands of people are still awaiting compensation for the injustices that were inflicted on them.
Whether we're celebrating the Windrush achievements, or protesting the Windrush scandal, we might question how far the symbolic event of the Windrush arrival resonates today for young Black people of Caribbean descent. Seventy five years is a very long time. Today, young Black British people are likely three or four generations on from the Windrush migrants. The quest for a better life that propelled their grandparents and great-grandparents to Britain means something very different for Black people born into the opportunities and challenges of British society.
We know from our own research that young Black people share the hopes and fears of all young British people - they're striving for successful futures and ambitious careers, and concerned for their mental health and the lasting impacts of the Covid pandemic on their well-being and job opportunities. But young Black people also put racial discrimination at the top of their list of concerns. Of course they do. This is the everyday reality for young Black people:
- Children of Black Caribbean descent are twice as likely to be excluded from school as White children
- Young Black men are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than young White men, regardless of their qualifications
- Black children are eleven times more likely than White children to be strip searched by police
- Black people are seven times more likely than White people to be subject to stop and search by police
- Almost half of London’s knife murder victims are Black.
This list could be much longer. There are many, many more areas across education, employment, policing and criminal justice, housing and health where Black people of Caribbean descent experience poorer outcomes than people from other ethnic groups.
How far have we come?
Seventy five years on from their arrival, what would the Empire Windrush passengers make of today’s Britain? Would they be astonished by how large and established the Black Caribbean population became? Would they be blown away by the talent and success of Black Caribbean people in every sphere of British cultural, economic and public life? Would they be entranced by the telling and retelling of Windrush stories by historians, artists, poets and novelists?
We hope they would be proud of what they and subsequent generations achieved. But would that pride be mixed with anger, or with sorrow and despair, at the racial inequalities their grandchildren are navigating? Seventy five years on, and the fight for racial justice is far from over.